Why Is The Lily Endowment and the Henry Luce Foundation Funding Religion Journalism?

About six months ago, I wrote a piece asking if we've entered a new era of fragmented journalism funding, noting that, "rather than give newsrooms, nonprofits, and schools a check for broad, no-strings-attached journalism funding, foundations seem to be focusing more attention and resources on coverage of specific issues."

First off, I'd like to amend that statement. "Fragmented" sounds a bit too pejorative; a better word would be "specialized." Secondly, I stand by the underlying sentiment. As my colleague David Callahan notes, the "age of big foundations is almost over." They'll be replaced by smaller and more nimble organizations with a specialized approach to funding specific issues.

But back to my original premise: This move toward specialization is particularly notable in the field of journalism funding. The previous piece noted that the Walter Cronkite School rolled out a program devoted solely to business reporting, thanks to a Donald W. Reynolds Foundation grant. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation expanded its footprint in the niche world of health journalism.

And now comes word out of Southern California that a $1.25 million gift from Lilly Endowment Inc. and a Henry Luce Foundation grant will expand online religion coverage at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Lilly awarded $1 million for a project titled "Remapping American Christianities," while Luce awarded $250,000 to pursue an effort called "Innovating Coverage of Theology."

The grants will fund a new editor and freelance-reporting budget for Religion Dispatches, the award-winning online journalism magazine based at the school. Diane Winston, holder of the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at USC Annenberg, will direct the effort. As the press release notes, the magazine is one element in the Knight Chair’s ongoing effort to advance "specialized" — there's that word again! — reporting.

But why did both foundations feel compelled to open their check books?

The short answer, if you journalists out there can handle it, is that some journalists just don't get it. Facts are facts. Most journalists aren't entirely religious and they may view "red state" religion or any kind of fervent religious devotion with a kind of perplexed anthropological inquisitiveness that religious people find patronizing. (It also makes for bad journalism).

Is that a harsh assessment? Sure. But don't just take our word for it. "The next generation of reporters should understand the importance of religion in the daily lives of Americans and learn how ordinary people look for and find meaning, identity and purpose," Winston said, far more diplomatically.

In addition, the projects aim to address rapidly changing cross currents in the expansive and nebulous sphere of Christianity. Winston is blunt, noting that "the old, monochromatic paradigm of Christianity in America no longer applies." Lastly, technology has democratized the theological experience. Anyone with an inquisitive mind and an internet connection can delve into the rich and nuanced world of Christian theology, creating "more democratic and participatory discussions that change the way people construct meaning."

David Brooks recently wrote a column in the Times suggesting that the U.S. may be overdue for another Great Awakening. If it does, in fact, come to pass, we can at least rest assured that the press will be all over it.