Passing of the guard at the Associated Press; the rise of Ministry Watch and the Roys Report

Get Religion

May 11, 2021

By Julia Duin

The death of a well-known religion reporter; a new job announcement from a beat veteran and a spotlight on two feisty independent religion news organizations is what concerns me this week.

Tmatt had previously offered an update on the health of Rachel Zoll, a former Associated Press religion specialist who came down with glioblastoma, a brain cancer that has no cure, in early 2018. That was only a few months after another religion-beat pro, Jeffrey Weiss of the Dallas Morning News, died of the exact same malady.

Last week, Zoll died at the age of 55 at her home in Massachusetts. She reported on religion for AP for 17 years.

There have been lots of tributes, so I’ll spotlight this Associated Press obit atop the list.

Zoll covered religion in all its aspects, from the spiritual to the political, and her stories reached a global audience. But her influence was far greater than that. Other publications often followed her lead, and AP staffers around the world depended on her generosity and guidance.

Zoll was at the forefront of coverage of two papal transitions, the clergy sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, and tensions within many denominations over race, same-sex marriage and the role of women.

She often broke news, as in 2014, when she was the first to report Pope Francis’ appointment of Blase Cupich to become the new archbishop of Chicago.

Fellow GetReligionista Dick Ostling, who was at AP from 1998-2006, wrote this:

My partner Rachel was simply a delight to work with and a personality enjoyed by everyone who knew her – and who competed with her. But in broader and more historical terms she exemplified all that’s needed in reporting and especially with a complex and emotion-laden field like religion. She was of course quick and accurate but those are the basics for any Associated Press writer. And then, remarkably intelligent. She knew her stuff and knew she needed to learn ever more stuff to handle this beat. In a time of polarization and propaganda, she was fair to all, carefully non-partisan (or should we say non-sectarian) and a careful listener interested in getting peoples’ faith stories right. But no cheerleader. When scandal erupted, she energetically raked the muck. May her example radiate across the news business.

Zoll left AP just when it was receiving a large grant from the Lilly Foundation to boost its religion coverage by eight reporters and editors across several platforms. Bobby Ross described it here. Before this, Zoll and Ostling covered the beat for AP until Ostling was succeeded by Eric Gorski of the Denver Post. But Gorski didn’t stay long and when he left, that position was not filled.

(Long-time religion reporters may remember their predecessors included the legendary George Cornell, followed by David Briggs and then Julia Lieblich.)

Back to the AP hires; when the names of the four new reporters for AP’s “global religion team” were announced in September 2019, some of us were amazed that the hires involved people relatively new to the religion beat.

That was strange. A number of folks who’d been waiting in the wings for years for a choice religion reporting position to open up got their hopes dashed. And God knows, there’s very few full-time religion reporting positions out there, so to get passed over by an organization that had the budget to hire top people was quite dispiriting.

Two years on, AP has apparently seen the light, as its newest hire for the global team is a veteran religion hand — Peter Smith of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who’s made an illustrious name for himself over the past seven and one-half years writing for the Gazette and before that, the Louisville Courier. He begins work for AP on May 24, but will remain in Pittsburgh, which is an important decision, as well.

Let’s hope the Post-Gazette — which has had a run of excellent religion reporting from Smith and before that, Ann Rodgers – hires a worthy successor.

Pittsburgh is one of a shrinking number of U.S. cities with at least one full-time religion reporter in residence. The view across the country is very sparse and religion capitals such as Dallas, St. Louis and Los Angeles, not to mention lesser lights such as Albuquerque, Seattle, Portland and Miami and many more, get nothing.

Which explains the rise of two independent news organizations that provide the kind of investigative reporting that larger papers once used to do. There’s not a whole lot of money out there for investigations on religion –- and the few organizations like ProPublica and InvestigateWest — that do such investigations don’t touch religion. This is why sites like (The Roys Report) and have stepped in and deserve a read from readers of GetReligion.

