Reshaping Religion Journalism in the 21st Century
An interview with media visionary and News21 editorial director Merrill Brown.
By John D. Spalding
Over the past eight years, I’ve occupied a sort of catbird seat—or some might say, cat litter box—in the world of online religion. I’ve been involved with Beliefnet since its inception in 1999, writing The Sick Soul column, and for years I’ve been friends with the folks at The Revealer, KillingtheBnddha, and BustedHalo, sites to which I’ve contributed. In 2004, I launched SoMA, a boulder I’ve enjoyed pushing up hill almost as much as I’ve enjoyed leaping out of its way whenever it comes crashing back downhill towards me.
If there’s one thing I’ve observed about religion sites it’s that the simplest changes in terms of design or function can often take eons to implement. Even over at Beliefnet, one of the slickest, best-staffed sites, a design revamp can take months and consume everybody’s free time. Like Rome, in other words, a religion website isn’t built in a day.
Or so I thought, until last week when I discovered Faces of Faith in America, a new religion news site that suddenly appeared on the Web and that’s as cool and contemporary as any faith url out there. The sleek look and all the fun interactive elements aside, the site seemingly burst into existence with more than 80 top-notch video and print religion stories by journalists I’d never heard of. How was this possible?
As I explored “Faces of Faith,” I was relieved to learn, first, that the site wasn’t actually created in a day. More like over the summer—the same timeframe, I might add, it took my team to modify our homepage banner to include a Times of London quote. Other background details made “Faces of Faith” seem more human than miraculous, though no less awe-inspiring: it’s the effort of 44 journalism grad students from five major universities—Columbia, Berkeley, USC Annenberg, Northwestern, and Harvard—guided by a support team of faculty and professional journalists. And, oh, it’s funded by two deep-pocketed foundations, Carnegie and Knight.
“Faces of Faith” is part of a larger Carnegie-Knight project called News21, which is headed by media veteran Merrill Brown. A media consultant with his own firm, Brown was the first editor-in-chief of MSNBC.com and was one of the founders of CourtTV. A journalist by trade—he was a financial correspondent for the Washington Post in the early ‘80s—he went on to help steer several magazines, including Time and Money. Recently I spoke with Brown about “Faces of Faith,” as well as the state of the Internet and online news, the blogosphere’s at-times questionable reputation, and journalism’s frequent failure to grasp religion.
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Tell us about News21.
Earlier in the decade, some 15 to 20 journalism school deans began meeting to discuss the state of journalism with the Carnegie Corporation. Eventually the Knight Foundation became involved as well. The list of participants narrowed down, as groups like that tend to do, to five schools, and in the summer of 2005, the two foundations developed a plan to create an initiative on journalism education with several objectives. One goal was to reinvigorate the field. Another was to give the profession a larger voice in the ongoing debates about where news and journalism is heading. And a third was to give journalism graduate students an opportunity to develop their skills and demonstrate their capabilities.
The program was launched as a three-part initiative in early 2006. The first component is a curriculum initiative run largely by Nick Lemann, the journalism dean at Columbia, and the second is a task force led by Alex Jones, who heads the Shorenstein policy center at Harvard’s Kennedy School. And the third component is News21, the graduate student fellowship program that I run. We’ve just completed our second year of the fellowship program, and it’s very exciting, and I think we’ve made a lot of progress on the key goals of the initiative.
News21 showcases graduate students’ reporting through traditional and new media. Now, you’ve been involved in all aspects of media, and have noted that the Internet is the “best delivery platform for news that’s ever been developed.” At the risk of asking you to state the obviouo? how so?
The Internet offers every capability imaginable. It can provide people material to read, video to watch, and audio to listen to. There are software applications that enable people to access data related to stories they want to learn more about. It provides ubiquitous distribution; in other words, there’s no bottleneck along the way for someone wanting to produce a TV show, or distribute a magazine, or publish an article. The day you put up an Internet site, as you’ve done, anybody in the world can access it. So, from the ability to give people a lot of different media forms, and the ability to make content instantly available to anyone, anywhere, there’s no other platform like it.
Yet the Internet has had its critics. Initially, there was a lot of suspicion or distrust of the Internet in the traditional print world. Has that totally changed, or are there still doubts lingering out there?
Well, there’s certainly suspicion directed at some people on the Web who practice what they consider to be journalism. You’re right, though, in observing that originally there was suspicion of the Internet as a medium, which is preposterous. I’ve been working with it since the mid-‘90s, and to have people in a blanket way trash the Internet as a medium is ridiculous and extraordinary. It would be like someone trashing television asm. medium. It’s what people do with the Internet that’s important.
But I don’t think there’s anybody in journalism who still talks that way about this thing called “the Internet.” That kind of backward thinking has now been replaced by the trashing of this thing called “the blogosphere.” There are still critics who are complaining about people who are out there, in their homes, typing away on their laptops in their pajamas, and how you just can’t trust this new tool.
Ah, ‘tis fun to shoot the messenger…
Right, and that ridiculous discussion is still going on—just visit the various journalism blogs and you’ll see. It even surfaced recently in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, where a journalism professor trashed the blogosphere as if it’s a thing that one could make a judgment about. It’s like a newsstand—there are good magazines, there are bad magazines. On the blogosphere, there is some garbage, but there are also some extraordinarily terrific things. Unfortunately, there will always be people who are critical of new things, some of which intimidates them and some of which makes them angry. But it’s interesting that the blogosphere has become the whipping boy now that people realize it’s absurd to trash the Internet.
