As EIC of Religion News Service is ousted, staff fears loss of editorial control

The school of journalism at University of Missouri, where RNS is affiliated. Photo: CameliaTWU/flickr.

Early in the morning on Monday, April 23, members and followers of the “God beat” awoke to upsetting news. “I am no longer at @RNS, and that’s about all I can say,” tweeted Jerome Socolovsky, until then the editor in chief of Religion News Service. “It was an honor to lead such a dazzling news team.”

His departure—later revealed to be a firing—seemed to come out of nowhere. But current and former staff members say it has, in fact, been a long time coming: the culmination of months of tension between Socolovsky and RNS Publisher Tom Gallagher, whom many believe has taken control over the newsroom.

“Jerome has seen the slow erosion of his duties as editor in chief at RNS since Mr. Gallagher was hired,” says Kimberly Winston, a contract reporter who covered atheism, secularism, and humanism for RNS. She resigned on Monday in protest. “I feel like journalism is a calling, and they crossed a line,” Winston tells CJR. “If you cross a line, it’s more than personal. It’s my calling. I just felt that I had to go.”

 

Religion News Service was founded in 1934 as an independent, non-profit, and non-sectarian news affiliate of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. It changed ownership several times, acquired first by The United Methodist Reporter in 1983 and then by Newhouse News Service in 1994, according to its website.

In 2011, it was bought by the Religion News Foundation, a non-profit educational and charitable arm of Religion News Association, a 501(c)6 trade association. All of the organizations—the service, the foundation, and the association—are based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. (Disclosure: because I am a reporter who writes about religion, I am a dues-paying member of the Religion News Association.) Religion News Service acts primarily as a wire service selling subscriptions to other publications, but it also distributes press releases and conducts polling on religious life in the United States.  

Sign up for CJR's daily email

“The country’s awash in religious media but there’s nothing else like RNS,” says Laurie Goodstein, a national religion correspondent for The New York Times. “It’s the AP of religion news, it’s a daily report covering news about all religious faiths without promoting any religion in particular.”

The RNS staff is small but determined, covering stories that range from allegations of misconduct against a local pastor, to evangelical leaders discussing the future of the movement, to American Muslim and Jewish opposition to newly confirmed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The website also publishes a range of opinion and commentary from regular freelancers and prominent figures in the religion world. While no similar religion news wire service exists, RNS often competes for attention with The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Atlantic, which all have strong religion desks.

ARCHIVES: Why the religion beat poses unique challenges for some reporters

Publisher Tom Gallagher, who is also president and CEO of the Religion News Foundation, was hired in 2016. Gallagher, an attorney and former Goldman Sachs vice president, was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter from 2007 to 2016. Before that, he worked as an administrator for Mother Teresa’s religious order, Missionaries of Charity, where he helped create a New York State not-for-profit organization, the Mother Teresa of Calcutta Center. He also assisted the cause of her canonization by “investigating a potential miracle attributable to Mother Teresa,” according to his LinkedIn profile.

Several staffers tell CJR they were wary of Gallagher’s lack of hard-news experience when he was hired but believed his business acumen would be useful to the organization. “It was kind of a Hail Mary pass, one we all thought was necessary at the time, because of industry issues, because we’re all looking for a way to survive, especially as a nonprofit,” Winston says of Gallagher’s hiring.

Winston wasn’t the only one to protest Socolovsky’s firing. The day after he announced he was sacked, Managing Editor Lauren Markoe, who joined the staff as a reporter in 2011, also handed in her notice. “With tremendous sadness, and under no pressure to resign, I am voluntarily leaving a news organization where I have proudly served as a reporter and editor for the past seven years,” she says of her decision.

Socolovsky says he wasn’t given a reason for his firing until nearly a week later, when he met with board members and they said the decision was based on his disagreements with Gallagher. “Tom and I had serious differences over the editorial vision for RNS,” Socolovsky tells CJR. “He challenged the accuracy of a fact in a recent story we published and I stood by the reporter who wrote it.”

Nicole Neroulias Gupte, chair of the publication’s board of managers, writes in a statement that the decision was based on “careful consideration and in the best interests of our organization.” The board named G. Jeffrey MacDonald, a longtime freelancer, as interim editor while it searches for a new permanent editor.

 

‘Tom [Gallagher] and I had serious differences over the editorial vision for RNS,’ [ousted Editor] Socolovsky tells CJR.

 

Gallagher declined to comment specifically on the board’s decision to terminate Socolovsky, saying he wasn’t in the room when it was made.

“It’s safe to say that, based on my knowledge of RNS’s 84-year history, morale is at an all-time low,” says Debra Mason, founding director of the Religion News Foundation and publisher emeritus of Religion News Service.

Since joining the publication, current and former staff members say Gallagher has attempted to influence editorial decisions, thereby threatening the publication’s editorial independence and integrity.

“Over the months, there has been an increasing effort to centralize Tom’s control over Jerome and over the staff,” says Mason.

