I chat August 9, 2004 with Gustav Niebuhr, the former religion correspondent at The New York Times, and now an associate professor in Religion & the Media at Syracuse.
"What are some obstacles to covering religion seriously for a major secular newspaper?"
"One is the amount of imagination you bring to covering religion. How can you tell a story in a way that's not just going to confirm peoples conceptions and stereotypes. You should go into any story prepared to set aside the conventional wisdom and be surprised."
"You didn't have a problem getting editors to take religion pieces seriously?"
"Not at all. I was hired for my expertise. Editors were interested in what I was doing. Contrary to stereotypes about newspapers, I found interest in religion widespread."
"The stereotype in the newsroom is that religion is the last beat you go before you die."
"Right. I was determined to bust it. In 1985, I heard about a religion job opening up on the Atlanta Journal Constitution in 1985. I had never thought about covering religion before. I decided I was going to get that job. It took months, but I got it. One of the first things I did was go down to Central America and look at the growth of conservative evangelical churches."
"I heard you were not happy at The New York Times and that's why you quit."
"Is that what Avi Shafran said?"
"He was one who said it on the record."
"Uh oh. I had a great time at The New York Times, but there were changes at the Times [when Howell Raines took over as editor]. Let it go at that.
"I was hired by Joe Lelyved, who I consider the finest journalist I've ever known.
"People can emphasize the negative stuff. But after you've done something for a while, you want to try something different. I wanted to teach.
"Writing for daily newspaper is exciting. I do recall an encounter with Paul Wilkes. I admire him and I enjoyed his book, And They Shall Be My People. He said to me, you've got to put your thoughts between two covers. I've used that book in classes I've taught. I think it is an interesting example of good journalism about a religious institution.
"Sometimes it is good to be on the outside when covering a story. I remember a big story when I was at the Atlanta Journal Constitution was a big war among Southern Baptists. A lot of the places I went, people would ask me straight up, are you a Southern Baptist? I said no. I don't care where they were coming from, they relaxed. They said good, you don't have a dog in this fight.
"I never felt comfortable talking to people about my own religious identity. I thought it was better that people know me as a journalist.
"I found the religion beat endlessly fascinating. A lot of the people in it, unlike politicians, had not been spoken to before. You're talking about things that some people hold very close. You could have unusual, fresh, and intimate conversations with people."