The Fig Tree is an ecumenical and increasingly interfaith nonprofit monthly newspaper serving the Inland Northwest of the United States. Its 12-16 pages feature stories of diverse people and groups working to support the vulnerable and make a difference, offering readers insights into how people live out their faith. The Fig Tree enterprise also includes a website and a television show.
The Fig Tree covers stories of interfaith, ecumenical and non-profit outreach; dialogue programs and events; environmental stewardship and action; efforts to overcome violence and bigotry; small-group ministries; ministries and outreach of congregational and regional church bodies; personal profiles on how particular faith practices deepen the lives of practitioners, and more. (1)
An Example of Civic Journalism
The Fig Tree offers an alternative to sensationalized reporting, helping people express their faith journeys and ethical concerns "in the context of who they are" and not in the polarizing context that mainstream media often casts. Some outlets cover the Christian religious right as if they represent all religion today, said The Fig Tree editor Mary Stamp. (2)
"While conventional media wisdom says subtle and overt sensationalism, conflict, negativity and violence attract readers, The Fig Tree finds readers hungry to know about the balance of reality in everyday life," states the website. (3)
The Fig Tree philosophy is that media shape people's worldviews and understandings of life. What it seeks to provide, then, is reporting that more closely captures people's lived experiences by including an analysis of gender, race, wealth and citizen status. The result is an entirely different perception of reality, one that often runs counter to the reality projected by mainstream media. The Fig Tree style of reporting differs from mainstream journalism by listening for the interconnectedness of a person's faith, life, and actions, covering areas of religious cooperation as well as conflict. Important stories of religious convergence often get inadequate coverage, Stamp said, such as when the ecumenical and interfaith communities campaigned for human rights, contributing to the Aryan Nations' leaving Northern Idaho.
Stamp aims to create a credible environment of religion reporting that can be modeled elsewhere in other faith communities. The Fig Tree has influenced religion-reporting principles at mainstream Spokane newspapers. It sees itself as a model of what is possible for religion reporting, showing that religion is indeed active in people's everyday lives and ethical decision-making. (4)
Nuts and Bolts
Each religious center in the Inland Northwest receives at least one hard copy of the newspaper each month, although individuals can request issues in PDF, email or additional hardcopy formats.
About 7, 500 copies make their way into churches, nonprofit organizations, businesses, government offices and individual homes, reaching an estimated readership of 21,000. The newspaper considers Northern Idaho and Central/Eastern Washington as its geographical area.
The website publishes each month's edition of stories, as well as a hyperlinked directory of religious centers located in the Inland Northwest. The Web site also maintains an archive of several years of stories. (5)
Mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic organizations provide strong financial support and readership, but the newspaper actively seeks out religious diversity in its coverage, Stamp said. Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians and people of other faiths have been receptive to The Fig Tree's presence and contributed story ideas. Members of the area's Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Baha'i, Unitarian and other faith traditions "own The Fig Tree, seeing it as an important vehicle for them." They contribute story ideas and financial support, taking pride in its ability to cover their faith lives. The newspaper also has a working relationship with the Interfaith Council. (6)
A calendar of upcoming events engages readers looking for ways to become involved. The Fig Tree features stories that aim to facilitate the growth of personal contacts and networks so that people working together can strengthen examples of faith in action. "Spreading awareness of what people of faith are doing—often behind the scenes—breaks down the hopelessness, helplessness and isolation that alienate people. It spreads hope through examples of people improving life in their communities, the society and the world," states the Web site. (7)
While the newspaper started because of the dearth of religion reporting in the area, Stamp is upfront that the newspaper's central mission is to network and inspire religious people, not convert those who are not already members of faith communities. The first priority Stamp sees is to facilitate communication among preexisting networks.
The newspaper, Web site and TV show portray stories that can serve as inspiration, but also renewal from burnout, said Stamp. She sees The Fig Tree as standing in a long tradition of people of faith making their voices known and influencing social issues from slavery to civil rights. (8)
People Behind the Words
A former mainstream journalist, Mary Stamp, writes, edits and produces The Fig Tree with the help of contract and volunteer teams. Her background in journalism at the University of Oregon and time spent living at the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Institute at Bossey near Geneva, Switzerland provided the initial grounding that lead to her to found The Fig Tree in 1984. (9)
Stamp sees herself as uniquely positioned to understand ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, because it takes into account the organizational structures of religious bodies and their ethical constructs.
The Fig Tree is run from a position of sound journalistic and business ethics. In addition to Stamp, the newspaper's five writers and two editors are mostly women. Racial minorities sit on the board, although the area has only a small multi-cultural, multi-racial population. (10)
Stamp was asked by the then Spokane Christian Coalition to start The Fig Tree as a communications ministry to cover religion news in the region. The Coalition, which later renamed itself the Spokane Council of Ecumenical Ministries, provided her with contacts and networks of support, but no funding.
From its start, the newspaper had a much broader vision of religion coverage in the Inland Northwest, rather than being a public relations tool for the Coalition. In 2001, The Fig Tree separated from the council of the Coalition, and became established within the state of Washington as an independent non-profit organization. (11)
In addition to its independent coverage, it has also functioned financially independently, receiving diverse church support, grants, individual sponsorships, in-kind donations and advertising money to cover its expenses.
The newspaper is free to all readers, but like public broadcasting, The Fig Tree invites people to donate to cover costs. Churches that receive bulk deliveries often donate to offset the cost, too. (12)
Visions for the Future
The Fig Tree's recent increase in coverage of farming issues and sustainable practices is expected to continue, deepening a sense of solidarity between urban and rural communities in the Inland Northwest.
It is seeking to expand its readership, add writers and increase its sponsor pool to strengthen its finances and encourage a greater diversity of story ideas.
In the future, Stamp said she hopes that a redesigned Web site will serve as a communication hub for regional networking among religious communities and non-profit organizations in the wider Northwest.
Stamp is willing to work with other faith communities to help The Fig Tree model spread. Despite national networking, she said she is unaware of any similar publication elsewhere in the United States. (13)
1) The Fig Tree Web site, accessed 24 April 2006 at http://www.thefigtree.org/.
2) Personal phone interview with The Fig Tree editor Mary Stamp, 20 April 2006.
3) "History," The Fig Tree Web site, accessed 24 April 2006 at http://www.thefigtree.org/figtreehistory.html.
4) Personal phone interview with The Fig Tree editor Mary Stamp, 20 April 2006.
5) The Fig Tree general Web site, accessed 24 April 2006 at http://www.thefigtree.org/index.html.
6) Personal phone interview with The Fig Tree editor Mary Stamp, 20 April 2006.
7) The Fig Tree Web site, accessed 24 April 2006 at http://www.thefigtree.org/figtreehistory.html.
8) Personal phone interview with The Fig Tree editor Mary Stamp, 20 April 2006.
9) "History," The Fig Tree Web site, accessed 24 April 2006 at http://www.thefigtree.org/figtreehistory.html.
10) Personal phone interview with The Fig Tree editor Mary Stamp, 20 April 2006.
11) Personal phone interview with The Fig Tree editor Mary Stamp, 20 April 2006.
12) Personal phone interview with The Fig Tree editor Mary Stamp, 20 April 2006.
13) Personal phone interview with The Fig Tree editor Mary Stamp, 20 April 2006.