In his capacity as editor in chief, Socolovsky wrote a weekly email to Religion News Service subscribers called “Sunday Morning Editor’s Note.” The email typically contained a digest of the week’s most interesting stories and an introduction written in the first person by Socolovsky.

On October 8, Socolovsky’s introduction contained a link to a CJR story about the impact that Facebook and Google have had on the news business. “So here’s my ask,” Socolovsky wrote to readers. “Don’t let Facebook and Google decide what news you get—which they do based on data you’ve most likely given them unwittingly, through your browsing history and other information they can track.”

Ten days later, Gallagher wrote to Socolovsky, in an email obtained by CJR, “Given your publishing of personal opinions in the Sunday week-in-review email, e.g., the unwise public criticism of both Facebook—a key partner of ours and a key relationship to the AP—and Google for which I received a complaint, you are now prohibited from publishing personal stories, histories or opinions in the Sunday week-in-review marketing email.”

Gallagher also wrote, “I need to review and approve of your Friday Editor’s Note and any other proposed email to the staff prior to it’s [sic] distribution,” referring to internal communications between Socolovsky and staff members.

Socolovsky responded, “I am more than willing to let you review any part of my weekly email to staff that affects the business side, but I cannot comply with censorship and intimidation,” according to an email obtained by CJR. “I am disappointed by your bullying tactics, including your repeated assertion in yesterday’s call that my position here is ‘unsustainable,’” he added.

Asked to comment on this exchange, Gallagher tells CJR, “I haven’t seen that email since that time, but I recall the following: Jerome did not have authority to use our marketing emails as a personal platform to issue personal opinions and public complaints on behalf of RNS. RNS does not issue editorials. Jerome apologized for doing this; after that, I said I needed to review these marketing emails prior to them being sent to our subscribers.”

According to former and current staff members, Gallagher was often openly critical of Socolovsky in work settings.

“Jerome would go on vacation and [Gallagher] would call individual reporters and badmouth Jerome and try to get us to badmouth Jerome,” says Winston.

“Almost every one of our phone calls included complaints about Jerome Socolovsky,” says Wendy Gustofson, a marketing director who worked across Religion News Association, Religion News Foundation, and Religion News Service and was let go (due to budgetary constraints, she says) from her position in November. Gustofson also says she felt Gallagher devalued and dismissed her work raising revenue and selling subscriptions. “There was no plan,” she says.

Gallagher tells CJR that he has expressed frustrations “related to our analytics, including Jerome’s lack of concern…. Jerome joined RNS as editor-in-chief in November 2015. We have lost 35 percent of our business subscribers since 2016 and our website traffic has suffered,” he writes via email. “All of this leads to a decrease in advertising and sponsored content revenue.” (Several hours after sending this statement, Gallagher wrote back to CJR with an updated version of the quote, no longer mentioning Socolovsky by name.)

Over the past year, Gustofson and other staff members have voiced their concerns about Gallagher to the Religion News Service board of managers, but many say their complaints have gone unheard.

In August, Gallagher upset staff members by removing from the Religion News Service website an opinion column written by Richard Mouw, a prominent evangelical theologian and former president of Fuller Theological Seminary. The column was framed as a public letter to prominent evangelical Jerry Falwell, Jr., inviting him to reconsider his public support of Trump. It was removed under pressure from Falwell’s lawyer.

In an email obtained by CJR, staff members wrote to Gallagher, “We understand the pressures you face in a toxic political and journalistic environment. But we feel this action contravenes standard journalistic practice, hurts our credibility, and damages the reputation of our 83-year-old news service—the only in the world devoted exclusively to coverage of religion.”

A week later, the Religion News Service board of managers weighed in, telling staff members via email “that the column contained errors that needed to be corrected,” and that Mouw had declined to make them. (CJR found a Washington Post story from 1980 corroborating Mouw’s version of the column.) Bob Smietana, who chaired the board at the time, disputes the staff’s characterization of events, telling CJR it was the board’s decision, and not Gallagher’s, to remove the column.

In September, staff members met with the board members at the annual Religion News Association conference to talk about about the Mouw column and what they viewed as other problematic aspects of Gallagher’s leadership, but some felt the effort backfired.

In October, Gallagher sent out a note on the organization’s internal chat platform making several new policy assertions, including: “RNS and RNF staff are not encouraged to contact members of the board for a host of reasons, including but not limited to, it’s a best practice, the staff run the risk of the perception of insubordination, avoids role confusion, and reduces the risk that the board D&O insurance may not apply to board decisions and thereby placing board members at risk of personally being financially responsible for a breach of their duties as board members, if board members are drawn into day-to-day management issues.”

The note—and the word “insubordination” in particular—had a chilling effect on staff, who took it to mean they could be fired for contacting board members.

Kevin Eckstrom, who served as editor in chief of RNS from 2006 to 2015, tells CJR that he maintained “total” editorial independence from both the publisher and the board during his tenure. Of the relationship between staff members and the board, he says, “It was an open door both ways, by design.”