Roys cut her teeth on writing for TV and doing a talk show for the Moody Radio Network, and has gone where few other reporters dare to tread on terms of the smelly underside of American Christian culture.

Ministry Watch, which profiles public charities, church and parachurch ministries, is run by Warren Cole Smith, a veteran of World magazine. He tracks the 500 largest Christian ministries in the country and there seems always be some sort of scandal involving a few of them. I believe the ministry didn’t start as a news site, but it developed into one out of sad necessity.

One of their latest stories is about WPOZ, a Christian radio station in Orlando. A sample:

It’s been a tough couple of weeks for one of Christian radio’s best-known stations, Z88.3 WPOZ in Orlando.

Known as “The Z,” the station left many people in the Christian radio industry scratching their heads a couple of weeks ago when the station’s President and Founder Jim Hoge planted a false story with an industry publication in a failed effort to keep another Christian station from competing against it.

That episode and other recent events have motivated more than a dozen current and former employees at The Z to go public with their complaints of a toxic work environment there, and some are calling for the resignation of Hoge as president.

I am grateful for their reporting, but shouldn’t this kind of thing be on the front burner of the religion reporter for the Wall Street Journal? Some of these ministries run through a lot of money, but there’s next to no one doing the time-consuming legwork needed to monitor them.

Meanwhile, Roys’ latest fascinating story is the continuing saga of former Mars Hill Church pastor Mark Driscoll, who up and left the Emerald City when things got a bit too hot about his leadership style, and moved to Arizona. (I arrived in the Seattle area about a year later and was amazed to find a lot of still-smoking embers of his ministry among burned out church members.)

Barely six years later, Driscoll is at it again. In a story that — trigger warning — labels Driscoll as a local David Koresh (a Texas cult leader whose Waco compound was stormed by the feds in 1993, causing many deaths), Roys says the pastor is up to his old tricks.

Mark Driscoll is once again being accused of bullying, intimidation, and spiritual abuse. Only this time, the disgraced former Mars Hill pastor apparently has no elders to rein him in—and his tactics reportedly have grown more extreme and cult-like…

Freese said there’s nowhere on Trinity’s campus where people are not being audio- and video-recorded. And to serve as a volunteer, one must sign a non-disclosure agreement pledging “to protect the confidentiality of all information” about the church’s “business operations, staff, volunteers and guests.”

The church also maintains a BOLO list (Be On The Lookout), Freese said, with names, pictures, and sometimes personal vehicles of people the church has banned from its property.

Read the whole thing. The further along you go, the creepier it gets.

I’m glad Roys is doing this kind of reporting but where, one wonders, are the Phoenix and Scottsdale papers? Years ago, there used to be religion reporters in this Sunbelt state but now, it’s up to independents like Roys –- who don’t have near the finances or backing that a typical newspaper has -– to follow up. I checked the RNA membership list for Arizona and there’s all of four people listed, none of whom are affiliated with a newspaper. Arizona is a busy, news-making state. There should be lots of decent religion reporting coming out of there.

Roys regularly takes on the powerful in religious circles and tells the truth about these folks. She recently broke stories on how Saddleback Church, a famous southern California congregation affiliated with the Southern Baptists and pastored by the Rev. Rick Warren, just bucked the denomination by ordaining three women. How that’s going to play out in next month’s annual SBC confab in Nashville is anyone’s guess. Saddleback is the SBC’s largest church and I doubt anyone will try to disfellowship them, as has happened with smaller, less influential congregations.

So it’s the best of times and the worst of times.

While one talented beat Associated Press reporter dies, another worthy scribe takes her place.

While media organizations slash their religion budgets left and right, a few independents rise up to carry on the cause. In addition to what Smith and Roys have done, I should also add ReligionUnplugged to the list, which is just over two years old, but has popped out an investigation here and there as well.

Instead of cursing the darkness, these folks have lit a candle. More power to them.