Two leaders in religion and media join forces this fall as the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism becomes the new home of Religion Dispatches (RD), an influential daily online magazine. Diane Winston, who holds the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at USC, will spearhead the nonprofit publication, in operation since 2008.
“When the opportunity came up to work with RD, we jumped on it,” Winston said. “It’s a secular journalistic enterprise that writes critically about religion, culture and politics, and that’s exactly in line with what the Knight Chair does. It’s a match made in heaven.”
Winston envisions RD as a laboratory for doing nonprofit journalism at a premier journalism school in a major research university. RD offers students opportunities to contribute to a well-trafficked and multimedia platform, design infographics for domestic and international news and develop social media campaigns. It also provides a publishing outlet for university faculty interested in writing for a general readership. Most critically, Winston sees RD as a case study for monetizing journalism that readers expect to get for free.
Originally conceived as an academic listserv on religion and politics, RD has evolved into an established online magazine featuring comment and essays by academics, activists and reporters. Major news outlets from The New York Times, The Atlantic and USA Today have regularly cited articles from RD. The site was a Webby nominee for two years running (in 2011 and 2012) and, with a readership of close to 5 million in 2012 alone, it is among the most widely read publications dedicated to religion journalism.
Winston will be joined by co-editors Evan Derkacz and Lisa Webster. Derkacz is a writer who formerly worked as editor for the award-winning news magazine AlterNet and as media editor for Tikkun magazine. Webster brings experience in both print and online media from New York’s Paper Magazine to Tricycle, a quarterly on Buddhism in America. Webster was also managing editor at Word, a pioneering Web publication now archived at the Museum of Modern Art.
RD’s arrival at USC Annenberg will provide an opportunity for journalism students to deepen their understanding of the religion beat.
“When students start writing about religion, they often do a shallow job because they don’t know what questions to ask,” Winston said. “They don’t understand the history, the theology, they don’t know the prayers and they have a thin understanding of religion.”
During the past few decades, mainstream coverage of religion has focused on the ultraconservative fringe. RD offers an alternative to what Winston refers to as “polarizing debate.”
“You can’t be a journalist in the 21st century without understanding the role of religion and politics and culture,” Winston said. “Whatever you are writing about, whether it’s covering what’s happening in Egypt or Syria or what’s happening locally in terms of human rights or LGBT issues — there are religious, spiritual and ethical dimensions to the stories.”
Winston hopes that students will use RD as a resource — whether working under the guidance of RD editors on local religion reporting or exploring new ways of using technology to tell stories. The site aims to work with Neon Tommy, Annenberg TV News and Annenberg Radio News to expand and enhance its multimedia offerings.
Winston is looking for exciting changes once the magazine migrates to a new USC Annenberg site.
“Once we do that, we can provide a lot more interactivity,” she said. “Religion Dispatches reminds readers that religion isn’t geeky, outdated or polarizing. It’s topical, engaging and very important in today’s world.”