Instructor wins national award for community journalism


By Darin Watkins, Edward R. Murrow College of Communication

Tracy-Simmons-webSPOKANE, Wash. – A religious online media project started by a Washington State University instructor has won a national award for “Best Local Community Initiative” from the Local Media Association.

“This is really a unique, local initiative that identified a community need and responded,” wrote judges for the association, which is made up of 2,400 traditional news organizations that serve as the dominant sources of local news in their markets. “Though this is a startup, it offers lessons for other news media.”

Respectful religious dialogue

Spokane Faith and Values (SpokaneFaVS) was launched in 2012 by Tracy Simmons (, an instructor with The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at WSU’s Pullman campus.

The nonsectarian initiative partnered with the national Religion News Service, local Spokesman-Review newspaper and area universities to create a place for respectful dialogue on ethics, morals, values, politics and faith. The site has more than 50 writers offering opinions and viewpoints across a wide spectrum of religious ideologies.

“I think religion lends itself to the digital medium,” Simmons said. “People want to have these conversations in a safe and respectful environment.” Read more at

Fostering understanding face to face

Online discussions sometimes lead to in-person conversations – with panel discussions, pub or coffee talks, mixers and “faith feasts.”

“I didn’t want just a website offering the latest headlines and conversations,” Simmons said. “I wanted this to be a tool for starting offline conversations aimed at fostering understanding among people at a time when many conversations have grown so divisive.”

Simmons is an award-winning journalist specializing in religion reporting, digital entrepreneurship and social journalism.


AAR Honors Journalists for In-Depth Reporting on Religion

Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times, Tracy Simmons of the Waterbury (Conn.) Republican-American, and David Gibson, writing for the Star-Ledger of New Jersey and the Wall Street Journal, won the 2009 American Academy of Religion Awards for Best In-Depth Reporting on Religion. Goodstein won the contest for journalists at news outlets with more than 100,000 circulation or on the Web; Simmons for journalists at news outlets with less than 100,000 circulation; and Gibson for opinion writing.

The annual awards recognize “well-researched newswriting that enhances the public understanding of religion,” said John R. Fitzmier, Executive Director of the AAR. Founded in 1909, the AAR is the world’s largest association of academics who research or teach topics related to religion, with some 11,000 members in North America and abroad.

Goodstein submitted articles on the authorship of the Serenity Prayer; the battle in California over same-sex marriage; and a three-part series on Roman Catholic priests recruited from overseas to serve U.S. parishes. The judges highlighted Goodstein’s “unflinchingly honest quotes,” and praised her series on foreign Catholic clergy as a “sophisticated take on how the priest shortage plays out in everyday religious life.” “Too much religion writing is drily sociological. These three pieces really got to the heart of living and preaching the Gospel,” added one judge.

Simmons submitted articles on Christian sexual ethics; the 2008 Lambeth Conference and the split over homosexuality in the Episcopal Church; religious environmentalism; and the Green Bible. “In taking on hot-button issues — a Catholic nun whose liberal take on sexual ethics in the church won a national award, the Episcopal Church’s Lambeth debates, and a ‘green’ Bible — this writer shows a desire to include scholarly voices and give readers perspective,” said the judges, impressed with Simmons’ entries.

Gibson submitted opinion articles on defining secularism; Pope Benedict XVI’s vestments; and the abortion debate during the 2008 presidential campaign. “This was a ‘wow!’ entry from a journalist with a strong, sure voice and inviting writing style. The writer deserves a pair of Benedict’s red shoes for the deftness and depth of a piece on how the pope’s vestments, sometimes more than his words, offer clues to his papal agenda,” said one judge. “The article on abortion displayed a sensitive approach to this volatile issue, shedding a lot more light than heat,” remarked another.

In the more than 100,000 circulation or on the Web contest, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, writing for National Public Radio’s website, placed second, and Michael Paulson of the Boston Globe placed third. The judges praised Hagerty as a “great storyteller who knows how to get people to talk and then tells their stories so that you can’t put them down,” and Paulson for his strong, impressive reporting using “facts, figures, and personal stories” and “literary and historical insights” to inform readers.

In the less than 100,000 circulation contest, Brad A. Greenberg of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles placed second, and Brett Buckner of the Anniston (Ala.) Star placed third. The judges praised Greenberg for his “meticulousness,” adding “the hallmark of this writer was the immense amount of reporting that went into the pieces,” and Buckner for his “engaging writing style,” noting that “all of the pieces, in one way or another, offered a clear insight into spiritual experiences.”

In the opinion writing contest, Douglas Todd of the Vancouver Sun placed second, and Tom Krattenmaker, writing for USA Today, placed third. The judges praised Todd for taking on tough topics, adding he “dissects conventional wisdom and offers a new perspective,” and Krattenmaker for challenging popular belief and showing that “something new, something more complex and subtle is going on — a great goal for religion commentary.”

Each contestant submitted articles published in North America during 2008. Names of contestants and their news outlets were removed from submissions prior to judging. Each of the first-place winners receives $1,000. The judges for all three contests were Judith Cebula, director of Butler University’s Center for Faith and Vocation and a former religion reporter for the Indianapolis Star; Diane Connolly with ReligionLink, a former religion editor at the Dallas Morning News, and a member of the AAR’s Committee on the Public Understanding of Religion; and Robert F. Keeler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and editorial writer for Newsday.