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National Religion News Service pilots online religion news project in Spokane

Religion News, LLC, a new nonprofit based at the University of Missouri, has started Religion News Spokane (RNS), as the first of 20 websites around the country to provide “secular online coverage of religion news.”

It will feed local news into the national multi-media website of its partner, the 78-year-old, Washington, D.C.-based Religion News Service (RNS). Then RNS will send it to its subscribers, which include 100 secular daily newspapers.

Tracy Simmons
Tracy Simmons, back right, photographs march.

Religion News, LLC, received a three-year $3.5 million Lilly Endowment start-up grant includes setting up and designing 20 community websites and salaries of community editors, said Tracy Simmons, editor and manager of Spokane’s site.

She explained that in 2009, Advance Publications, Inc., which had purchased RNS in 1994, sought to sell it. So the Religion Newswriters Foundation, the charitable educational arm of the Religion Association (RNA), created Religion News, LLC, which gained its nonprofit status June 1, 2011, acquired the for-profit RNS and returned it to nonprofit status.

“We will cover religion from a secular standpoint because our audience is secular media,” Tracy said.

In her 10-year career, she has experienced the decline of religion coverage in mainstream media. 

Tracy, who earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in theology in 2003 at Eastern New Mexico University and a master’s there in 2008, was religion and education reporter for the Victoria Advocate in Texas, education reporter and online religion editor for the Lubbock Avalanche Journal, and religion reporter for the Waterbury, Conn., Republican-American, until they ended their faith section.

In 2009, she started a multimedia website with blogs and daily religion news.  In August, she moved to Spokane to start Religion News Spokane. and Columbus, Mo., may be the second and third “hyperlocal” sites.  Tracy explained that “hyperlocal” is a journalism textbook term that originally referred to one zip code area. 

RNS is using the term to refer to one community.  She sees Spokane and Spokane Valley as her coverage area.

RNA president Steve Maynard was recently quoted in an RNS online press release saying that as newspaper circulation has fallen and publications have struggled for profits, religion reporting became a lower priority.

RNA, he said, informed members in May that the news service would not seek to gain a competitive edge over other RNA members nor would sites be established in areas where dailies have religion reporters.

Debra Mason, executive director of RNA and the Religion Newswriters Foundation, and a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, said in a May 18 online press release that the goal is to maintain and expand coverage of religion news in small and mid-sized media markets.

She said she envisions that the program will provide opportunities for religion news writers, expand RNS coverage and build on existing social networks to create “an economically viable model for local religion news.”

Although Tracy chose to come to Spokane to be near family in Pullman and Western Washington, she said that Spokane has more than 435 congregations and faith groups.  She is aware that Spokane is in the None Zone—where most people checked “none” in a survey on religious preferences.

With local feeds from community sites, the RNS newspaper and online subscribers will receive more news, she said.

Recently, Tiffany McCallen, national community manager in Columbus, Ohio, told The Fig Tree their journalism model is like mainstream media. In covering religion news of all faiths and topics, it includes how controversial national issues and how everyday faith stories affect local communities.

She said the goal is for local sites to be self-sustaining, supported by ads, donations and other fund raising.

Religion News Spokane has started a construction website and social networking through Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare.  Tracu is also recruiting volunteer bloggers “to generate community-based content,” she said.

Tracy, who grew up in a born-again Christian home and attended a United Church of Christ church when she was in Connecticut, said the new website is expected to launch in early 2012.

For information, call 240-1830 or email