FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE June 29, 2009 Contact: Debra Mason, Executive Director MasonDL@RNA.org, 614-313-0441
Gayle White announced as 2009 Lifetime Achievement recipient
By Steve Maynard The News Tribune
Gayle White excelled as one of the nation’s top religion writers during her 16 years on the beat at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, producing prolific coverage with elegant writing.
Her long tenure of success saw her win the Templeton Award for Religion Reporter of the Year twice—in 1991 and later in 2003.
White also gave back to her craft, helping form the fundraising foundation for the Religion Newswriters Association and moving the organization she praises for its camaraderie in a more professional direction. Her many contributions to religion reporting have earned her the 2009 William A. Reed/Religion News Service Lifetime Achievement Award.
White recalled when she joined RNA and paid her first membership dues in 1988, RNA treasurer Richard Dujardin wrote her a receipt on a cocktail napkin, which her paper accepted for reimbursement.
"It may be the most important thing I ever did in my career,” White said. In 37 years with the Journal-Constitution, White covered courts, schools, local governments, public health and higher education. Her best beat: religion. "I’ve said this many times—religion influences everything from the most personal decisions about the beginning and end of life to wars and world events and everything in between,” White said. "The religion writer with good support from a newspaper can write breaking news, features, enterprise, profiles and watchdog stories,” White said. "I used to brag that my religion reporting had appeared in every section of the paper except the Saturday Automotive section—and that there might be a story about church buses in my future.”
White, 58, took a buyout in May and retired from the Journal-Constitution. The Georgia native lives in the Atlanta area. She has a grown son and daughter and two grandsons. Her husband, Robert White, died of cancer in 2007. White was a religion writer at the Journal-Constitution from 1988 until 2004, when she became one of the first religion reporters assigned by a newspaper to be part of its main team covering the presidential race. She won a Clarion Award for that work. In 2005, her assignments included reporting on the election of Pope Benedict XVI in Rome, the Terri Schiavo story in Florida, and post-Katrina efforts in Mississippi. In the late 1990s, she helped the Journal-Constitution build its religion section, which tied for first place in RNA’s Schachern Award competition in 1997 and won the Schachern Award for large papers in 2002. Mike King, White’s metro editor at the Atlanta paper for most of the 1990s, said White was one of the top half-dozen specialty reporters in the country on any beat. She brought to religion reporting a breadth of knowledge that enabled her to flourish with a range of complex topics, he said. "She had a unique ability to translate news out of those topics into very readable stories,” King said. White was adept at writing about individual faith communities and issues of theology and philosophy. She could explain the finances of a megachurch in one story and the meaning of transubstantiation to a non-Catholic in another story, King said. He credited the elegance of her writing to the empathy she felt for the people she covered. "She has the qualities to make that person to be comfortable with her,” King said. "They always felt she was a very fair and empathetic person.” Even though she wrote about controversial issues and church disputes, King said he never received a complaint about White’s reporting not being fair. Among all her accomplishments, White points to a series in 1999 called "Christianity at 2000.” She developed a plan for reports from the Middle East, Rome, England, Latin America, Germany and several places in the United States. She wrote some segments and other correspondents from the paper contributed as well. "Ten years later, it’s hard to imagine a newsroom being able to give a reporter the resources and newsprint to produce a series like that,” White said. White also wrote a book about the doctrines and customs of religions, called "Believers and Beliefs.” White was president of RNA from 1998–2000. She was conference chairwoman for the Albuquerque, N.M., meeting in 1997. By then, the annual conference had printed name tags, registration and evaluation forms, and a program. "No more receipts on cocktail napkins,” White recalled. RNA executive director Debra Mason praised White for helping steer RNA as it created the Religion Newswriters Foundation and established values for soliciting funds. "She is kind and gracious to all, allowing even opponents a fair and full voice,” Mason said. White’s role in making RNA a more professional organization became a family affair. "Her late husband, Robert, spent countless hours as a volunteer meticulously recreating two years worth of RNA budgets and expenditures that had fallen into disarray under past treasurers,” Mason said. "Then, by the late 1990s RNA discovered its income had grown to the point that it was required to begin filing tax returns and was two years in arrears,” Mason said. "Gayle’s diplomacy was important as she negotiated with the IRS to forgive any penalty and oversaw the filing of past returns.” White recalled how RNA members cooperated with one another at meetings on the road, sharing tips, ideas and laughs. "The ideas I was able to steal from my colleagues, the insight they provided, the laughs we had were highlights of my career,” she said. "I am so honored to be recognized by RNA,” White said. "But believe me, RNA and its members have given me more than any one person could ever give to an organization.”
We commiserated several times at RNA conventions in the 1990s, and Gayle was always kind, gracious, and insightful on the religious issues of the day. The award is well-deserved, Gayle! Congratulations.