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.
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.