What are the greatest challenges facing Internet news?
Well, the greatest challenge for the mainstream media participants in the Internet is trying to figure out how to create a commercial set of strategies that can make quality journalism affordable. Very few people have proven that there is significant profitability in doing high quality content of almost any kind that’s original. That’s the underlying challenge that all the big media companies face. Likewise, people who run small blogs and small publications face a similar challenge, namely that there’s this great big ad marketplace out there, but how does one get one’s fair share of it? The trick is to figure out how to evolve subscription and advertising strategies so that the cost of producing materials can be fully supported by the medium.
Yeah, tell me about it…
But you know, a lot of people worry about these issues more than I do, because I believe that with the passage of time they’ll work themselves out. I mean, in 1946 you couldn’t support “60 Minutes” on a television network, because there were distribution challenges and the underlying economics of the medium hadn’t been invented yet. But they figured it out, just as we will work it out with the Internet, as long as sites produce quality material. And, as I said before, the Internet doesn’t have to overcome the distribution bos lenecks of the past.
To me, that’s the most wonderful thing about the Internet and News21—a bunch of graduate students can start a website from scratch, and anybody, anywhere in the world can see it, communicate with it, and begin to discuss really important issues. It’s like what you do at your site, and there was nothing comparable to this 15 years ago. Think about it. What would you do if you’d wanted to create this kind of content in 1991? I guess in theory you might have faxed material to people. Otherwise, there was absolutely no way to do what you do today.
So how did “Faces of Faith” come about? Was it your idea, or did it come from graduate students?
Actually, it came from the deans of the participating journalism schools. Before the fellows are selected and the winter/spring semester courses and the summer programs are designed, the deans consult with the foundations to come up with an annual topic. Last year’s topic was liberty and security, and this year it was religion and spirituality.
I guess principally because it’s been on so many people’s minds in the context of the Middle East in recent years. And the deans kept coming back to how they wanted to get some expertise in the hands of their graduate students, and religion requires expertise to be covered well. Historioully, journalists have not covered religion well, and they still often fall short today.
I think it’s partly because religion is one of those private matters that journalism doesn’t perceive as coming in and out of public policy debates, or election debates. Mainstream journalism is better suited to deal with more conventional institutional matters, like political affairs and health and environment issues. I think journalists as a rule are a little uncomfortable with spirituality and the personal nature of it. It’s a daunting subject.
But there’s almost a kind of schizophrenia about religion, because anybody who’s ever been involved in a weekly newsmagazine knows that religious topics sell. There’s nothing like that fourth-quarter, fresh take on Christianity to move a lot of magazines off the newsstand. So the journalism business has always been of multiple minds about religion. But you probably have a better take on that than I do because you’ve lived with it. I had no background in religion journalism until we started “Faces of Faith” a year ago.
So is it your sense that religion stories are, or should be, covered differently than other stories?
I think it’s impossible to look at the daily news agenda and not realize that so much in political and social life requires an understanding of spiritual matters. And I think the fellows involved in the “Faces of Faith” project came out of the program with a deeper appreciation for the complexity and magnitude of the stories they covered. And I think that the faculty who were involved, many of whom have expertise in religion, feel like their views were reinforced and intensified. Everybody left the program inspired by the topic, and convinced that it needs to be taken more seriously both by the journalism education community and the larger journalism community.
Yes. We hoped the fellows would get a very fresh take on things and not mimic stuff that’s out there. They started the program by researching topics so they’d know what had been done, and then they assessed the media landscape so they would understand the context around the stories they were considering journllistically. And then they were urged to really do some scholarship, to think about facets of the issue that are new and under-covered and need the spotlight put on them.
One of the premises of the program is that the relationship between scholarship and journalism is really important, and what we try to do in the semester leading into the summer reporting program is to bring in some of the best minds in the community, and from the faculty where the fellows are going to school, to demonstrate the point that quality journalism and good reporting and scholarship go hand-in-hand in creating meaningful work.
Is there any talk of getting funding to make “Faces of Faith” an ongoing venture?
Yes, there was talk about doing that with last year’s project, and we’re talking about it again with this year’s topic because religion is so compelling. And there may be people who’d be interested in funding it as an ongoing effort. Ultimately, the decision is up to the deans of the five schools, so we’ll see where it leads.
Do you have a sense from what you’re hearing what might be the important religion stories over the next year or so?
That question might best be directed to someone like Ari Goldman at Columbia or Diane Winston at USC. But the thing I keep reading about, and keep hearing about in conversations with the fellows at the campuses I visit, is the integration of multiple faiths in places where those faiths hadn’t existed historically. And it’s not simply about Iraq and the Muslim world. In places like Britain and Western Europe, for example, where cultural tensions are high, the question of integration is critically important to the underlying health of the government.
Everywhere people of all faiths are moving around in ways they hadn’t before. How will nations integrate these people and consolidate their efforts behind existing governments? This is a big issue in the United States. What happens as more and more people of different faiths get elected to Congress? Of course, we have a Muslim in Congress today, and that’s proved to be a huge story. Integration will only become a bigger story in the coming years.
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John D. Spalding is the editor of SoMAreview.com. His last piece was Protestants, Beware!
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