 

The note—and the word ‘insubordination’ in particular—had a chilling effect on staff.

 

Also in the fall, RNS staff members were informed of a pending deal to establish a joint religion news desk with the Associated Press and The Conversation. The initiative is to be funded by the Lilly Foundation, which provides most of RNS’s grant money, according to sources familiar with the deal.

Some staffers said they didn’t feel comfortable raising concerns about Gallagher after that, not wanting the funder to sense leadership problems and back out. “We all wanted and want that deal to go through because it will mutually benefit all involved,” says Winston. “The whole time this conflict has gone and that deal has been in the works that has been the subtext, the underlying current.”

In April, Gallagher sent a note to all staff members about an RNS story covering a protest at a talk given by Reverend James Martin. In it, he said he had been contacted by the Archdiocese of Chicago, which disputed the number of protesters reported in the piece. Staff members said they felt uncomfortable with what they viewed as the publisher interjecting in the editorial process on behalf of a religious organization.

Gallagher tells CJR that when he emailed Socolovsky and Markoe about the story, Socolovsky responded that the reporter was on vacation, that he trusted her, and that “she did a good job.”

“It’s terribly alarming that any editor would have such a cavalier response to a disputed fact in his staff’s reporting, without any effort to review,” Gallagher says. “Accuracy is our most cherished value. This is Journalism 101. If the top editor is dismissive of requests for corrections or clarifications, then RNS might as well shut down.”

On several occasions, staff members expressed concern over the possible perception that Gallagher favors Catholic-leaning coverage, something they worry could impact the publication’s reputation as nonsectarian.

As a wire service, RNS also distributes paid press releases to a subscriber list. In 2017, Gallagher gave away three free press releases to Catholic organizations without notifying marketing director Gustofson ahead of time, she says. Giving away free press releases wasn’t an uncommon practice among Gallagher’s predecessors, according to Gustofson. What was different in these instances is that Gallagher gave her no explanation.

“When you’re a 501(c)3, you should be accountable for what you’re doing, and ready to explain why you give free products to some while charging full rate to others,” she says. “How does this look to our Buddhist press release clients? How does this look to our Jewish press release clients? Or even the author of a book who spent what they considered a great deal of money?”

Gallagher tells CJR of the decision, “as CEO and Publisher, it’s in my purview to determine, based on our budget and marketing strategy, when to make this exception.”

According to Winston, Gallagher also tried to assign reporters specific stories, often about Catholicism. “That made many of us uncomfortable,” says Winston.

Gallagher says he believes RNS’s coverage of Catholicism has “been suffering” since the departure of a Catholic beat reporter in July 2017, pointing to the wire’s lack of a full-time reporter in Rome. (RNS currently has four full-time national reporters, and freelance correspondents in Paris, Jerusalem, and Nairobi, according to its website.)

Current staff members who spoke to CJR on condition of anonymity say they believe Gallagher lacks leadership skills, is extremely slow to communicate, and has not articulated any of his plans for Religion News Service with the team. Several current and former staffers say he frequently mentions that he is a lawyer, creating a fear that he is litigious.

 

Some staffers now fear that the legacy of Religion News Service—providing independent and non-sectarian reporting on religion, spirituality, and ethics—is under threat. This fear has resonated outside the bounds of the small organization.

Gallagher tells CJR that he plans to share “exciting news” in the coming months that “will be transformative, both for RNS and the journalism industry.”

“In today’s market, a news wire service that produces fewer than five stories a day and rarely breaks news is not a sustainable business model,” he writes via email. “Despite hearing this feedback from readers and subscribers, including a frank conversation with USA Today in late 2016, Jerome has continued to focus on producing reflective pieces rather than breaking news.”

“RNS has had a wonderful history, but it doesn’t have a sacred right to exist,” he writes. “Like the rest of the journalism world, we must strive for a more sustainable business model — one of the key reasons I was hired to be publisher.”

The publication’s history as a secular, independent, and nonsectarian source of religion news is exactly what staff members worry about losing. Religion reporters outside of RNS hold the same fears.

“That’s why RNS is so vital and so delicate,” says Goodstein, the New York Times religion reporter. “Because to do what they do requires immense journalistic experience and judgment. To cover religion news without fear or favor, impartially. My fear now is that that could be at risk.”

“For this to happen to RNS is a big deal to a number of people beyond our official subscribers, because we’re kind of the last ones standing that serve medium and small publications,” says Winston. “If our editorial independence goes down, that’s a big loss.”

Update: This story has been updated to reflect a statement from Bob Smietana after publication. 

ICYMI: French nonprofit houses refugee journalists, defends press freedom

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Stephanie Russell-Kraft is a Brooklyn-based freelance reporter covering the intersections of religion, culture, law, and gender. She has written for The New Republic, The Atlantic, Religion & Politics, and Religion Dispatches, and is a regular contributing reporter for Bloomberg Law. Follow her on Twitter: @srussellkraft.