Religion News Service -- irreplaceable and rocked by turmoil -- faces key journalistic issues

The specialized Religion News Service is irreplaceable, not only for its media subscribers but religious leaders and anyone interested in this complex field.

Now it has suddenly been rocked by turmoil as depicted by GetReligion here and here and then here. To grapple with the state of things, let's start with some history.  

America owes a debt to two Jewish journalists and this media innovation they built. Founder Louis Minsky ran “Religious News Service” (later renamed) from 1934 until his death in 1957. Then his longtime assistant, the inimitable Lillian Block (well remembered by The Religion Guy), took charge until she retired in 1979.

Through those 45 years, the agency was subsidized by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, established to counter prejudice when Catholic Al Smith became a presidential prospect. But RNS was strictly independent, not an NCCJ propaganda mill. It fused journalistic and democratic ideals, believing that reliable, knowledgeable and non-sectarian religious information enhances interfaith understanding. That remains true, and vital, in 2018.

With strong editors and NCCJ’s hands-off policy, day by day, year by year, RNS chronicled religious affairs with objectivity, accuracy, respect and fairness -- values then shared across the news industry.

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The agency thereby gained the trust of “secular” media and, harder to achieve, from a wide range of religious outlets. The Guy can attest to this as an RNS subscriber who reported from both sides of that street at Christianity Today (1965-1969) and Time (1969-1998).

Reporters and researchers note: RNS articles from the NCCJ years are archived at Philadelphia’s Presbyterian Historical Society. 

In 1982, with Block gone, NCCJ handed RNS to the United Methodist Reporter (which was not owned by the denomination), which maintained  editorial independence. In 1994, ownership switched to the Newhouse News Service, then in 2011 to the non-profit Religion News Foundation (RNF) affiliated with the Religion News Association (RNA), the organization of journalists covering the beat.  (Disclosure: The Guy is a former RNA president.)

RNS’s hard-working staff has always operated on a shoestring. The current nastiness occurs just as financial relief looms.

Last December, the Lilly Endowment approved a $4.9 million grant to the RNF foundation that awaits approval on tax exemption. The money will help market RNS material via The Associated Press (also scholars’ articles from TheConversation.com) and fund much-needed new hires. The expected move into The AP’s Washington bureau will cut overhead.

The Guy wonders whether partners Lilly and The AP will be perturbed by the abrupt and mysterious ouster of top editor Jerome Socolovsky, a former AP foreign correspondent. The CEO of both RNS and the RNS foundation who sacked Socolovsky is Tom Gallagher. He’s a Catholic member of the Order of Malta and businessman-lawyer who wrote occasional editorial columns but lacks hard-news experience.

Was this merely some personality conflict? Socolovsky says he has yet to receive any written explanation and remains tight-lipped, but does tell GetReligion that “to me, this was always about journalism, and journalistic ethics and editorial independence.”  

An example of how strained office relationships were: Socolovsky confirmed reports that he did not even see last July’s grant proposal to Lilly and The AP until it had already been submitted and he complained about being cut out of the loop. According to media discussions, telltale office disputes included RNS’s report on the size of a Chicago Catholic protest (even though photos and videos existed) and the decision not to staff a bishop’s speech for Pope Francis’s World Meeting of Popular Movements.

Apparently, Gallagher wanted control over what to cover and whom to hire. Unlike with most businesses, it’s pretty much universal dogma at news companies, for obvious reasons, that the editors hire reporters and assign stories while the business side runs finances and promotes the product. In The Guy’s years at Time we called this the impenetrable “separation of church and state.”

Socolovsky declined comment on all that but defined his own outlook: “There are a lot of denominational or confessional publications doing great work. RNS is a different beast. Its credibility hangs very much on being a neutral observer in the world of religion. When you start leaning toward more favorable or more intensive coverage of one faith over the others, that can do a lot of damage to the service’s reputation.”

Especially with a subject so saturated with ideology and emotion, nothing is more important than religion reporters’ independence from the causes, organizations and personalities they cover.

Beat journalists in the Religion News Association, who are arguing for both sides in this imbroglio, bear some responsibility for a resolution. Their own board is intermeshed with the board of the RNF foundation and the RNS board, which backs Gallagher’s actions. That RNS board, oddly, has no member with current religion news expertise.

Criticisms of RNS for failing to report on this or that typify the era of short staffing and tight budgets that the Internet has forced upon struggling news shops. With resources limited, it’s cheaper to run armchair opinion pieces than breaking news from shoe-leather reporters. Moreover, in a cable-news and Trumpified culture, opinions and controversies lure ears, eyeballs, clicks, audiences -- and often money.

Though hard news is RNS’s unique heritage and product, it has likewise shifted toward more commentary. In turn, the choice of commentators opens RNS to criticism. Religious conservatives especially feel sidelined, and became edgy with previous RNS leaders accepting a $120,000 grant from the Arcus Foundation to foster “a culture of LGBT understanding through the media.”

An “are newspapers necessary” piece in the Weekly Standard figures “their function has been slowly and relentlessly supplanted and, like the arts, may someday be largely dependent on patronage.” Already, we see fat-cat Jeff Bezos owning the Washington Post, and proposals that the Sulzbergers should sell The New York Times to billionaire Michael Bloomberg. Another developing model, pioneered by the non-profit RNS, is treating journalism as a charity. As always, follow the money.

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