Exclusive: Columnist Jonathan Merritt on his Sudden Departure From Religion News Service

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Exclusive: Columnist Jonathan Merritt on his Sudden Departure From Religion News Service

Kaya Oakes

I was happy to let the story pass under the radar and to move on, but I felt, as a journalist, I needed to set the record straight.

On June 28th, highly regarded and popular religion writer Jonathan Merritt posted a letter to his website informing readers that he would no longer be writing for Religion News Service. As Sarah Jones recently reported in the New Republic, the 84-year-old wire service has been undergoing what many insiders see as a “spectacular implosion,” with editor Jerome Socolosky being fired in an email by publisher Tom Gallagher, and veteran reporters Kimberly Winston and Lauren Markoe resigning soon thereafter.

In the letter, Merritt wrote that his departure was due to “irreconcilable differences” between Merritt, Gallagher and interim editor-in-chief G. Jeffrey MacDonald, a UCC minister and religion writer whose RNS bio indicates that he has no previous experience as an editor.

While Merritt had initially indicated in his statement that he wasn’t interested in making the details of his departure public, he says that became all but impossible when MacDonald posted an account on the closed, but widely read, Religion News Association Facebook page that, according to Merritt, was “a misleading recounting of what actually transpired… Jeff claimed the decision was ‘mundane’ and that there was no drama, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth.”
“I was happy to let the story pass under the radar and to move on, but I felt, as a journalist, I needed to set the record straight.”

Reached on the phone on July 2nd, Merritt described a slowly degrading relationship with RNS, where he began blogging in 2013. Merritt was hired by former editor Kevin Eckstrom, who assured Merritt the blog would be fully under Merritt’s control. “Within six months,” Merritt says, “people really began to take notice” of his blog, and it soon became RNS’ “number one traffic generator,” and remained so for the duration of Merritt’s time writing at the site.

Problems began to arise in 2017, still during Socolovsky’s tenure as editor, when Merritt began to notice missing payments. Earlier this year, Merritt asked to talk to Gallagher, who told him that he was out of contract and would need to be issued a new one. But Merritt began to suspect “something weird was going on,” because every time he wrote Socolovsky and Gallagher, Gallagher would delete Socolovsky from the email chain. When Merritt’s assistant scheduled a phone meeting with Gallagher to discuss the contract in April of this year, Gallagher never informed Socolovsky about it.

When Merritt finally reached Gallagher on the phone in April of this year, he says Gallagher was “placing the blame [for the delay] on Jerome” for not reading Merritt’s emails, which “was all very weird and unprofessional, and it made me uncomfortable.” According to Merritt, that was the last time he corresponded with Gallagher.

Merritt continued emailing Gallagher throughout April trying to get a contract. At this point, MacDonald had been hired and Merritt told him and Gallagher “I’m not going to be able to write for you anymore until I get a contract.” This resulted in “finally getting an email” from Gallagher who told Merritt to “check with your assistant” for a contract. According to Merritt, the contract he finally received was dated June 1, a one-year contract “like what I’ve had for the longest time.”

After Merritt had signed the contract, MacDonald informed him that, not only had RNS formed a partnership with WNET, but that Merritt would be expected to write three additional articles for WNET and that they would have to be pitched to MacDonald, who would edit them. In addition to being more work, Merritt notes that it fell “outside the bounds of our long-standing agreement” about Merritt having editorial control of his blog posts.

MacDonald also began to raise objections to Merritt posting Q&A interviews on his RNS blog, which Merritt had already been doing for several years. Because Merritt covers evangelicals who “can be skittish when it comes to news outlets,” and because those posts had been high traffic generators, Merritt defended the format, but MacDonald told him “that’s not gonna work for us.” According to Merritt, he told MacDonald that was an attempt to renegotiate his contract.

MacDonald then told Merritt that RNS had also negotiated an agreement with the Associated Press, who “did not want Q&A format content.” Which is when Merritt realized “that they were keeping my pay rate the same asking me to write a blog,” but RNS was essentially asking him to write for the wire at a lower rate than they would pay wire writers.

When Merritt objected to this arrangement, according to him, MacDonald said, “I’m your boss. I tell you what to do and it’s your job to do it.” Merritt argued back that MacDonald was his client, and the conversation degenerated into argument. Half an hour later, MacDonald emailed Merritt a “numerated list of questions” about Merritt’s journalistic ethics—have you ever been paid by a publisher for coverage of a book, etcwhich Merritt told him was upsetting. Merritt answered no to all the questions and sent MacDonald questions of his own for several days without receiving a reply. Then, on Thursday June 28th, he finally received “a note saying you’ve been terminated, effective immediately.”

Merritt says the whole situation was disrespectful to him, but also that “the organization is clearly in disarray.” He notes he has not spoken to “one person, either a staff member or a columnist who’s happy there.” RNS, he says, is now “run by a publisher of questionable character and an editor in chief who by all accounts has no idea how to manage a team.”

Asked what he plans next, Merritt says that given the disarray at RNS, “perhaps it’s time for a new religion news outlet.” There are “plenty of competent religion writers” who could work for “an organization built for the 21st century.” For now, Merritt says, he is “thinking very seriously about whether that needs to happen and whether I need to be one of the people who would be a part of that.”

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