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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of ReligionWriter.com, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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Blogs: Top Religion Reporter Says Blogging is Exciting, Draining and Obligatory

Gary Stern, religion reporter at the Gannett-owned Journal News, which serves three

New York counties, launched his blog, On Religion, last September on the newspaper’s website, LoHud.com. Posting three to four times a day, Gary, who won the Templeton Reporter of the Year award in 2006, said his blog gets about 7,000 hits a month, a rate on par with LoHud.com’s 45 other blogs (except its wildly popular Yankees blog, which gets 400,000 hits a month). According to the Religion Newswriters Association’s blog page, there are 17 other active religion reporters now keeping blogs.

Last week, ReligionWriter reached Gary, who was in the middle of reading Frank Lockwood’s latest post on Bible Belt Blogger, to talk about the relationship between bloggin and reporting.

ReligionWriter: How do you start your blogging day?

Gary Stern: Honestly, every day is different. Some days I already have a list of five or six things I want to write about. Some days I have nothing, so I check the AP or go to other blogs. I get a lot of stuff from email — I’m on God-knows-how-many email lists from religious organizations; I get dozens a day.

RW: How much is reading other people’s blogs a part of your own blog?

Gary: It’s a part but a small part. I don’t want to get into the habit of relying on any one thing, either other blogs or the wires or emails. I try to go to as many sources as I can.
RW: How do you decide what makes “good”material for the blog? Gary: That’s a difficult question. I have this vague notion of a New York audience, and I look for things I think would appeal to it. There are a lot of religious people around [here], but [the audience] is generally people who are interested in other faiths, relations between religious and questions of inclusiveness and tolerance. Items that either illustrate a New York way of thinking — or an opposite way of thinking — all these things I consider appropriate. But really, there’s no formula, it’s all over the place.

RW: Do you do original reporting that only appears on your blog?

: I do, and I’d like to do more of it — it’s a time issue. A few months ago, I was able to do something I really liked a lot when the Conservative Jewish rabbis had a two-day meeting in

New York City to decide on their policy toward homosexuality. At the end of the first day, somebody who took part in the meeting called me and described what the tenor of the meeting was like, what issues came up, etc. I wrote a 15-20 paragraph blog [entry] that I was able to get online half an hour after the meeting ending. It was information you couldn’t get anywhere else. To me, that’s ideal.

RW: Are you ever torn between posting information like that on your blog versus crafting it into a regular print story?

Gary: In that case, with the rabbis meeting, I knew that at the second day of the meeting, those issues would be resolved, [and I would write a story about it for the print edition.] So there was no reason to hold any of that stuff back [from the blog.] For other stories, I may put some things on blog — some color, anecdotes, a couple of juicy quotes – and then save the bulk of it for the paper the next day.

RW: Are you blogging in your “free time” on the job, or are you cutting back on the number of print stories you write?

Gary: I’m not cutting back on the number of stories, but it’s taking me longer to finish them. Right now, I’m in the middle of probably six or seven stories that I haven’t been able to finish, partly as a result of having to spend 90 minutes a day on the blog.

RW: Ninety minutes a day seems pretty efficient, given how often you’re posting and how polished it appears.

Gary: I’m conscious of the blog all day. I’m thinking even before I get here: “What’s the first one going to be? Is there a photo I might want to use? How am I going to open it up?” Even when I’m working on articles for paper, I’m always thinking about the blog. I put as much time into it as I can while I’m doing other things.

RW: Do you ever feel, “Now I have two jobs, but I’m being paid the same amount?”

Gary: Everybody feels that way; it’s the state of the business. We also just started a TV show three weeks ago. I spent almost the whole day yesterday going through video for a feature I’m doing, trying to write my first script, which is a whole new world. So now I’ve got the TV show and my blog and my old job.

RW: You said everyday you think about content, about art, about presentation for your blog. Do you feel like you’re the editor-in-chief of your own publication?

Gary: That’s a good question. In the newspaper world, you’re part of a team: you have an editor, you working with the photo department, with the graphics department and who-knows-else. You’re right — the blog is my own ballgame completely. It’s entirely up to me what I’m going to cover, what kind of depth I’m going to go into, what kind of variety I’m going to offer, how it’s going to look. That’s a good thing, and a bad thing.

RW: Good because it’s exciting and bad because it’s a lot of work?

Gary: Yes, that’s pretty much it. It’s fun, I enjoy doing it. Now and then, when I have a day to focus on the blog, I really get into it. I see why people who work on blogs full time are able to do something special, like Rocco Palmo does with his Whispers in the Loggia. But when you’re doing it on top of a traditional newspaper job, it’s just a lot of work.

RW: Can you sustain the amount of work you’re doing now on the blog?

Gary: I don’t really see that I have a choice. As long as I’m covering religion, I’ll be doing the blog. I was going crazy for a while, blogging six or seven times a day. In the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to keep to three or four. You’ve got to have some moderation.

RW: Why not have guest writers that take the burden off of you?

Gary: That’s just a question of coordination. I’ve been meaning, since probably November, to get some outside contributors, maybe some clergy from four or five faith traditions to contribute one post a month each. I still think it’s a good idea, I just haven’t had the time to it.

RW: Are there other difficulties of writing a blog while working as a journalist?

Gary: Blogs lend themselves to a point of view, so continuing to be a newspaper guy on the blog is a strange thing. People expect me to have point of view, and I continue to resist that — I wouldn’t want to do that. That makes my blog different from most of the blogs that are out there.

RW: How do you get reader feedback like that?

Gary: A lot of people email me directly, every day, rather than comment on the blog. I don’t know why that is.

RW: Do you reply to all those emails?

Gary: I try to answer all of them, but sometimes I just can’t. Like everything, it’s a question of time.

There Are 3 Responses So Far. »

  1. Good Q&A…thank you. I am considering a Blog on Faith and Work and this was helpful to me to get Gary’s perspective on balancing it with all of the current responsibilities we have.


  2. […] “Blogs: Top Religion Reporter Says Blogging is Exciting, Draining and Obligatory” […]

  3. […] First Birthday to ReligionWriter — this website went live a year ago today, featuring my interview with religion journalist and blogger Gary Stern. The day I launched the site was, of course, the […]

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