The Associated Press is joining with the Religion News Service and the nonprofit publisher The Conversation to form a global initiative to expand news reporting on religion in the United States and around the world.

The collaboration is being funded by an 18-month, $4.9 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. to the Religion News Service's parent organization, the nonprofit Religion News Foundation. The grant represents one of the biggest investments in religion news coverage in decades.

The initiative will create a joint news desk to produce multi-format coverage of major faiths, with a focus on illuminating the religious practices and principles that underlie current events and cultural movements.

To help build the initiative, the AP will hire eight religion journalists, and the Religion News Service will hire three. The Conversation will add two editors. The organizations will also hire additional business staff to help administer the grant.

"This collaboration significantly expands AP's capacity to explore issues of faith, ethics and spirituality as a social and cultural force," said AP Vice President and Managing Editor Brian Carovillano.

The initiative "fundamentally transforms religion journalism in the U.S. and globally," said Thomas Gallagher, CEO of the Religion News Foundation and publisher of its news service. "Competent, reliable, professional religion journalism is needed more than ever."

Bruce Wilson, chief innovation and development officer at The Conversation, which publishes analysis and commentary from academic experts, said the initiative "can bring our fresh insights to an even wider range of audiences across the country and globally."

Each of the three organizations will retain editorial control of its content, which will be labeled and distributed by the AP. Opinion pieces from the Religion News Service will be available to AP members and customers but will not run on AP's news wire.

The Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment has sought to improve public understanding of religion by funding documentaries about religious leaders and traditions and by supporting the Religion News Service.

"This is an opportunity to bring content about religion to a much broader audience and market than has previously been possible," said Michael Fabiano, AP's vice president for local media.

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