Religion News Service touts its new 19-member advisory board -- but what does it mean?

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We’ve been tracking the ups and downs of life at Religion News Service ever since editor Jerome Socolovsky got unceremoniously dumped in April. That led, of course to the departure of two veteran staff members and then a popular columnist on the evangelical left who felt they could no longer work there plus the unexpected dismissal of two other staff.

After much withering critique from fellow religion writers, the powers-that-be at RNS have been shoring up support in the past three months, putting out a job announcement for a new editor-in-chief, asking for more freelancers, the hiring of a Sikh columnist and now an announcement of a new advisory board loaded with names of revered professionals and people with links to major journalistic institutions.

So I’ll run the 19 names of the new board members, from the press release, with my comments:

Dilshad D. Ali
Richmond, VA
Dilshad D. Ali is the Editor-in-Chief at Altmuslim and was previously Managing Editor for the Muslim portal at Patheos.com. She has spent the past two decades covering and coordinating coverage of American Muslim communities for a variety of media outlets, including Beliefnet and Islam Online, and was a 2015 White House Champion of Change honoree for her autism reporting/writing and advocacy work.
Ruby Bailey
Columbia, MO
Ruby Bailey is the executive editor of the Columbia Missourian and holds the Missouri School of Journalism’s Missouri Community Newspaper Management chair, working with community newspapers across the state to help improve their coverage and operations. She previously served as news editor at the Sacramento Bee and assistant metro editor at the Detroit Free Press.
Vikas Bajaj
New York, NY
Vikas Bajaj has been a member of the editorial board of The New York Times since 2012. Earlier, he was a correspondent in Mumbai and covered the financial crisis based in New York. He previously worked as a business, metro and religion reporter at The Dallas Morning News.

This is a really large board. How are these 19 people going to communicate with each other? It is also appropriate to consider issues of zip code.

Also, do they have any power whatsoever? And it looks like despite all the beating he got from some RNA members, some public and some behind-the-scenes, Tom Gallagher has gotten a pass to do whatever he likes. That is, no visible punishment for his bungled dismissal of Socolovsky. In fact, judging by its press releases and various statements since April, RNS is aggressively ignoring its critics.

Patton Dodd
San Antonio, TX
Patton Dodd is the executive director of media and communications at the H. E. Butt Foundation. He previously served as editor-in-chief of OnFaith and executive editor for Patheos.
Samuel Freedman
New York, NY
Samuel Freedman is a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where he runs a rigorous book-writing seminar. He is the author of eight nonfiction books, including Jew vs. Jew, and wrote the “On Religion” column for The New York Times from 2006 to 2016.
David Gibson
New York, NY
David Gibson is the director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University. He is an award-winning journalist and author with extensive experience covering religion and the Catholic Church in the United States and internationally, including six years at Religion News Service.

Let's discuss a crucial question: Is the make-up of this board in some way meant to mollify the Associated Press?

AP will be one of the beneficiaries of a $4.9 million grant from the Lilly Endowment to the Religion News Foundation (RNF), which owns RNS. At some point, RNS content is going to be made available to the AP, although it’s not clear (to those of us on the outside) how this will happen. 

I’m also curious if RNA officers were consulted about this mega-board before the announcement. I’ve heard the COO was not. Being that the RNF is the charitable arm of the RNA, that seems odd.

Ari Goldman
New York, NY
Ari L. Goldman is the director of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s Scripps Howard Program in Religion, Journalism and the Spiritual Life. He is the author of four books, including The Search for God at Harvard, and previously covered religion for The New York Times.
Sharon Grigsby
Dallas, TX
Sharon Grigsby is a Metro columnist for The Dallas Morning News. She was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing for her work on sexual assault at Baylor University. She was the founding editor of The Dallas Morning News Religion section, serving in that position from 1994 to 1998.
Caitlin Hendel
Kansas City, MO
Caitlin Hendel recently served as CEO and publisher of National Catholic Reporter. Previously, she worked as an editor at CQ Roll Call in Washington, D.C., and directed coverage of the U.S. economy for Bloomberg News.

We have two folks from the University of Missouri School of Journalism; two more from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism; several folks with former ties to BeliefNet and three people presently or formerly employed by the Dallas Morning News. Hendel was Gallagher’s former employer at the National Catholic Reporter. 

I have no problem with the academic institutions listed here, but why the duplications?

Why not get Gus Niebuhr, who runs the religion and media program at Syracuse University? Or Tracy Simmons, a lecturer at Gonzaga University and founder of SpokaneFAVS.com who probably knows more about multi-media and digital start-up journalism than anyone else on that list? I believe she's a millennial; an age group missing on this list. 

