The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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Paulson discusses religion, journalism

Michael Paulson (Courtesy of

Michael Paulson is currently a national reporter covering the religion beat for the New York Times. Paulson’s passion for reporting started in his seventh grade journalism class and grew as he wrote a political beat for several publications including the San Antonio Light and the Seattle Post.

When Paulson was hired at the Boston Globe he found his niche writing on the religion beat. Paulson has won numerous awards for his religion pieces, including winning a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Catholic priest scandal in 2003.

The Daily Campus: How did you start writing about religion?

Paulson: It was a combination of the subject and the paper and the town. They were all appealing to me. The Globe was looking for an outsider to cover religion at the time. They gambled on me and I gambled on religion.

They were looking for somebody that was new to the beat and would have new ways of thinking to cover it

The Daily Campus: What “new ways” of thinking did you bring to the beat?

Paulson: I tried to focus on what academics were calling ‘live religion,’ the way religion was playing out in the lives of the Globes readers. I wanted to write more about people and less about institution

The Daily Campus: I know you spent some time as an editor at the Times, what made you start reporting again?

Paulson: I loved editing, but I missed writing my own stories and getting out. I love the subject of religion, I find it fascinating.

The Daily Campus: How do you find your stories?

Paulson: It’s sort of harder to get your arms around the subject in a much broader geographic area…But in Boston I read as much as I could from publications about religions-newspapers, magazine, web, blogs, twitter. I reached out to people, academics, clergy and consultants, anyone who is thinking about what’s happening in religion in Boston and in America.

The Daily Campus: What obstacles have you faced in writing about religion?

Paulson: A large obstacle is that newspapers have been struggling financially for some years now, and news organizations have fewer resources. But as you know, the religion beat generally has been hit pretty hard over the last decade.

And then, you know, I would say religion remains an important subject to newspapers but not as important as politics or crime. You always have to make the argument for why your stories matters as you may not have to for other subjects.

I also always try to be attentive when people are saying what they believe and attentive when they are explaining what they believe. There’s a sensitivity attached to the subject when religion is involved.

The Daily Campus: What is the easiest part about your beat?

Paulson: One of the things that is kind of refreshing about it is that people are more open and more candid about [religion]. There are fewer intermediaries; fewer spin than there is in politics. The public relations apparatus tends to be more modest in the world of religion that the world of politics.

The Daily Campus: While on this beat were there any stories that stand out to you, stories that you really enjoyed writing or changed your perspective on something?

Paulson: There’s so many…I spent a long time at the Globe writing about the clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. It was painful, but it was also rewarding in the sense that it felt like it really made a difference, what I was writing.

There was also a small group of women in a struggling area. Women who had been praying together and decided to turn their prayer circle into a church out of their garage…I wrote a series of stories and that was fantastic, because it feels good to get to know people really way to tell their stories in detail.

The Daily Campus: Have you been able to keep your personal beliefs separate from what you write? Or has it effected your beliefs?

Paulson: As a reporter you end up writing a lot about things that go wrong, no matter what you’re reporting, and in religion the abuse and various kinds of misconduct and problems that are comforted by clergy members or other people of the church more broadly.

So there’s something to be aware of, but I think I’ve more or less kept it in perspective.

The Daily Campus: What do you think about specific religious publications?

Paulson: I think they play an important role and I think the secular news media also plays an important role because it’s covering these groups and these beats from the outside. I would say there’s still quite a bit of exciting journalism about religion.

The Daily Campus: What changes do you want to see in religion and journalism?

Paulson: I want the news media to remember that religion still matters, enormously, to a large number of Americans. And the fate of religion in America is an important story to watch and share. And I want religious people to understand the critical role the news media plays in informing the public in what happens and facilitating discussion on important issues.

The Daily Campus: What do you think is in the future for religion and journalism?

Paulson: I do feel things are a little more stable than they were a couple years ago right now. But I think many traditional organizations will cover the beats knowing they are important. I think there will continue to be innovation online.

There has been a fair amount of experimentation with religion news online with some fairly conspicuous failures. And as the experimentation continues and I think that’s important, because the audience is so heavy online that we find a way to continue to
be online.

The Daily Campus: What advice do you have for reporters who want to write religion pieces or do a religion beat?

Paulson: The first advice I would give would be to make sure to pay attention to the basic journalism skills. It’s important to pay attention to a subject and learn as much about it as you can.

The second piece of advice is to be open minded about what kind of outlets you’re willing to work at. It’s a changing landscape and we all have to be open to imagining the landscape more broadly than a few years ago.

But be hopeful, it’s a great subject and there’s a lot of people hungry for infomation
and insight.

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