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RNA celebrates 60 years!
RNA: Six decades strong

By: Debra Mason, Executive Director

In 1949 Truman was president, the first VW Beetle was sold in the U.S. and network television was born.

Now, Facebook connects me with high school friends I haven't seen in 35 years. Uploads of old photos on Flickr keep me forever young and slim. Twitter spreads my news to hundreds of "followers" before I could dial a single phone number.

The media worlds of 1949 and 2009 have few similarities in how news is created or shared.

The profession's values, however—and RNA's mission—changed little. We've supported and promoted excellence on the beat six decades strong.

It's impossible to sum up the accomplishments and meaning of Religion Newswriters throughout its 60 years. Every decade brought new challenges.

In the 1950s, the beat grew, as did the power of Mainline protestantism and its public relations arms. During the 1960, religion writers portrayed the growing religious diversity spawned by immigration law changes in 1965.  Journalists gave voice to the cultural seachange made possible following Vatican II reforms and two decades of bruising racial civil rights struggles. 

The 1970s brought new generations of investigative reporters but for religion writers, the challenge was getting beyond cliched antiwar sentiments and tracking the small but increasingly vocal religious right. 

The "golden years" for religion reporting began in the 1980s. Surveys of reporters and analyses of coverage, along with elite gatherings of academics, all found religion news wanting. Editors relied on beat reporters to gain access to clergy running for elected office and to televangelists scrutinized in their personal life. Some of us got to trot after a young, charismatic pope.

Although it took more than a decade, by the early 1990s religion reporting was on its own, with glorious sections, rising newsroom prestige, and thoughtful talent.
It's frustrating that economics is fueling the worst decline on the beat since RNA was founded. I'm sickened by how bosses for corporate media—the Fords, GMs and Chryslers of our industry—have slick and efficient regiments for ending reporting careers.

Someone asked me recently if I thought mainstream media would ever add more religion beat specialists or expand religion sections, now mostly token placeholders for worship advertisements.

I do not believe we will ever recoup these losses on the beat in "legacy" media, "mainstream" media or whatever other such term you want to use.

But that doesn't trouble me. Sure, our total membership has dropped about 6 percent from a year ago—but it's far less than most journalism groups or other industries where 10 to 15 percent drops are typical. I do expect our membership numbers to rise as economic strains lesson.

The growth, however, won't be at daily newspapers. It will be in hyperlocal ventures and mobile media. It will follow in the footsteps of David Crumm's Read the Spirit and Tracy Simmon's

A University of Missouri professor this week reminded some freshmen journalism students—500 strong—that people have told stories for as long as we've been human. We thrive on stories. They bring understanding to the inexplicable. Stories help us remember and rejoice in shared experiences. Stories give voice to the power of spirit. And as we know, religion stories are the best of all.

So just as the tools of story telling change, the venues for religion news will change. But people passionate about the beat—people like you—will still find ways to tell those stories.

That bodes well for RNA's future. I'm confident that 10 years from now, we'll celebrate RNA's 70th birthday. But for now, let's revel in how we've grown as an organization and how we've helped our members write about religion with balance, accuracy and insight—for six decades strong.


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