The two-year-old beat, funded by different religious groups, is fostering community engagement and providing new revenue

In August, news broke in Winnipeg about Gray Academy, a local Jewish school that decided to mandate vaccinations for all students eligible to receive the jab.

The story first ran on another media outlet’s website. It was a fine story, containing all the basic information about the school’s decision — the who, when, where and what. 

But it didn’t say anything about the why: the school’s foundation in Judaism.

When I later interviewed the school’s CEO for a story in the Winnipeg Free Press, as part of its Religion in the News project, I made sure to ask her what role the Jewish faith played in the decision.

I could hear the enthusiasm in her voice when she said: “That was one of the most important pieces, the pinnacle of what went into our decision.”

For the school, it was the concept of pikuach nefesh, the Jewish imperative to save life.

“We have an obligation and ability to help one another,” she said of how Judaism was key to making the decision to require vaccinations for all students.

The headline writer for the Free Press captured it well: Gray Academy decision a matter of faith.

Being alert to god or spirituality in places where they may or may not be expected to be found isn’t an approach most reporters are trained to take. But telling the story of faith is the goal of the Religion in the News Project.

The project dates back to 2018, when Free Press editor Paul Samyn told readers the paper wanted to find new ways to engage the community.

After reading his column, I told Samyn and publisher Bob Cox if they were serious about engaging the community, they needed to also engage faith communities.

Cox and Samyn agreed. But, they said, the paper had no money. 

“What if I go out and raise it?” I asked. 

If I could do that, they said, they were on board. And so the Religion in the News project was born.

Since starting in 2019, the project has seen over 500 articles about faith published throughout the newspaper. That includes the Saturday faith page and almost every other section each day of the week in both print and online — about 20 or so articles on average a month.

The coverage is made possible by the support of 25 local faith groups and organizations, from across the religious spectrum, that provide between $25,000 to $30,000 a year to support the reporting of two local freelancers. 

The understanding with the supporting groups is clear: There are no strings attached that influence or limit how the paper covers faith issues. While various groups are featured in stories, the funding is meant to support religion coverage in general.

In addition to the organizational funding, in spring the paper launched a crowdfunding campaign that brought in over $10,000, most of it in amounts of between $15 to $25 from readers.

Due to the support from organizations and individuals, the faith reporting is outside the paywall and available to all.

For Samyn, the project’s value can be seen in the way the coverage serves all readers, not just the faith community. 

“The project reports news that is of interest to everyone,” he said, noting he doesn’t think the newspaper’s coverage of the pandemic would have been as good as it has been without the extensive reporting about faith and COVID-19.

Additionally, the project “allows the Free Press to go deeper than other media outlets into stories about faith,” he said. “This puts us where we need to be.” 

This includes stories about the history of Muslims in Manitoba; responses to the rise of antisemitism in the province; news about unmarked graves of children in a Roman Catholic cemetery in St. Boniface; the work of local members of Parliament to create an all-party faith caucus in Ottawa; and efforts by local clergy to promote vaccination and counter pandemic conspiracies — along with stories about churches that defied pandemic health measures. 

Along with the bigger stories are others about Manitobans acting on the basis of their faith, like two Roman Catholic sisters who started a workout program for their parish that combines exercise and faith; a farmer who grew a field of sunflowers to raise money for world hunger relief; Buddhists making paper cranes for peace; and a local Anglican priest who wrote a book about how an ancient Christian practice of silence helped him recover from marriage breakdown.

The project also has a rub-off effect on the whole newsroom, causing other reporters and editors to be more aware of faith-related stories and prompting them to look for them. 

“By having a specific budget line for faith, it focuses attention on that topic,” Samyn said, adding “we are committed to ensuring we are part of the discussion on issues that not only shape the lives of many of our readers, but also our society.”

The project has drawn the attention of other newspapers, he said, and also from the American Press Institute, where he made a presentation about it in summer.

For Cox, the project has created a small but important revenue stream that breaks new ground for newspapers in Canada.

“I’m not aware of any other Canadian daily newspaper running a Crowdfunder or appealing to faith groups to support journalism,” he said. “It’s a radical idea in this country.”

The project has led the paper down new paths and enabled it to engage groups it hasn’t engaged before, he said, adding “Along with the funding, we are richer as a newspaper because of that.”

The success of the fundraising shows “there is a reservoir of goodwill” in the community for reporting about religion, he said, noting the Free Press is considering expanding the idea to other beats like arts.

As the project nears the end of its third year, it continues to seek ways to attract more organizational supporters and broaden the Crowdfunder appeal. 

At the same time, it is drawing interest from faith groups and media in other parts of Canada, who see it as a model for a new way to serve readers and raise revenue.

As Cox put it: “At first I was skeptical whether people would donate to support journalism. Now I see they will — not just to support journalism, but to support their values. And for a significant portion of our readership, faith and spirituality is an important value.” 

As freelancers, John Longhurst and Brenda Suderman cover religion at the Free Press.