By Richard Dujardin—Providence Journal-Bulletin For RELIGION | NEWSWRITERS
(Columbia, MO)—Gustav Niebuhr comes from a family of
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
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
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
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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