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News & Press: Contest

Grossman named 2019 Lifetime Achievement recipient

Tuesday, July 23, 2019   (0 Comments)
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By Ken Chitwood, RNA Board

There are two things that probably come to mind when religion beat reporters think of Cathy Lynn Grossman. The first: top-notch, data-driven religion newswriting.

The second: her, sporting a purple wig to drum up scholarship funds for the Religion News Association (RNA) during its annual conference’s silent auction.

Beyond making bold fashion choices, Grossman made her name in religion news covering ethics, spirituality and religion for multiple publications over the last three decades. Starting her career with The Miami Herald in 1989, she later took her talents to USA Today where she led the way writing news and blogs based on social trend survey research data. She wrote at USA Today for 23 years, focusing specifically on religion and ethics. More recently, Grossman wrote for the Religion News Service (RNS), continuing to weave stories together from threads of data, research and statistics on religion and beliefs across the globe.

Grossman also served on the RNA board and has been a regular feature of the RNA conferences as emcee, auctioneer, and general rabble rouser at the annual banquets and silent-auctions over the years (sometimes, in that famous purple wig).

For both her work in religion newswriting and service to RNA, Grossman will receive the William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award on Sept. 22 at the 70th Annual RNA Conference in Las Vegas.

The William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award was created in 2001 and is presented to individuals who demonstrate exceptional long-term commitment and service to the Religion News Association and its members, and to the field of religion journalism.

"As a reporter, Cathy helped shape and define the religion beat for a generation," said Peter Smith, president of the Religion News Association. "I attended many a press conference where Cathy was the first with a question, one that got at the heart of the story. If she was holding religious officials to account one day, she'd be in the trenches the next, putting life to her data-driven reporting by talking to everyday people about their spiritual journeys. As a fellow Gannett alum, I have been endlessly impressed with how Cathy managed to convey so much news within such tight word counts and space constraints. And her service to RNA has been invaluable, not only in the very public role of drumming up silent-auction sales at conferences, but in behind-the-scenes planning for conferences. She always kept conference committees focused on the main thing — providing speakers and topics that would enable our members to gain sources and story ideas."

Like many others, Grossman did not get her start in religion news. Instead, she said, she wrote “just about everything except ‘sports and courts.’”

And yet, along the way, the religion stories began to pile up. “I didn’t necessarily want to be on the ‘religion beat,’ because I saw it as part of every story,” she said.

Grossman said, “Religion and spirituality are there in almost every story, you just have to search for it.”

She said that looking back on her stories — whether they were on artists, judges or public officials — Grossman saw that asking people about their religion, their vision, or their values opened up new avenues for understanding what was happening in the story.

So, Grossman kept writing about religion, even when it was not assigned.

“I would drive editors nuts,” she said. “I was constantly pushing the boundaries.”

That is how she got to report on religion at USA Today, she said. “I just kept writing on it until they gave it to me full-time,” said Grossman.

Far from driving him nuts, as polling editor at USA Today, Jim Norman found that Grossman inspired readers even as she informed through her data-driven reporting.

“I felt that Cathy came up with great ideas for gathering public opinion on an area of Americans' lives that we didn't have much solid data on, in spite of the impact their religious beliefs had on their daily lives,” he said. “She was terrific to work with, and she could do those things exceptional reporters do — understand what's newsworthy and report it in a way that's easily understood.”

Working with Grossman as an editor for over a decade at USA Today and at RNS, Leslie Miller said, “terms that come to mind to describe Cathy include rainmaker, idea person, colorful force of nature — yes, perhaps a little like a hurricane, befitting her South Florida origins.”

She also said, “by sheer force of that personality (and because it was a good idea), Cathy convinced our editors in the Life section to let her pioneer a full-time religion beat focused on trend stories about social science research, features about the USA’s religious landscape and profiles of authors and other spiritual celebrities.”

She covered bishops’ meetings, led coverage of papal transitions and prepared and updated thoughtful obituaries of major spiritual leaders, including a couple of popes and Billy Graham, and later helped launch USA Today’s online blog venture with “Faith & Reason.”

“All of this helped get religion stories on the front page of an influential and highly visible national newspaper, thereby showing editors and readers how interesting religion coverage really could be,” Miller said.

Grossman enjoyed being able to use the resources at USA Today to tell religion stories for the general public. She said, “I was able to get USA Today to take religion seriously, put it on the front page, and put the graphics team on it to tell the story of American religion.”

For all of this, Grossman earned wide respect on a beat she did not initially intend to report on. Known throughout the RNA for her both her professional and personal style, when she took a buyout from USA Today in 2013 she was quickly picked up by RNS, where she continued to write on religion for another three years.

Kevin Eckstrom, RNA President during Grossman’s tenure on the board and her first editor at RNS, said, “Cathy Grossman was, and remains, one of the giants of the modern religion beat.”

“When she came to work for me at RNS, I knew what I was getting, but I also had no idea what I was getting. She was dogged, relentless and was a pain in the ass in all the ways that editors love to hate. She never took no for an answer, and to be fair, she rarely said no herself. She was a remarkable team player and was often the gasoline in our little engine. She pushed everyone to do better, dig deeper, work faster,” he said.

He also said of her service on the RNA board, “She would advocate for the needs and desires of the youngest members, and single-handedly started and supported the silent auction at the awards banquet.”

“She was as relentless an advocate for RNA as she was for her readers,” Eckstrom said.

Despite her renown on the religion beat, Grossman never won a single RNA contest. She eventually became a finalist for her work at RNS.

Eckstrom said, “Given her audience, she rarely had 2,000 words to spill on whatever was hot that year, but her brevity and bravado were legendary, and admired by everyone. That’s why this award is so fitting — she may never have won the Supple or any of the other big prizes, but she won our admiration and affection, and nobody deserves it more than her.”

Indeed, at the closing banquet of the upcoming 70th Annual RNA Conference in Las Vegas, Grossman will be honored for her entire career.

While she will may or may not be donning her infamous purple wig, Grossman will delight with lessons gleaned on the beat and most certainly entertain as she inspires current and future generations of religion reporters.

It is the future of religion reporting that always inspired Grossman to be involved in the silent auction. She was glad to raise funds to support reporters writing on visions and values. “It is scholarships that make our work possible, that enable us to go deeper, learn more, and get the story,” she said.

She encouraged her fellow reporters to continue to, “follow your passion, follow the story. If it’s something you want to read, someone else will want to read it. The only thing you have to do is convince your editor.”

And if one can learn anything from Grossman’s hurricane-force of a career, it is that convincing your editor to report on a religion story can lead to bigger, and better, things for the beat as a whole.

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