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Religion News Offers Far-Reaching Info For Researchers, Journalists, Clergy

It’s a scary and complex time in media, particularly with media pundits proclaiming doom on a daily basis. Yet somehow, the most unlikely of players has built a media business that’s working, using a clever combination of subscriptions and advertising set on a foundation of grants obtained through its nonprofit status.

Religion News Service, the nation’s only nationally syndicated religion wire, celebrates its 80th birthday in 2014 with a net increase in subscription revenues, its largest staff in more than 20 years (10 editorial positions), a year-old website that attracts a million page views per month, and hyper-local websites dedicated to religion coverage.

“With religion reporters dropping out of mainstream media there is an opening for RNS,” says Kevin Eckstrom, editor-in-chief. “The flipside is you’re dealing with an industry that’s in spasms economically. They’re not buying coffee for the newsroom, much less a news service.

“We’ve had success though,” he said.

So how did they do it?  “We proposed a diverse business model that would rely on foundation grants for revenue, but also donations from the public and online advertising revenue,” says Debra Mason, director of the Center on Religion & the Professions at the University of Missouri and the publisher of RNS. She led the effort to acquire and retool the RNS business model in 2011.

The service has about 200 subscribers that include websites, newspapers, PR firms and churches. About half are secular news operations, such as HuffingtonPost; half are religious, such as The Christian Century.

Meanwhile, a decent portion of the service’s recent success can be pinned on one hot newsmaker: Pope Francis. “Francis has shown how religion can be front page news — and it is front page news a lot,” Eckstrom says, adding that RNS is producing more stories and reporting from more places than ever.

Yet RNS isn’t just covering religion — it’s also covering atheism and secularism, the fastest-growing “faith” group in America as a result of a grant that funds a reporter covering those issues.

Eckstrom has assigned stories on the ways people are combining their faith and the environment, also as a result of a grant. Two of those stories were particularly intriguing: one about people who go dumpster-diving because of their faith, and another on changing views of agriculture in Jewish and Christian scripture. “Those are stories we wouldn’t have been able to do without [financial] support,” he said. “Being a nonprofit, we’re able to go after targeted funding for targeted issues.”

Religion News has 26,500 Twitter followers worldwide, with 200 added every day. A new challenge is figuring out how to write for a global audience while remaining a mostly American-focused service, he said. As a result of the desire for more global news, RNS now has a London-based editor writing stories about religious freedom globally and working with partners overseas to expand its reach.

This may turn out to be mission-critical for RNS because religious freedom issues are barely covered around the world — yet religious freedom and religiously motivated violence is on the rise and in the forefront of international policy and civil war in developing countries. RNS may serve as a role model for media in some of those developing countries, according to Mason.

The roots of RNS go back to 1934, when it was founded as a nonprofit by what was then called the National Conference of Christians and Jews. In 1983, the United Methodist Church bought the service. In 1994, the award-winning news service was purchased by Newhouse News Service and folded into its Washington bureau. But by 2008, Newhouse closed its Washington bureau in the midst of the larger financial and media technology crisis — and RNS needed to find a new home.

Enter Religion Newswriters Association— a professional training and advocacy organization for journalists covering religion. In the late 1990s, RNA had created a related entity called Religion Newswriters Foundation, a move that allowed it to receive grants from foundations such as Lilly and Templeton. So RNF and RNA stepped in to rescue RNS. By 2011, the news service was part of RNF — and had become a partially nonprofit organization.

In addition to operating the national news service, RNF also administers scholarships and operates Religion Link, a resource for journalists reporting on religion. As part of RNS' business strategy, the news service also launched five local "Faith & Values" websites in Hartford, Connecticut; Wilmington, North Carolina; Toledo, Ohio; Spokane, Washington; and Columbia, Missouri. Four of the sites begin operating independently after June 1, 2014. (The site in Missouri will continue as a collaboration with the Center on Religion & the Professions.

None of this has been easy, and challenges remain, says Mason.

The first task they were faced with was replacing a clunky content management system that crashed constantly and contained 20,000 pieces of untagged text and photos. Anyone who has ever worked in digital media can tell you: Dealing with that situation is a big mess. But the RNS website is now stable and attracting traffic — which means it is now in a position to attract more advertising.

But its biggest issue, says Mason, is the same as other public charities. “We’re expected to have a diversity of funding and public support. And the biggest challenge is that news is a very hard thing to get donors to emotionally invest in and support.

“It’s not the same thing as starving children or people with mental illnesses or other issues that stir emotion-based support from donors,” she said. “It’s hard to convince them that including religion in the mix of news is a vital activity that needs public support.”

It may not be easy — but as the idea of nonprofit watchdog journalism gains traction elsewhere, RNS could act as a beacon for other media outlets.

“There’s no safe haven in news right now,” she said. “But I think we’re getting a lot closer.”



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