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Niebuhr recognized for Lifetime Achievement

Wednesday, April 14, 2010   (0 Comments)
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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 14, 2010


Contact: Debra Mason
DebraMason@RNA.org
573-882-9257


Niebuhr recognized for Lifetime Achievement

By Richard Dujardin—Providence Journal-Bulletin
For RELIGION | NEWSWRITERS


(Columbia, MO)—
Gustav Niebuhr comes from a family of prominent theologians.

 

But when Gustav started his journalism career three decades ago, the 2010 winner of the William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award never imagined he’d report on religion for several of America’s leading newspapers. The Religion Newswriters Association announced Niebuhr’s award today (April 14, 2010). He’s the 10th winner of the award that originated in 2001.

 

In fact, Gustav, 54, says he expected to cover politics most of his career. He began his reporting career at The Berkshire Eagle in Massachusetts and The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.

 

A former colleague piqued Gustav’s interest in religion when she mentioned that The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was serious about covering religion and wanted someone to help put religion on the front page.

 

"She only mentioned it, but it caught my attention in a major way," Gustav recalled in a recent interview. "I realized then it was exactly what I wanted to do.”

 

First a bit of family history. Perhaps no other U.S. theologian’s name is as well-known in U.S. public intellectual circles as the Niebuhr name.

 

Gustav’s great-grandfather ran away from Germany as a teen-ager. While in the United States, a conversion compelled him to become a minister in the German Evangelical Synod of North. Of the pastor’s four children, three wound up teaching theology: Gustav’s great-aunt Hulda taught at Chicago’s McCormick Theological Seminary; great-uncle Reinhold Niebuhr taught at New York’s Union Theological Seminary; and grandfather H. Richard Niebuhr taught at Yale Divinity School.

 

Even Gustav’s father, Richard Niebuhr, taught theology at Harvard Divinity School for 43 years—retiring in 1999.

 

Gustav, who received degrees in history from Pomona College in California and Oxford University, said history remains his passion. "You cannot understand the history of America without understanding religious history.”

 

Still, landing that AJC religion reporting job was not easy. Gustav lobbied the paper for about nine months before getting the job. "I kept sending them story ideas, and ways of telling the story of religion in the United States," he recalls.

 

Once hired, Gustav started covering the power struggles then brewing in the Southern Baptist Convention—although he told editors a great untold story was the rise of evangelical Christianity in Latin America and its influence on conflicts in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador.

 

"They said, ‘That’s very nice. Maybe we can do something in a few years,’” Gustav recalls. "But after an editor decided he needed something to impress others in the Cox News Service, the next thing I knew I was on a plane to Central America.”

 

The resulting stories impressed editors at The Wall Street Journal, who hired him as the paper’s first full-time religion writer. Gustav remained in Atlanta, however, after convincing The WSJ editors he could just as easily cover the beat in the South, then brimming with religion news.

 

But by 1992, Gustav was restless. He had his share of Page One stories for The WSJ; he longed for a return to a newspaper with a big Sunday paper and  more room for the stories he wanted to do. So he sought—and was hired—as a religion writer for The Washington Post.

 

By 1993, Gustav had already won four reporting and writing awards from RNA—a Supple Religion Writer of the Year award in 1988 for his work at The AJC, another Supple in 1991 for work at The WSJ, and a Supple and Templeton Religion Reporter of the Year awards in 1993 for work at The Post.

 

The New York Times knocked on his door next, but Gustav turned a position down. He accepted a job the second time editors approached him, however—as long as he could stay in Washington while his wife, Margaret, finished a master’s degree from Georgetown University. He and Margaret moved to Manhattan in 1995 and Gustav continued working for the Times even after he and his wife moved to a home in Princeton, N.J.

 

On Sept. 11, 2001, Gustav was riding the rail into Manhattan when he saw the towers of the World Trade Center burning on the other side the river. "My train was the last one from New Jersey to make it to Penn Station,” he recalls. Gustav wrote many stories related to the attacks.

 

But in December that year Gustav chose a new career direction, becoming a fellow at Princeton’s Center for the Study of Religion—and expanding his family with a second child.  They remained at Princeton while his wife completed her doctoral coursework in sociology.

 

In 2003, Gustav accepted a position as an associate professor at Syracuse University. He splits his time teaching history of religion courses for the Religion Department and teaching journalism at the Newhouse School of Public Communications. His wife, a former demographics reporter, is an assistant professor of sociology at Syracuse. The family of four now lives in Syracuse.

 

Gustav’s book "Beyond Tolerance,” about U.S. interfaith projects, was published in 2008.

 

Reflecting on his career thus far, Gustav said he learned a great deal from The WSJ’s meticulous editors. At The Post—deemed a "writers’ newspaper” —stories received a light touch.

 

At The Times, Gustav traveled constantly. He particularly remembers getting a call from an editor at 11 p.m. saying, "We want you to be in South Carolina at 8:30 tomorrow morning, spend a day there for a story about the religious dimension of the South Carolina primary.”

 

His schedule with The Times was so busy that he had to resign as an officer with the RNA after serving terms as secretary, treasurer and vice president. Although he enjoyed being on the road, he sought opportunities to work closer to home and his two sons.

 

Each year a few Syracuse students seek to cover religion, although Gustav’s never had enough students to fill a class. He observes that many newspapers have considered cutting back on the religion beat to save money.

 

"But they really can’t. Ultimately it’s going to haunt any newspaper that tries to do that. You can’t write about the modern world without knowing about religion," he says.

 

Niebuhr will receive his award at RNA’S Annual Conference in Denver, Sept. 23-25, 2010.
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RELIGION | NEWSWRITERS is the world’s only association for journalists who write about religion in the general circulation news media. We strive to promote excellence in media coverage and public discourse about religion by offering tools and training on covering religion, including: RELIGION | LINK story ideas and sources; a religion stylebook, primer and frequently asked questions about the religion beat; an annual training conference; contests honoring excellence in religion coverage; membership and networking. For more information or how to join RNA, see www.RNA.org.


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