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5 beat vets offer advice for new grads pursuing religion reporting careers

Thursday, May 19, 2016  
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By Ilgin Yorulmaz, RNA Columbia President

With the graduation season upon us, naturally, the question on every aspiring religion reporter's mind is "How do I make a living on this beat?" In response, RNA's Columbia student chapter held the event "Put Your Faith in Me: Opportunities in Religion and Spiritual Writing" on April 26 and invited seasoned journalists to lend advice to outgoing seniors.

[LISTEN: Full audio from the panel is available here.]

New York Times National Religion Correspondent Laurie Goodstein's first stint was answering the phone at the New York bureau of The Washington Post. "Don't you think this job is beneath you?" her managing editor asked her. "As long as I write and you work with me to make my work better, I want the job," she answered. The more religion stories she published, the more she realized this was what people cared about — "the secret to life," as she puts it. Goodstein then moved to a reporter position in the Washington bureau and chose the faith beat, a post without much stature when compared to her other option: covering the Maryland State House. Through instinct and serendipity, she found her calling. "What I love about this beat is that religion intersects with everything." Rather than theological or philosophical aspects of religion, she likes writing about its sociological impact, how people live their faith and how it affects our culture. Here are her tips:

  • School keeps going. Your professors in some ways become your editors and coworkers.
  • Find skilled, good people to work with who want to put you in print, put up your video or post.
  • Don't worry about the job title.

Ansley Roan, director of digital content at Guideposts and a former RNA board member, said she got her first job out of school through Columbia connections and RNA. She worked as a freelancer for various Time Inc. magazines, but she always did religion reporting on the side and freelanced for Religion News Service. Her advice:

  • Even if your religion job doesn't turn out the first day you walk out of college, there are more opportunities for freelancing than before.
  • You can learn wherever you are — whether it be management and team-building skills, or fact checking against libel law.
  • Covering religion on digital outlets: The upside is being able to tell a story visually and without any space limits; the downside is it's a volatile revenue mechanism. 

CNN Religion Editor Dan Burke followed a career thread that started by asking questions like "How do people make moral decisions?" Having toyed with the idea of becoming a theologian in his undergrad years, he changed course and worked first as a book editor at Random House. After the 2000 election and 9/11, he decided to study journalism and religion at Columbia. Right after graduation, he started working for a small paper in Pennsylvania, covering school board and council meetings. "I'd go back to these small papers in a heartbeat if these papers were thriving as they should be," he said.  He then moved to Religion News Service, where for seven years he covered institutions like the Episcopal Church and its debate on gay marriage, and where he got to know everyone on the religion beat. He then moved on to CNN and became its first religion editor. Though Burke had no interest in TV news and hated public speaking, he now finds himself on TV as part of his job duties. His recommendations:

  • Small communities are good, because you can see the person you write about the next day at the supermarket checkout; a different experience than online journalism.
  • Treat people you write about really well; be fair to them.  
  • Be open to all opportunities, whether it's a small paper and doing religion assignments on the side, or taking a big leap to a big company where you might be uncomfortable with some of the things you do initially.

Samuel Freedman, acclaimed author, New York Times columnist and Columbia University professor, grew up in a culturally Jewish, but fundamentally atheist, family. He was 12 years into his journalism career before he covered religion. He has since written two religion-related books and now contributes a reported column on religion for the Times, while freelancing for places such as the Jewish magazine Tablet, where he writes more opinionated pieces. Despite the turbulent times the media is enduring, he thinks it's a good time to be interested in the religion beat. In the 70s, he said religion was viewed as a low-prestige beat until national politics pushed it to the forefront. His ideas on religion reporting:

  • This beat is endlessly fascinating.
  • Things are realigning for the religion writing industry, not going away, like Religion Dispatches, a specialized hub for religion reporters. It develops a deep expertise even if you're in another beat.
  • Look for niche, web-only publications that young reporters like Jaweed Kaleem and Emma Green did.   

Ari Goldman, Columbia journalism professor, former NYT religion reporter and moderator for the event, commented that unlike in the past, the program is no longer producing full-time religion reporters. Now he trains students to do religion verticals at various websites. His main advice: "Do this as part of what you do full-time."


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