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Tim Townsend '04 M.A.R. Left Promising Career in Financial Reporting to Pursue Religion Beat

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald '00 M.Div.

Journalist Timothy Townsend '04 M.A.R. was climbing the ranks at The Wall Street Journal in 2001 when he told his fiancée one day in the car that he was considering a detour to divinity school.

"She almost went off the road," Townsend recalls. After all, Georgina Gustin's then-husband-to-be was a self-described lapsed Catholic, and she wanted to hear nothing of secret desires to scrap a promising career and become a priest.

But becoming a priest was not what it was all about. Townsend simply wasn't thrilled with financial reporting and wanted to hone a specialty in religion instead. So in 2002, he took a big risk and swapped his prestigious job at one of the nation's premier newspapers for countless hours in Yale's libraries and lecture halls with no guarantees of work in his chosen field after graduation.

Three years later, Townsend's unorthodox gamble is paying sweet dividends. He not only landed a job covering religion at another top-notch newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, but in October he won the nation's top award for religion reporting in the secular press: the Templeton Reporter of the Year Award from the Religion Newswriters Association.

"What stands out is the authoritative tone and relentless focus on hard news, thoroughly and fairly reported," the judges wrote about Townsend's five-story contest entry. "This is journalism that takes on significant conflicts directly, calmly and analytically.This is mature work by an exceptionally talented reporter."

The five Townsend articles submitted were about: a dispute between a Roman Catholic congregation and the archbishop of St. Louis over control of the parish; a feature on the first African-American bishop to head the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops; the decision of an Episcopal Church congregation to leave the denomination; St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke's pastoral letter on Catholics voting for abortion rights supporters; and a pedophile priest living near a school.

Townsend, 36, hasn't always enjoyed such acclaim in his business. The Journal had him "doing a lot of stapling" and gopher work when he started there in 1999 as a news assistant, which he describes as "the lowest possible job you could have." For about seven years before that, he was bartending in his hometown of Chicago. The only recognition he got then for his writing skill came after publishing an occasional story in Chicago Cigar Smoker magazine or Barfly, a bi-weekly distributed in Chicago bars. Back then, payment consisted of a six-pack of warm Busch beer cans and a bag of pretzels.

"You know how people save the first dollar they earn in business?" Townsend says. "I saved the plastic rings from that six-pack."

Lowly times wouldn't last long. Townsend made a splash in Chicago journalism after he left for New York City, where he received a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University in 1999. For his final project, he wrote about controversial efforts to endow the late Dorothy Day with a status she reportedly never wanted: Roman Catholic saint. The piece ran as a cover story in the Chicago Tribune Sunday magazine, and Townsend was on his way.

Once enrolled at YDS, then-Dean Rebecca Chopp spotted Townsend's talents as potentially useful for the school and recruited him for a half-time job in the communications office. There his supervisor, John Lindner, saw Townsend quietly execute multiple interviews and extra phone calls to make sure readers of Spectrum, the Divinity School's journal for graduates and friends, found valuable insight and analysis in its pages.

"He could have just done a puff piece... but he didn't settle for that," says Lindner, director of external relations and development. "So much of the media today is driven by the bottom line. I don't think that crosses Tim's mind. He wants to get the story right. He reminds me of the old-fashioned beat reporters."

Studying at YDS gave him just enough knowledge about various religions, Townsend says, to convince skeptical sources that he's not completely ignorant and in fact "takes belief seriously." Once his sources feel comfortable that he's no stiff, he delves into topics he finds endlessly intriguing.

"It's open-ended," Townsend says of religious belief. "There's no definite answer that we know of." With "infinite possibilities" in his fat file of future story ideas, he says, "I go to bed on Sunday nights, and I can't wait to get up in the morning."

That enthusiasm for his budding field of expertise wasn't lost on his mentor at Columbia, former Boston Globe editor Michael Janeway, who suggested Townsend do graduate study in religion. Now, Janeway too seems to feel validated.

"He did what is unusual, which is to go to graduate school in that field" which he would be covering, Janeway says. A graduate degree in journalism "is enough to get you hired very often. but that doesn't necessarily mean that 10 years from now you're going to be doing important work. And I think Tim will."

G. Jeffrey MacDonald '00 M. Div. received the Templeton Reporter of the Year award from RNA in 2002. He reports on religion and ethics for various national media outlets and can be reached at jeffrey_macdonald@yahoo.com.