Reviewing Debra Mason’s 20 years of service to RNS

 Debra Mason

By Tiffany McCallen
Religion News Service
Used by permission

I was a barely 18 when I first met Debra Mason in a cramped study room in the library at Otterbein College in quaint Westerville, Ohio. Having never stepped foot on the campus I’d chosen to pursue my degree in journalism, she was my first impression of the professors and instructors I would meet who would shape my four-year journey there.

I soon learned I would get to know her well; she taught most of the journalism courses in the communication department and she also advised the Tan & Cardinal student newspaper for which I would later serve as editor.

As we pored over the course catalog together to choose my freshman year classes, I had no way of knowing then that Debra would would serve as my mentor, and later my boss, for the next 20 years.

It’s funny how fate works.

In 1996 Debra became RNA’s first part-time executive director, taking the nearly 50-year-old membership association from a largely volunteer operation and housing it in her spare bedroom, where each Friday she would process membership dues, collect contest entries and help plan the annual conference.

By the year 2000, under Mason’s leadership the association had created a charitable foundation and it, in turn, had accepted its first major grant. It also happened to be the year I graduated and the year Debra offered me a job.

We were the original “Women of Westerville” — a moniker coined by board members that later included development directors, business managers, administrative assistants and a revolving door of interns. By the mid 2000s (and just before the recession hit in late 2007), our staff had bloomed to its largest numbers, buoyed by an abundance of grant funding for religion and public life projects.

Our work was bountiful:

  • The RNA Annual Conference attendance topped 300 for the first time.
  • We awarded between $43,000 and $93,000 in Lilly Scholarships in Religion money each year for journalists to take college religion courses.
  • We held dozens of brown bag training sessions in newsrooms across the country.
  • ReligionLink’s story idea and vetted source service grew by thousands of database entries and story ideas and contributed to countless news reports.
  • RNA contest categories were expanding for media of all types, including the creation of the Chandler Award for student religion reporting.
  • The foundation created an annual silent auction to raise money for conference scholarships, and it successfully held several matching grant drives to further our cause.

And later, when our offices moved to the University of Missouri, the prolific work continued as the foundation acquired Religion News Service following Newhouse’s decision to end its funding; when we held overseas training on religious/press freedom and countering hate speech; when student RNA Chapters sprouted; and when we created the Handa Fellowships in Interreligious Communication last year.

We’ve been fortunate to have had engaged and patient officers and board members, then and now, who encouraged and supported the work of our organization, and who have spent many, many hours in the trenches of management, committee leadership and strategic planning.

But there hasn’t been a single person in the history of Religion News Association and Foundation who has spent more time championing and furthering the work of religion reporters than Debra Mason.

It has been my pleasure and privilege to have had a front-row seat to seeing her translate a fiery passion for informed, accurate religion reporting into usable tools, resources and training for journalists around the world.

I have learned much from her in the last two decades, and there is much for which I am thankful. She taught me there’s a time to tell it like it is and there’s a time for compassion, which she extended to me and to our staff countless times over the years. And despite her workaholic tendencies, I credit her with steering me toward a work-life balance that put motherhood at the forefront while still allowing me the room to grow the professional skills and talents that have come to serve me well in my role.

In a farewell speech at the 2015 RNA Annual Conference in Philadelphia — Debra’s last as RNA’s Executive Director — former RNA President Kevin Eckstrom referred to her as our organization’s North Star.

Indeed, when I came back to the office on Jan. 3 following a holiday break — my first official workday without Debra overseeing the foundation in some way — it felt different without that familiar light.

But I know that Debra remains our biggest fan. She has no intention of slowing down her support of religion reporting, and she’ll be loudly cheering on the work of our members that will be produced at what appears to be a breakneck pace this year.

RNF’s new CEO Tom Gallagher is eager to fill her shoes in carrying out our mission to equip journalists with the tools they need to cover religion with balance and accuracy, and to elevate the public discourse on religion.

As for me, along with my treasured colleagues, I plan to enjoy my 17th year helping to grow our membership, shining light on award-winning religion coverage, planning an educational and entertaining conference and simply being there in any way I can for the more than 500 members who call RNA home.

It is my hope that as Debra watches from her post at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, we’ll make her proud.

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