While Stiefel claims he’s free to pitch ideas, he says the RNS team rarely uses them. Additionally, Stiefel told TheBlaze that Winston rarely uses him as a source for her stories about atheism.
“If there’s anything I find a little frustrating, they err on the side of not covering things I do or things I’m involved with,” Stiefel said of RNS. “I have to accept that they kind of ignore the things I’m involved with – it’s less likely to be covered.”
Regardless of the fact that he doesn’t have editorial control and that he is sometimes not relied upon for original sourcing, Stiefel says that he plans to continue funding RNS. But he’s hoping that other secular groups will join him in footing the bill.
As for critics who take issue with the funding model that RNS has chosen to embrace with the SFF, the atheist leader has a question for
them: If a Christian group were donating to RNS and receiving positive coverage as a result, what would your reaction be?
To better understand this arrangement, TheBlaze also spoke with RNS’s editor-in-chief Kevin Eckstrom. He explained the news organization’s path from being owned by a for-profit corporation (Advanced Publications) to becoming a non-profit organization back in July 2011. This transformation created some intriguing opportunities for the traditional news group. Funding, of course, was at the center of the decision (RNS is now part of the Religion Newswriters Foundation umbrella) to engage Stiefel’s foundation.
“Part of the reason [we became a non-profit] was to be able to solicit and accept donor support [and] foundation support both for general corporations and specific projects,” Eckstrom explained.
“It just happened, honestly, that The Stiefel Foundation was the first one that we got. Our development director had known Todd and had worked with him in her previous career,” he added.
Eckstrom explains that the relationship between RNS and the SFF commenced a few years ago when the Religion Newswriters Association (also an entity under the Religion Newswriters Foundation), also received a donation from Stiefel. The association, which brings together religion reporters from across America, puts together helpful briefs about various faith groups.
At the time, Stiefel donated to help the organization put together an atheism source guide (this is a separate entity and gift from the funds that have been given to RNS). This was the parent organization’s first contact with the SFF — one that led to the current coverage agreement between RNS and Stiefel.
Eckstrom says that it was never RNS’s intention to go after funding for atheism coverage. He also noted that the news organization is seeking out other grant proposals that would help bolster coverage of evangelicals, Muslims and other specific faiths and subjects. The SFF arrangement, Eckstrom claims, isn’t much different from what National Public Radio (NPR) does to bring in funds on a specific topic (read about NPR’s funding strategies here).
Naturally, many would worry about the connections that exist between Stiefel and RNS. Eckstrom mirrored the atheist leader in claiming that the two have very little contact, specifically when it comes to content.
“We have fairly limited contact with the Steifel Foundation by design,” he explained. “When we were first talking, we were very clear and we remain very clear that all editorial decisions would be up to us — that we would not take direction from anyone including the funders in regards to what we could or could not cover.”
The editor also says that Stiefel’s goal in providing the funding was for “unbelievers to be treated with the same degree of coverage as believers.” That being said, Eckstrom reiterates that there are “firewalls” setup to prevent editorial influence from Stiefel and his foundation.
In his interview with TheBlaze, Eckstrom also voiced understanding of critics’ concerns that this arrangement appears to be a form of directly paying for coverage.
“I understand those concerns and I’m very sensitive to them and we have tried to think through this as clearly as we can,” he admits. “Yes, it’s different from the traditional models that journalism has operated under…those models, are in many ways, not sustainable anymore.”
Eckstrom also notes that this form of journalism does, indeed, raise more ethical questions than traditional forms would. That being said, he reiterates his hope that other faiths, too, will soon be represented by funders. Despite these issues, he overwhelmingly defends the model and, more specifically, Stiefel’s funding of RNS.