For the second straight year, Christianity Today took home the Religion News Association's (RNA) top magazine award in September. The honor came in part because of CT's willingness to take a significant editorial gamble.
Andy Olsen, CT's managing editor, had only been on staff for several months when he received a pitch from writer D. L. Mayfield. She wanted to profile civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, an Eastern University graduate who had received national attention for his advocacy work with his organization Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) which legally represents people who have been "illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons."
"The challenge was that a straight profile of a prominent civil rights lawyer, though certainly edifying and worthwhile, might only appeal to a segment of our readership," Olsen said. "We wanted to do more."
Mayfield and Olsen went back and forth for more than a month, hashing out the best angle for the magazine and its readers.
"In the end, we settled on America's dark history of lynching and how it intersects with the church," Olsen said. "Its focus is on the memorial that Stevenson opened in Montgomery, Alabama. We felt that if we could do the piece in a 'CT way'—less prescriptive and more descriptive but with good promptings for introspection—that it could be received well by our readership and could prompt unifying discussion, as opposed to being a divisive piece."
The actual writing took weeks, as editor and writer exchanged drafts, seeking the right sources and tone for the audience.
"By the time we got to that point, we felt it was worthy of a cover story," Olsen said.
The next challenge: the art.
"EJI has a phenomenal archive of historical lynching photos from the South and elsewhere, but those photos have been used a lot in other coverage of the memorial," Olsen said.
So CT's designers took a risk and raised the idea of creating an illustration for the cover that included imagery of a noose.
"It's a powerful image and can be so deeply evocative in any number of directions," said Olsen. "We approached it with perhaps the most caution of any cover that CT has designed."
That meant testing the idea outside the ministry to ensure the cover was sensitive to the African American community and to others who had been victimized by lynching. In the end, the cover didn't just feature a noose: It listed, starting on the cover and continuing throughout the magazine, the known names of hundreds of Americans killed by extrajudicial lynching.
"The idea was that Stevenson wants to build a memorial, we would like our cover to build a memorial," Olsen said. "It landed with the intended effect."
After the CT team closed the September 2017 issue, they were nervous about how it would be received.
"Within a week after it was published, to our surprise, and as a testament to God's goodness, response was almost exclusively super positive," Olsen said.
Several months later, the issue was submitted for the RNA's annual newswriting competition as its entry for best magazine. While Olsen didn't attend the 2018 event, he has a long history with the organization, having first attended the conference and awards ceremony when he won a college student journalist award in the early 2000s. The annual meeting is attended by a variety of mainstream media reporters, including The New York Times, Washington Post, and The Atlantic.
"An award from RNA is especially gratifying because you're being compared to organizations that are generally much better resourced than a nonprofit ministry like CT. These organizations place a particularly high value on technical reporting skills," Olsen said. "RNA is a good place to be affirmed in the quality of your journalistic craft.
When the award was announced at this year's ceremony, a slide displayed the cover art to the entire room and the author of this article, who accepted it, was able to explain its backstory and vision to the audience of journalists.
"RNA is an organization that by its nature would be highly sensitive to putting its name behind inappropriate content," Olsen said. "The fact that RNA would choose that cover as an icon for its magazine of the year is a further affirmation that we struck the right tone."
Morgan Lee is digital media producer at Christianity Today.