June 11, 2007

A Spiritual Network Grows On The Net

Some of the biggest names in web journalism—ESPN.com, Slate.com, and People.com—were among the finalists for the 2007 National Magazine Award in “Online General Excellence.” But when the American Society of Magazine Editors announced the winner on May 1, a lesser known spirituality-and faith-based site called Beliefnet.com walked away with the top prize.

If Beliefnet is not exactly a household name, it is an interesting experiment in online journalism. For one thing, its own turbulent history in some ways reflects the trajectory of the Internet itself. For another, the strategy it has settled on—a subject specific site that offers interactivity, networking and journalistic even-handedness—may offer one working blueprint for the rapidly evolving field of Web information.

The eight-year-old New York-based sitefounded by former U.S. News & World Report national editor Steve Waldman—has caught the attention of its media peers. Aside from this year’s National Magazine Award, it also won the Online News Association’s 2003 award for general excellence in online journalism in the independent category for sites with more than 200,000 unique visitors a month. (With a full-time staff of 60, including 21 editorial employees, Beliefnet says it attracts about 3 million unique visitors a month.)

Ken Woodward, a contributing editor at Newsweek who covered religion at the news magazine for more than 40 years, says these “awards are very well deserved.” Debra Mason, executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association and a professor of journalism at the University of Missouri, notes that Beliefnet is “highly respected” among her group’s members.

Beliefnet’s editorial and business identities, as described in interviews with both former and current staffers as well as several knowledgeable observers, appear to be rooted in two basic strategies—social networking and journalistic balance.

Social networking is the growing phenomenon—popularized by sites like MySpace and Facebook—that allows people to exchange ideas and debate issues directly with one another on the Web. According to current and former staffers, Beliefnet’s message boards and chat rooms—the main components of social networking—serve as a social catalyst for people to organize and meet in their own communities, such as Hindu residents in the Midwest.

“There is something about religion and spirituality that makes people want to connect with one another,” says Paul O’Donnell, a former senior editor at Beliefnet. The site’s message boards cover virtually all faiths, from Christianity, Judaism, and Islam to less traditional ones, like Paganism, Witchcraft and Scientology.

=Beliefnet also tries to defuse the potentially polarizing topic of religion by remaining theologically neutral and offering different perspectives on contentious issues. The guiding principle is to try and create trust among the site’s readers, according to Deborah Caldwell, Beliefnet’s managing editor since October 2005. One example of this, Caldwell says, is how the site handled the Episcopal Church’s General Convention a few years ago when it tackled the issue of whether to ordain gay ministers.

Beliefnet had bloggers on both sides of the issue filing stories every day to try and keep the coverage “extremely balanced,” she says.

And in bestowing its 2007 National Magazine Award, the American Society of Magazine Editors lauded Beliefnet for “its ability to unite a diverse audience under one digital roof.”

When he started this venture in 1998, Steve Waldman left US News & World Report to launch a magazine about religion that he wanted to name Belief. But after venture capitalists convinced him the Internet was the future for journalism, Waldman decided to make his magazine a Web site, and Beliefnet.com was launched in December 1999.

A former Beliefnet editor says that during its earliest years, the outlet sought to create an intellectual forum where the country’s leading thinkers on religion, politics and culture would debate the big theological issues shaping the Culture Wars.

“The times played into Beliefnet’s mission during those times.It seemed like almost every story from then had to with religion and culture, from the debate over stem cell research to the battle between the West and Islam after 9/11,” says Paul O’Donnell.

On Beliefnet’s payroll at the time were a number of prominent intellectuals, such as Eliot Abrams, a well-known neoconservative, and Rabbi Michael Lerner, a liberal activist who runs the Jewish magazine Tikkun.

At the same time, the operation cultivated an ambitious business strategy that mirrored the ethos of Internet entrepreneurs in the late 1990s. The site’s business model, to the extent that one existed, was based on a number of different, unproven revenue streams.Along with news and commentary, visitors to Beliefnet.com could book a vacation or access an online dating service.There was even talk of adding a publishing house to the company’s assets, and employees were asked to research the cost of renting warehouses outside New York City where new books could be stored.

But as was the case for thousands of other Web sites, the party came to an abrupt halt when the Internet bubble burst, forcing Waldman to declare bankruptcy and lay off all but five employees. Those few remaining staffers worked at minimum wage, although they were given stock in the company which, according to a recent New York Times article, could now be valued at as much as $100 million.

Eventually, the site retooled with the support of venture capital and adopted a new business model based predominantly on online advertising. Beliefnet also became less text-based, shifting its resources into more audio and video components, and augmenting the social networking component with more than 100 hundred different topics (form home schooling to yoga) and a roster of beliefs that range from Atheism to Zoroastrianism. (According to that Times article, its revenue has surged by at least 50% in the last four years, reaching $12.6 million in 2006.)

Caldwell, who came over from the Dallas Morning News in 1999 to help launch Beliefnet.com, says that over time, the site has become “more spiritual, more interactive, more a place you go and click around and do things.”It still covers the major stories, like the recent passing of Moral Majority founder Rev. Jerry Falwell, but probably in a different way than it would have a few years back.

In the wake of Falwell’s death, Beliefnet published several commentaries from those who knew him and were directly affected by his work.But they were more like remembrances than arguments about Falwell’s controversial legacy. And unlike the headier days of the late 1990s, the commentaries were posted alongside prayer circles and polls, where users could weigh in and offer their own views.

Both Caldwell and Waldman are quick to point out that Beliefnet also offers a great deal of “service journalism,” or reporting that is designed to provide pragmatic advice to readers. Thus, readers will find guidance on meditation, prayer, coping with death and divorce, and parenting.

In describing Beliefnet, Waldman compares it to two popular sites. In terms of service orientation, he mentions ESPN.com, which allows its users to participate in Fantasy Baseball leagues. And he singles out Webmd.com, a site that offers wide-ranging medical guidance from a diverse variety of sources. What Beliefnet isn’t, he says, is the spiritual equivalent of the New York Times, a traditional journalistic venture whose primary mission does not extend past reporting and analysis.

“Beliefnet.com wants to provide tools and resources to help people meet their spiritual needs. The New York Times, on the other hand, would not provide tools like prayer and meditation,” Waldman says.

David Vaina for PEJ