The Golden Rolodex

By Mark Pinsky

Imagine a time before the Internet and the explosion of cable television news and opinion shows. In those days, journalists looking for academic authorities for their stories relied on something called the “Golden Rolodex.” This was an informal list of easily reachable and articulate professors, experts and authors whom we could call. Only death or disgrace could dislodge those on it to make room for others.

Thus, for years, no story about the presidency was complete without a quote from Princeton’s Fred Greenstein; no story about television and popular culture without the wisdom of Robert Thompson of Syracuse University. In religion, the sagacity came from Martin Marty of the University of Chicago (Protestants) and Jesuit Father Tom Reese (Catholics). Journalism lore had it that these sources were so ubiquitous that certain newsrooms had quotas limiting the number of times they could be cited in a given year.

On a local level, religion reporters developed their own versions of the Golden Rolodex, usually pastors of the largest churches in the major denominations and faiths; professors at area colleges or seminaries; and clergy they knew to be articulate and reachable on short notice. Once I was asked to lunch by the Rev. Charles Horton, then pastor of College Park Baptist Church, allied with the moderate faction of the Southern Baptist Convention. During the meal, he leaned over and said, “Mark, you know there is more than one Baptist church in town.” After that, I was cautious not to rely so much on First Baptist of Orlando, Central Florida’s largest megachurch, and its pastor, the Rev. Jim Henry, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

When Journalists Call

Here are a few tips on making the most of speaking with reporters.

Today, things are different, sort of. Universities still love it when their faculty members are quoted, especially in national media, since visibility tends to translate into financial support and high-value applicants. Congregations like to see their clergy in the local paper, since this kind of exposure may attract new members. But the Golden Rolodex is now much more amorphous because of Google, blogs and other Internet-based services like ProfNet that help connect reporters with sources. For this reason, those being consulted for the first time—locally or nationally—might find it helpful to understand the way the news process works, at least on the print side.

Certain things help. Pastors can try to establish relationships with religion writers at the local paper by asking to have lunch or inviting them to speak at the church in a non-worship setting. Let them know you are willing and able to help them, on the record or off, and not simply in order to raise your congregation’s profile— which may nonetheless be an incidental benefit.

Another enticement is being the author of a book (but not one that is self-published) with a title that instantly establishes your authority to speak on the topic at hand. These are sometimes called “credentializers.” Examples include Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America’s Largest Churches by Scott Thumma and Dave Travis; Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church by Mark DeYmaz; Global Pentecostalism by Donald Miller; and Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith by Diana Butler Bass. On the other hand, titles that are arcane, abstract or ethereal are useless as signifiers, although the title is usually the publisher’s call.

A book by a local pastor that gains some traction beyond a paper’s circulation area is usually an easy sell for a feature, one that puts the author at the center of the story, rather than simply being quoted. These feature stories, while at the bottom of the media food chain, can be picked up around the country, as well as by broadcast outlets. Any religion book that becomes a crossover best seller, like The Purpose-Driven Life, is also an easy sell for journalists.

Breaking onto today’s version of the Golden Rolodex is often an odd combination of serendipity, chemistry and personal relationships.

In August of 2003, for example, I had just returned from covering the triennial general convention of the Episcopal Church, USA, in Minneapolis. There, clergy and lay delegates had just ratified the decision of the Diocese of New Hampshire to name an openly gay man, the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, as their bishop. It was late in the afternoon and I was at my desk at the Orlando Sentinel, working on a wrap-up analysis. Just as I came to the place in my story where I needed one of those long-view quotes about what had happened, an e-mail popped onto my computer screen from the Divinity School offering just such an observation from David Steinmetz. I needed the perspective the quote offered and—I’m happy to call on Duke. So I did. The conversation went well, and I got my summary observation, which I used at the very bottom of the story, what we call the “kicker.”

This is what it said:

The role of gays and lesbians in church life is just the latest in a long line of issues that churches have fought over and, sometimes, even divided over, said David Steinmetz, a church historian at Duke University’s Divinity School in Durham, N.C.

In many ways, schism has been one of the most powerful forces shaping Christianity throughout history.

Churches have split over all manner of issues, from seemingly trivial squabbles to profound doctrinal disagreements, Steinmetz said.

In one case, a reformed church in the Netherlands divided over the question of whether the snake in the Garden of Eden actually talked to Eve as reported in Genesis.

Twenty years from now the debate over homosexuality may still be raging. “I don’t think it will have gone away,” Steinmetz said.

“It may result in a reconfiguration in mainline Protestantism…. The gravitational pull not to go that far is strong. People have split for all manner of reasons.”

Just what the journalist ordered, and professors like to see—more than just a phrase or a sentence excised from any meaningful context.

For some reason, in our short conversation, David and I hit it off beyond the typical businesslike, source-reporter exchange. I knew that my Episcopal coverage was getting picked up around the country, and I told David that others might see it and call him for similar comment. I also raised the possibility that he might be asked to write an op-ed column on the subject. He was intrigued, and asked what that might entail. I am asked this question frequently by academics and authors. Rarely, however, do people actually pay attention to what I tell them.

With the Amos Ragan Kearns chair, numerous academic titles, and a field of expertise (church history) broad enough to allow him to comment on a spectrum of religious and denominational subjects, David was perfectly positioned to become a “utility infielder” of opinion. It also helped that he seemed to be ideologically and doctrinally centrist.

I told David that he would need to be able to make his point in 650-750 words. Quote no more than one source—and that briefly. Editors are interested in your opinion, not your citations. (As painful as it may be for pastors, avoid quoting Scripture at all costs; reporters are loath to quote someone quoting someone else.) Write as if you are addressing incoming freshman, and not the brightest of them.

David was an apt pupil. He listened and grasped the voice in which he needed to speak, and it turned out he had a gift for this sort of thing. I put him together with our op-ed editor, Mike Murphy, and they hit it off as well. I explained to David that the Sentinel could only pay him a pittance for his columns, but the real value was that Mike would post them on several news services we contributed to. That has had an amplifier effect, and brought him to the attention of larger media outlets.

Not all interactions play out this well. Some religion professors have little patience with our journalistic and intellectual shortcomings. Christian Smith, formerly of the University of North Carolina and now of the University of Notre Dame, went out of his way to insult all religion writers as shallow and inept in the conservative evangelical journal Books and Culture. Some of his criticisms were justified; others gratuitous. In any event, it is highly unlikely many of us will trouble him in the future.

David was not satisfied with individual success. He understood the value of media exposure and contacts for the Divinity School, and pushed for the school to be included in the Duke Media Fellows program. This is a well-proven way to reach out to religion journalists by bringing them to the school for a month to become acquainted with the faculty. One of the reasons I was anxious to come to the Divinity School as Media Fellow in 2006 was to convince Grant Wacker, a world authority on Pentecostalism, that he could trust me enough to take my calls. The program also gives students, faculty and staff a chance to hear about journalists’ take on the church.

One more thing about these calls, which applies to local pastors as well as to professors and authors. After a positive encounter with a religion journalist, offering your home and cell phone numbers and your personal e-mail is an act of trust that is likely to redound to your benefit manifold, particularly when a news story breaks after hours.

Mark I. Pinsky T’70, is religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel and author of A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed (Westminster John Knox. 2006), among other titles. A former media fellow at the Divinity School, he was a Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science & Religion during spring 2008.

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