Where Is The Alternative To The Presbyterian Layman?

I keep thinking that Presbyterians need an alternative to the Layman, an advocacy operation dressed in journalistic garb that can’t see fit to perform the most basic functions of journalistic due diligence. The Layman is misleading and (more to the point) useless for constructive conversation about disputed matters in the Presbyterian Church.

We need an alternative.

(The Presbyterian Outlook is, in every respect, a superior product to The Layman; it’s a bi-weekly print magazine with strong convictions about a balanced rotation of commentary. Yet its news reporting resources are deployed mostly in Louisville and at national events.)

Here are two examples of why we need an alternative to the Layman.

1) A decade ago my colleague and I had a spirited disagreement about the state of things in the PC(USA). She expressed her views on a personal blog, and I believe I added comments. Mere days later The Layman published something in news story form that reported that this pastor, my colleague, had said all of these things as if a reported had spoken with her; the piece quoted her at length and added incisive editorial comment in support of her statements.

I, of course, recognized my colleagues comments as direct quotations of her blog posts. So I called her. “Did you know you’re in The Layman?” I asked. She did not. She was gobsmacked. Nobody from the Layman contacted her before printing a “news” article full of quotes from her blog.

2) Then last Friday The Layman published this piece about the presbytery I belong to threatening to “Renege” (sic) on a dismissal agreement it had made with a church (it hadn’t). The story’s sole source is an email from a party to the dismissal proceedings sent the previous day to multiple parties (myself included), and it shows zero evidence of even the most basic fact checking. No phone calls. No emails. Nothing. It simply dresses up an aggrieved individual’s email as a news story.

We need an alternative. The future of the church could be well served by a digital, broadly-distributed instrument of news and analysis. The only alternative now is to ignore The Layman. After years of dumping their unsolicited print piece in the recycle bin, that alternative is well-practiced. I think we need something else.

I think there could be real value in a digital source for news and information pertaining to the PC(USA) that has a progressive editorial agenda but takes seriously the conventions of ethical journalism?

Who’s with me?

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17 thoughts on “Where Is The Alternative To The Presbyterian Layman?

  1. Oh, preach Rocky. Preach.

    From my observations, most people do what you do: pitch the written layman when it comes (unsolicited), and ignore them. But there needs to be an active, on the ground, what’s going on communication resource. But to what end?

    Let me tell you my dream: we need a web of hyper-local journalists under an editorial structure.

    Where I live, in Prairie Village, Kansas, traditional media has been thinning. Fewer resources exist for our newspaper (the Kansas City, Star) to do good local reporting. What emerged was the Prairie Village Post (www.pvpost.com), started by a local guy who wanted to do journalism for a very specific area: generally, those served by the local high school, which means portions of some seven or so local municipalities. Now, there are enough people and eyes and interest to make it work, but it does work. And its great. And I wish there were something similar for where my Church is located in south Kansas City.

    In a church context, hyper-local can’t mean seven towns. But what if there were some resource that promoted churchy stories from local contexts but with more journalistic standards than your average bloggy post (which is often light years better than the layman)?

    1. Thanks Chad. I’ve wondered about covering presbyteries as a kind of beat. Could a writer develop solid relationships with presbytery sources across the denomination and rely on them for facts and happenings at the presbytery level that could be researched for news and analysis pieces?

      Could you also do that with, say, new worshipping communities?

  2. I totally agree. You wouldn’t even really need someone in each presbytery – perhaps someone in each Synod who had contacts throughout the presbyteries in her area. Presbyterian News Service tries to pick up on these kinds of things, but unless you send “leads” to them, they aren’t able to read all the blogs in all the country. The first thing you would need to do is convince individual churches that they are doing something newsworthy, so they can begin to send leads to Presbyterian News Service.

