Todd Stiefel, through the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, has made a huge difference in our movement. You could argue that his contribution helping make the Reason Rally a reality was his crowning achievement so far. Or you could make the case that his donation to the Secular Student Alliance allowing them to hire a staffer to focus solely on high school groups will have the biggest impact.
But I would say his best move was donating $50,000 to the Religion News Service so that they could hire someone to write specifically about atheism-related issues. Todd wouldn’t select the stories or offer his opinions on them — they could approach the journalism however they wished. The only restriction was that the stories would cover subjects relating to atheists/atheism.
For years, whenever I read stories in any given newspaper’s religion section, they were so often about random things happening in churches. Reporters just didn’t know anything was happening with atheists. And we didn’t do a good job of reaching out to them.
Kimberly Winston, whose articles I’ve referenced many times on this site, wrote a bulk of these atheist-focused stories for RNS. They’ve been published all over the country — including USA Today, The Washington Post, and the Huffington Post — allowing our stories to reach a huge audience.
It’s been one year since that grant was given and RNS wrote a report for the Stiefel Freethought Foundation summarizing what has happened because of his generosity. With Todd’s permission, I’m reprinting that report here, just so you can see the impact of having a journalist dedicated to covering our issues (emphases mine):
Stiefel Freethought Foundation
Grant to Religion News Service
Year One Report Summary
July 19, 2012
This first of a two-year project, made possible through a generous grant from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, had two underlying assumptions:
- An ever-growing circle of nonreligious people is no longer content to sit quietly on the political and social sidelines.
- Vigorous journalistic coverage is needed to inform the public about this rising social movement and document its progress.
The $50,000 first-year grant called for Religion News Service (RNS) to produce 20 stories and at least 10 shorter news roundups during the grant year.
In the first year of this project, RNS published 42 stories about nonreligious people and the issues affecting their lives. Nine of those 42 stories were shorter-length briefs, typically breaking news stories about court rulings or articles about upcoming events.
The remaining 33 stories covered a vast array of issues. Readers learned not only about lawsuits seeking to redress unequal treatment of atheists, but also about how atheists deal with grief after the death of a loved one. In addition to stories about atheist rallies and public service campaigns, our stories also told readers about unacknowledged black civil rights leaders who were nonbelievers.
Some of the stories highlighted counterintuitive trends: Jews who don’t believe in God but attend synagogue, magicians who create seemingly supernatural feats but have no use for religion. A few stories addressed a phenomenon rarely talked about: clergy who have lost their faith.
Kimberly Winston, a widely published freelance writer based in San Francisco, wrote the majority of the stories.
The 42 stories in Year 1 of the project were reprinted in dozens of media outlets that subscribe to RNS. Secular news outlets such as The Huffington Post, USA Today and The Washington Post picked up many of these stories. They were reprinted also in religious publications, such as The Christian Century, a leading news and feature biweekly for mainline Protestants, and other religious publications.
Other newspapers that published the project’s stories included The Salt Lake Tribune, The Kansas City Star, The Columbus Dispatch, The Charlotte Observer, the Houston Chronicle, The (Baton Rouge) Advocate and The Times-Picayune.
These media outlets represent a combined readership in the millions. They often featured these stories prominently.
Many of this project’s stories drew lively comments from readers. Indeed, one article broke an RNS record. The story about the April 2012 Reason Rally in Washington, D.C., which was republished in The Huffington Post, drew a whopping 10,093 comments.
Finally, one measure of the impact of this project is the degree to which our competitors have tried to replicate our stories. We see this happening frequently. A story we wrote about a former Methodist minister who came out to a group of American Atheists was also featured on NPR’s All Things Considered evening news program. CNN wrote a story on a former Pentecostal minister who lost his faith after our original story was published.
Clearly, the stories produced this first year drew the attention of both news organizations and general readers.
And there’s still another year left to go in the original grant. That’s great news for our movement.
Hopefully, we’re getting to the point where we don’t need a “dedicated” reporter, and religion writers in general just cover us because we’re the ones doing things worth covering. But until that day comes, this is a great investment.