David Kurpius
Columbia, MO
David Kurpius is the dean of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He previously served as a professor and administrator at Louisiana State University for almost 20 years, where he also served as director of the Office of Student Media.
Ju-Don Marshall
Charlotte, NC
Ju-Don Marshall is the chief content officer of WFAE 90.7, the NPR station in Charlotte, North Carolina. Previously, she was executive editor and senior vice president at News Corporation, overseeing Beliefnet, and spent 17 years at The Washington Post.
Bob Mong
Dallas, TX
Bob Mong is the president of the University of North Texas at Dallas. Previously, he served as managing editor and editor-in-chief of The Dallas Morning News. He is a former chair of the Religion Newswriters Foundation.

The job announcement adds that the new RNS editor (culled from more than 100 applicants, according to one of their press releases) will be announced this month and be feted at a reception at the annual RNA convention next month in Columbus, Ohio. I’m guessing that a bunch of RNS reps will be at this gathering and a bunch of others who aren’t happy about this year’s shake-ups will stay far away.

Speaking of RNA members, I'm noticing, with the possible exception of Ali, no religion beat reporters on this list. Wonder why. 

Paul Raushenbush
New York, NY
The Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush is the senior vice president and editor of Voices on Auburn Seminary. He previously served as executive editor of global spirituality and religion for The Huffington Post Religion section and as an editor at Beliefnet.
Robert Rosenthal
San Francisco, CA
Robert J. Rosenthal’s career started at The New York Times, where he was an editorial assistant and part of the secret team that published The Pentagon Papers in June 1971. Later he joined The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he ultimately rose to become editor-in-chief in 1998. He joined The San Francisco Chronicle as managing editor in 2002, then became Executive Director of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008. Today he sits on the CIR board and several other nonprofit boards and is active in espousing the role of journalism in democracy and his belief that the nonprofit model can and does work.
Amy Sullivan
Chicago, IL
Amy Sullivan has covered the intersection of religion, politics and culture as an editor for TIME, Yahoo, and The Washington Monthly. She co-hosts the “Impolite Company” religion and politics podcast, and contributes opinion and news analysis to NPR, The New York Times and The Washington Post. She is the author of The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap.

Religion-wise, it was hard to tell what affiliations everyone has. Among the others, I counted two Muslims, two liberal Catholics, three Jews, one liberal Protestant, one possible Hindu and two folks I’d call progressive evangelicals. There is a bit of a racial mix, but no Hispanics. There is at least one openly gay man.

There are no Mormons, either. Considering what we wrote about Brigham Young University's religious freedom conference in June, why didn't someone search out BYU's International Center for Law and Religious Studies for some board members?

There's no one I’d call even close to being a conservative evangelical (or Catholic, for that matter). Being that a large chunk of the white evangelical niche helped elect President Donald Trump by huge percentages, it might be nice to have at least a token presence. But there is nada. Zero.

The closest is Patton Dodd, who was raised Southern Baptist and dabbled in charismatic activity at Oral Roberts University (which he dropped out of, then wrote a book about). After a four job changes in four years, he seems to be settled in at the H.E. Butt Family Foundation in Texas.

Robyn Tomlin
Raleigh, NC
Robyn Tomlin is the executive editor of The News & Observer and The Herald Sun in North Carolina, and the Carolinas Regional Editor for the McClatchy company. Previously, she served as vice president and managing editor of The Dallas Morning News.
Steven Waldman
New York, NY
Steven Waldman is co-founder and president of Report for America, a national service program that places talented emerging journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered communities and issues. He was the co-founder, CEO and editor-in-chief of Beliefnet. He also served as senior advisor to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and worked as Washington correspondent for Newsweek. He’s the author of Founding Faith, a book about religion and America’s Founding Fathers.
Diane Winston
Los Angeles, CA
Diane Winston is an associate professor and Knight Center Chair in Media & Religion at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She is the author of four books, including The Oxford Handbook on Religion and the American News Media.
Michael Wolfe
San Rafael, CA
Michael Wolf is president and co-executive producer of Unity Productions Foundation, the makers of numerous PBS documentaries on Muslim themes. A convert to Islam, Wolfe has written two books for Grove Press on the pilgrimage to Mecca and translated a collection of ancient Greek epitaphs for Johns Hopkins University Press. His journalism has been awarded by the Society for American Travel Writers and won the Wilbur Prize for Best Book on a Religious Theme.

Other than Californians Winston and Wolfe, I spotted no one else from Rocky Mountain or Pacific time zones. Nor did I see anyone from the Deep or even Middle South. (North Carolina doesn’t count). Now the people selected represent some of the country’s best journalism schools and media outlets. But do they represent where the mass of Americans live spiritually?

Also, I saw no one representing the fast-growing “nones” segment of the populace, even though that trend has been in full swing for at least a decade.

What I do see is a lot of folks who know each other from intertwined publications and organizations and who have the same general left-of-center compass. Where would this board be, in terms of editorial views on hot-button moral and social issues at the heart of the religion-news beat?

It is an impressive group but I’m wondering –- with the schedules of 19 people to consider -– how much are they really going to do?

Drawing is from clipartxtras.com.

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