Russell Chandler

How major papers played Billy Graham's death on front pages: These bylines will be familiar to many

How major papers played Billy Graham's death on front pages: These bylines will be familiar to many

For those in Godbeat circles, many of the bylines splashed across today's front pages are extremely familiar.

I'm talking about names such as William Lobdell and Russell Chandler of the Los Angeles Times, Gayle White of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today.

All of those veteran religion writers — just to name a few — wrote their respective papers' major obituaries marking Wednesday's death of the Rev. Billy Graham at age 99.

But here's what might surprise many ordinary readers: None of them has worked for those papers in years. 

"I must have written and updated a whole suite of advance obit stories on Graham at least three times over 15 years," Grossman said. "I last polished up the package in 2013, in the week before I left the paper on a buyout. However, I stayed in touch with USAT editors (and) emailed them where fixes/changes might be needed over the years."

Welcome to the concept of the "prepared obit."

Here's what that means: News organizations put together obits in advance for certain prominent people, such as presidents, movie stars and — in the case of Graham — world-famous preachers. That way, they're prepared (at least somewhat) if the person dies 10 minutes before deadline.

A New York Times obituary writer explained it this way in a 2014 piece:

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New York Times seeks another Godbeat scribe: How would Yogi Berra parse the job listing?

New York Times seeks another Godbeat scribe: How would Yogi Berra parse the job listing?

I have some good news and some bad news.

The good news is that one of the buzz topics in religion-news circles this week was that job posting at The New York Times, the one with this headline: "Change Is Coming to the New York Times National Desk."

It appears the Times is thinking about doing something new on the religion beat, 12-plus years after the 2005 report on its newsroom culture and weaknesses, "Preserving Our Readers Trust." That was the amazing document that urged editors, when hiring staff, to seek more intellectual and cultural diversity -- to help the Gray Lady do a better job covering religion, non-New York America and other common subjects. Yes, I've written about that report a whole lot on this site.

Oh, and Times editor Dean Baquet's recent journalism confession on NPR -- that the "New York-based and Washington-based ... media powerhouses don't quite get religion" -- may have had something to do with this, as well.

The bad news? There is one chunk of language in this job posting that, for veteran Godbeat observers, could cause a kind of bad acid flashback to another religion-beat job notice in another newsroom, at another time. Hold that thought. 

So here is the Times job notice for a "Faith and values correspondent."

We’re seeking a skilled reporter and writer to tap into the beliefs and moral questions that guide Americans and affect how they live their lives, whom they vote for and how they reflect on the state of the country. You won’t need to be an expert in religious doctrine. The position is based outside of New York, and you will work alongside Laurie Goodstein and a team of other journalists who are digging deep into the nation.

Did you see the key sentence? Rod "friend of this blog" Dreher sure did:

Two cheers for them! I’m glad they’re adding this position, and I’m really glad they’re not basing this reporter in New York (I hope they don’t base him or her in any coastal city, or in Chicago, but rather someplace like Dallas or Atlanta). Why not three cheers? That line about how “you won’t need to be an expert in religious doctrine” bothers me. ... 

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Flashback to Godbeat past: Several symbolic stories from front lines of the SBC wars

Flashback to Godbeat past: Several symbolic stories from front lines of the SBC wars

Here is an idea for the current leaders of the Religion Newswriters Association.

What if we held a reunion for the army of Godbeat pros who worked in the 1980s and '90s? You know, gather up the folks who used to trek from one annual denominational gathering to another -- two, three or, for reporters from big newsrooms, even more events -- each summer. Call up Bruce Buursma and let him organize the whole thing. Louis Moore and Virginia Culver can plan the program. Russ Chandler can handle the after-party (more on that in a minute).

Then everyone can get together and tells stories about what life was like back in the age of travel budgets. I promise you that, within 10 minutes, folks would start telling Southern Baptist Convention stories. Everybody who worked the beat during that era has several great SBC civil-war stories.

This is sort of what host Todd Wilken and I talked about during this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in).

We started talking about the news from this year's SBC gathering in St. Louis -- click here and then here for GetReligion background. But we ended up focusing on how important it is for journalists who cover this kind of gathering to actually know something about the religious group's life, past and present. Try to imagine having a Super Bowl and newsrooms sending reporters who know little or nothing about football.

Of course, very few news organizations spent money to send reporters to this year's SBC gathering. In the 1980s there would be 30-plus religion-beat pros at SBC meetings, scribes with folders packed with background material and notebooks full of sources. This year? At best, some organizations asked religion-beat reporters to watch the video feeds. It's like being a hoops reporter and covering the NBA finals -- without being at the games.

Does this affect the coverage? You think?

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Some familiar religion-news questions, after 25 years

Several years ago, I realized that I was not really sure how long I had been writing the weekly “On Religion” column for the Scripps Howard News Service. As some of you may know, aging brains often struggle with detailed information of this kind (especially when the brain in question also deals with 100-plus emails every day).

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