April 23, 2009 in Washington Voices

Fig Tree sticks close to its roots

Local religious periodical going strong after 25 years of print
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Jesse Tinsley photo

Editor Mary Stamp, left, and associate editor Yvonne Lopez-Morton put out The Fig Tree, a free newspaper of religious news from the Spokane area.
(Full-size photo)

At a glance

The Fig Tree newspaper is published 10 times a year, on the first Wednesday of September through June, where it’s delivered to many churches around the area. It’s free in print or online, and supported by advertising and donations.

The Fig Tree also publishes a directory of congregations and community resources once a year, including ecumenical and interfaith ministries, human services agencies and, among many other entities, health, senior and children’s services. Write to The Fig Tree at 1323 S. Perry St., Spokane, WA, 99202. Call: (509) 535-1813 or go to www.thefigtree.org.

The stories are of a holocaust survivor looking back at her childhood years spent hiding in Nazi Germany, about a woman who finds inspiration for environmental activism in her faith, and about how a campus ministry reaches out to students through family style dinners.

Long and short, personal or general, to editor Mary Stamp the stories in The Fig Tree newspaper all have one thing in common: they are sacred.

“When you ask someone how what they are doing is connected to their faith, they have a story that just comes mushrooming out,” said Stamp. “We want to tell the person’s story with integrity and respect, in a way so the story becomes part of who they are.”

The Fig Tree has been doing that for 25 years. Stamp started the paper together with Holy Names Sister Bernadine Casey in 1983. Casey worked with Stamp until she was in her 90s and Stamp said she was a formidable editor, writer and friend. Casey died in 2007.

“When people asked her why she was still working, way into her 90s, she always said it was because it’s life giving,” said Stamp.

The Fig Tree was started literally on nothing. Stamp said there was no seed money, not much of anything when she first began publishing.

“We budgeted for our salaries every year, and each year we forgave them,” Stamp said, laughing, when talking about the early years of The Fig Tree. “We struggled and struggled, with photography and printing and so many other things.”

The one thing they always had enough of was stories to fill the 12 pages. Stamp said she looks for stories of people who put their faith into action, do something and create a sense of community.

“Because of the dynamic in the stories we do, we share a little bit of hope,” Stamp said, adding that mainstream media is often focused on conflict or on what’s wrong or lacking, leaving readers and viewers feeling hopeless. “I think people feel hope just by hearing someone is doing something.”

In an overwhelming media world, Stamp said The Fig Tree tries not to be “too much,” yet strives to get readers involved in their community.

“If people are aware of what’s going on, it brings down their sense of isolation,” Stamp said. “We have a huge responsibility as journalists because how we describe things is often how people’s world view is formed.”

Today, about 35 people are involved in producing the paper on a volunteer basis. It’s not unusual for one story to be read 12 times by three different people, before the final edit is shown to the main sources – something mainstream newspapers rarely do.

“Why not? I mean, maybe I missed a nuance that’s very important,” Stamp said. “Maybe I missed the context of a comment, it is their story.”

A monthly deadline leaves more time for editing and writing, but that doesn’t mean Stamp sits around the rest of the time. She’s embraced technology wholeheartedly, building the paper’s Web site, purchasing digital equipment and cameras, moving the production of the paper from wax and paste to the computer desktop.

“Isn’t it a relief what we can do with all this today?” Stamp asks, waving at her computer. “I love online work. I love that we can add video, and that photos have gotten so much easier to work with.” The Fig Tree’s circulation is 7,800 and Stamp said the paper reaches an estimated 22,000 readers.

Before founding The Fig Tree, Stamp got a journalism degree from the University of Oregon and she worked at several publications without really finding her spot. It was the early ’70s and she found mainstream journalism “fad driven” – not what she wanted to do.

Through ecumenical work she traveled all over the world. One such trip was to the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, near Geneva, Switzerland. There, Stamp lived with 60 people from 40 countries – an experience that taught her a lot about context and listening.

“We assume we know what people mean, but we don’t if we don’t know their context,” Stamp said.

She landed in Tekoa, Wash., in 1976 where she picked up freelance stories for the Standard Register and at one point also sold advertising for the weekly paper.

“I learned a lot about advertising and a lot about building relationships there,” Stamp said. She was approached by what was then the Spokane Christian Coalition about starting a paper in 1983.

Today, The Fig Tree is an independent 501-C3 nonprofit organization and most of the writers, editors, delivery people and staff are volunteers.

“I have just an amazing group of people here,” said Stamp. “And my board is outstanding. I mean, this is a board that actually shows up for things.”

Board members participate in writer training, deliver the paper, help plan fundraisers, edit and write stories for The Fig Tree, and they help shape the paper’s editorial direction.

“Mainstream journalism tends to be formulaic: you find sources you like and because of deadline pressure you return to them for stories,” said Steve Blewett, Fig Tree board member, editorial board member, contributor and delivery person. “We try to go to the people who normally don’t get covered. It’s not a promotion of any denomination or religious affiliation. We look for stories where people are building community and enabling peace and justice.”

Blewett, a journalism professor emeritus from Eastern Washington University, said publications like The Fig Tree may be more resistant to the financial pressures that currently drive mainstream media to lay off staff and cut newsroom budgets.

“This may be one model of what will emerge in the future of journalism,” Blewett said. “Niche publications like The Fig Tree with very high journalistic standards. It shouldn’t replace mainstream media, but people look for authentic information – not just something ‘someone’ has written on the Internet.”

About Stamp, whom Blewett has known for 25 years, he said simply: “She created this editorial mission that we want people to be treated with respect and dignity – she is a professional journalist with a very high commitment to thoroughness and accuracy. She’s the heart and soul of that paper.”

Reach Pia Hallenberg Christensen at (509) 459-5427 or piah@spokesman.com.


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