  3. Hey Rocky,

    I and many others have been saying this for years. The closest things we have, as you state, are the Outlook and Christian Century, which is more broadly focused. The biggest challenge to anyone I know who has attempted what you propose is the issue of resources, financial and personnel. The Presbyterian News Service, sadly, is often months behind at best. Even some of their reporting for GA is written as though something just happened, but the story is published 2 or even 3 months after the fact.

    Relying on people to “report” their own news story is tough. It really requires people hitting the beat, so to to speak, and going after the stories–talking to people, calling Presbytery and Synod leaders, calling churches to find out what’s going on in their neighborhoods. It needs something of an editorial board to talk about what’s happening (could be done using video conferencing like Google Hangouts) and where they’re going to focus each week. I imagine if enough people were involved, each person could write one story each week or two or three, and still have enough to give some substance to the effort. Old school journalistic skills would be needed: going after the multiple perspectives on a story or issue, and not just taking one. Outlook does that well.

    But I wonder if we need something less “balanced” than the Outlook? Maybe not as one-sided or narrow-minded as the Layman, but definitely something that tries to go deeper but with a moderately progressive mindset? Between Outlook and Presbyterians Today, I feel I get a lot of the general stuff.

    Anyway, just my 2-cent ramblings. I’ve been thinking of doing something like this for my blog…more in depth “journalistic” reporting of things going on. But, again, I am one person with one very under-functioning blog. lol

  4. There is, I think, another challenge. I like to think that I am not alone in the PCUSA as someone who does not fit easily into “camps” or “sides.” On some issues I am decidedly progressive and on others far more conservative than people expect. My experience with the more progressive groups in the church is that there is still a rigidity across issues (nothing like the Layman mind you) that turns me off. Even a more progressive pub’icstion will Impose some sort of editorial policy to keep things from np being all over the map. With the complexity of issues in the church, that can be a challenge when trying to attract a readership that is often far more nuanced than a far right readership might be.

    Just a thought.

    And to your question, Rocky, the Layman has or at least had (I assume it is still there) a substantial endowment. John Templeton was on the board for years and was very generous.

  5. Nice, Rob. Thanks. I’m proposing two things: 1) an editorial posture is unavoidable and not a liability. And 2) fact-based, curiosity-driven, analytical reporting is the best defense against siphoning readers into camps. You think?

  6. I agree with you entirely. I have been reading The Layman for years and spitting mad every time for some items they print. Yet it’s also true that’s all I have done!!!!
    It would be great if those of us on the NEXT side had someone who could take your idea on. But it has to be someone half my age (for instance), but with the time (that will be an “ouch” moment), and the determination to do it!!! Perhaps there might be a “stay-at-home” Mom — due to household and family responsibilities, but who has the writing ability coming from the Liberal side, who might be able to do this.
    Might we have someone at CPC who could “fill this bill”???
    Carolyn

  7. Rocky…long overdue. The Layman showed their true colors during the “Confessing Church” movement in 2000. If they wanted a story, they just made it up and all the complaints didn’t seem to faze them. If people (or churches) who really cared about this could support a paid PT editor and a volunteer editorial board, then people could submit articles from the field in their local area. If you kept it uncomplicated, it might work, perhaps one issue( topic) per month and then hear how people in each region are wrestling with it? It might require a lot of volunteer hours in the beginning, but it could gain momentum and more support. Isn’t that how CN started?

  8. How hard would it be to aggregate already existing Presbyterian blogs into one site? Why not use already existing resources? There are Presbyterian ministers and laypeople all over the world who can’t resist blogging…Pull it onto one site, and then we get a picture of the state of things.

    If you want “IN DEPTH” journalism..maybe form a small editorial committee to write a piece every once in a while. OR use seminary students and give them some kind of credit for it…

    If some people can’t help but take words written on dead trees more seriously, then have a digest every so often that gets MAILED around

  9. The blogs are great, but 99% is commentary, which I’m less interested in. I’d like for there to be a digital publication that did original reporting on developments in presbyteries and beyond and then some meta level analysis.

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