May 31, 2011; Source: Get Religion | Thanks to a $3.5 million grant from the Lilly Endowment, the Religion News Service is becoming a nonprofit as of June 1. What will this mean to nonprofit journalism and to the coverage of religion? Reportedly, the for-profit version of RNS suffered mightily. Some 25 to 30 percent of daily newspapers have unsubscribed from the service during the past five years.

The conversion—and the Lilly grant—will allow RNS to increase its staffing, add some multimedia journalism, and increase coverage on beats such as Islam in the U.S. and the intersection of religion and politics. According to Kevin Eckstrom, the RNS editor, “It took us much longer than expected to get [IRS] approval.” Part of the RNS nonprofit plan is to create 20 local community-based websites for local or regional coverage of religion, the first to be created in Missouri in partnership with the University of Missouri in the fourth quarter of 2011.

With this grant, RNS plans on generating 25 to 30 articles a week, with a staff of 4.5 people initially, including a part-time editor focusing on telling stories in visual and audio formats. Eckstrom offers an interesting perspective on online journalism applicable to venues like NPQ’s where we encourage our readers to contribute content: “I worry sometimes about the lack of professionalism where it can devolve into people in their pajamas spouting off. Their version of truth is different from everyone else’s but there’s no editor to tell them that.”

The shift to nonprofit online journalism is often accompanied by an increased involvement of freelancers and volunteers, which puts an extra onus on nonprofit journalism sites to provide support, training, and editorial input to ensure that quality doesn’t suffer in the process. Now, it would also be much better if all of those nonprofit journalism sites could score $3.5 million foundation grants in the process!—Rick Cohen