Religion journalism into the future: Tom Gallagher and global faith reporting

Our guest is Tom Gallagher, Publisher & CEO of Religion News Service – and the Beliefs Podcast. This week Religion News Service announced a partnership with the Associated Press and The Conversation U.S. Their mission is to create a joint global religion news desk. Tom joined Dr. Baker to discuss the effort and what it means for religion reporting worldwide.

Transcript

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

BILL BAKER: An expansive partnership to increase religion reporting worldwide:

TOM GALLAGHER: The headlines out of every major news organization keep reflecting the attacks, the discrimination, the rise of Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Christian persecution in the Middle East. These stories need to be told. They need to be told accurately and with understanding of the contexts. And in addition to covering religion as conflict, there are hundreds and hundreds of stories of religion as a positive force in communities around the globe. And so we need to tell those stories. And those stories don't get the same kind of coverage as violence and acts of terror and hate.

BILL BAKER: This is Beliefs. I'm Bill Baker.

My guest is Tom Gallagher, Publisher of Religion News Service and the Beliefs Podcast. This week, Religion News Service announced a partnership with The Associated Press and The Conversation. Their mission is to create a joint global religion news desk. Tom joined me to discuss the effort and what it means for religion reporting worldwide.

Tom Gallagher, welcome to your podcast. Tom Gallagher is the president of Religion News Service, the chairman of the board of the Religion News Foundation…

TOM GALLAGHER: The CEO and president of the foundation, and CEO and publisher of the [Religion] News Service.

BILL BAKER: Okay, tell us about this big announcement that you just made.

TOM GALLAGHER: This past week, we made an announcement of a grant from the Lilly Endowment, based in Indianapolis, Indiana, in the amount of $4.9 million dollars. It's an 18-month grant and it consists of three partners: the Religion News Service, The Associated Press and The Conversation U.S.

The Associated Press is about an 180-year-old news service—perhaps the premier news organization in the world. The Religion News Service is 85 years old. It's an independent non-profit professional journalism platform that covers religion. And importantly, Religion News Service is not affiliated with any religion. We really try to bring that objectivity to our reporting.

The Conversation is a newer organization based in Massachusetts. It takes academic expertise and creates readable commentary for the public, and they do a terrific job.

So, we're going to have the global reach and distribution of the Associated Press, and their breaking news and investigative skills, among other skills. We'll have the expertise of the Religion News Service that can provide context and deeper analysis, and then we'll have the commentary of experts around the world from academia.

BILL BAKER: It actually makes you think about why religion news is important. Why do we need it today?

TOM GALLAGHER: Well, the headlines out of every major news organization keep reflecting the attacks, the discrimination, the rise of Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Christian persecution in the Middle East. These stories need to be told. They need to be told accurately and with understanding of the contexts. And in addition to covering religion as conflict, there are hundreds and hundreds of stories of religion as a positive force in communities around the globe. And so, we need to tell those stories. And those stories don't get the same kind of coverage as violence and acts of terror and hate.

So, we have a big job to do and the time is right for this kind of grant.

BILL BAKER: One of the things that I've said about this podcast is that even though religion is often criticized and many times rightly so, the truth is the majority of the world has a religion because they need it. Religion as a force that is needed in this world today more than ever.

TOM GALLAGHER: That's exactly right, Bill. Religion is a fundamental right for every person around the globe. And it's also a right for people not to believe in any kind of faith tradition. And so we want to respect those kinds of citizens and people around the world.

But it's under attack and you pick any country - whether it's China and the Uyghurs, Myanmar and the Rohingya, we've got Christians and Yazidis in the Middle East who are persecuted.

And then, of course, you've seen the rise in Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in various parts of the world, including Europe and the United States. So, there’s a deep concern, there's a deep desire to get these stories done well, and it's a technical subject matter. You just can't put any kind of journalists on these stories and expect the same kind of accuracy and sensitivity and context that this grant and the AP writers, the RNS writers and the commentators from The Conversation will bring to this moment.

BILL BAKER: Religion, particularly religion in America, is supported by philanthropy for the most part.

Religion News Services is supported by philanthropy. What is the importance of independent philanthropy, particularly the kind that the Lilly Foundation has made possible through the grant they just gave these three entities?

TOM GALLAGHER: The Lilly Endowment has been supporting Religion News Service and a whole variety of religion-related initiatives at seminaries around the country, at different other media outlets. They support Krista Tippett, for example, the popular radio show host. Lilly has been a prime mover in supporting religion and religion media in the U.S., and so Religion News Service, for example, couldn't exist without the support of the Lilly Endowment.

At the same time, there are other funders such as the Luce Foundation and Templeton. We receive a grant from the Templeton Foundation and others. So, there's a whole cadre of important funders in the U.S., as well as individuals who take religion journalism very seriously.

BILL BAKER: Speaking of taking religion journalism seriously, Religion News Service is really—I’m using an old-fashioned term here—they're kind of a wire service that provides religion news to many entities. Do you want to talk about some of the kinds of entities that wind up using the Religion News Service?

TOM GALLAGHER: Sure. So, the business model for the Religion News Service has historically been a subscription model and a grantor model. We have clients who buy our content such as The Washington Post, The National Catholic Reporter, Christianity Today, and others who buy our content. The Houston Chronicle and USA Today use our content. And so our content reaches many people—millions of readers. And of course, we're always in the market for expanding that content.

One of the new subscription products we've just introduced, we call a House of Worship subscription. And what that is, is for a low dollar amount, houses of worship can buy our content and use it for their own web site. That’s a new product we've launched.

We've launched, in the last year, two podcasts: this one, which has been very successful, as well as one on Islam, which is called Re-Sight Islam. And that's been at the top of the Apple charts and Chart Web and others are here in the U.S.. for many months.

BILL BAKER: That's wonderful. And, by the way, thank you for helping make this podcast possible as well.

Let's now conclude by talking about talking together. One of the problems that strikes me in this world today, and certainly in America, is that we're all very siloed. People in different religions tend to stay in that religion—and in many ways that's just fine. But there's very little communication, faith-to-faith, people of faith to one another, people of no faith to people of faith. Is part of your mission dealing with that important issue?

TOM GALLAGHER: So, the mission of the Religion News Foundation—the parent company of Religion News Service—is to promote religious literacy as well as understanding, in a neutral way, in a way that doesn't pick winners and losers in religion. And so, we try to host events that bring people of different faith traditions together.

I would encourage individuals to take initiative on their own and go visit a church or a mosque or a synagogue that is not of their tradition, and start to engage people, and start to create encounters of dialogue. In the months ahead, Religion News Foundation, in particular, will be undertaking initiatives that create moments of encounter, moments of dialogue, and moments of pluralism that are so vitally needed both in the U.S. and abroad.

BILL BAKER: Tom Gallagher, thank you for being with us.

TOM GALLAGHER: Great to be with you, Bill. Thank you.

BILL BAKER: Our guest was Thomas Gallagher, CEO of the Religion News Foundation and publisher of Religion News Service. The conversation continues on our Facebook page and we tweet at @beliefspodcast. If you like our program, come review us on iTunes.

Beliefs is brought to you with the support of the Bernard L. Schwartz Center for Media, Public Policy and Education at the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University. J. Woodward is our producer. The theme music is by Edward Bilous.

I'm Bill Baker and thank you for listening.

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