Will Beliefnet be born again?

As you would expect, your GetReligionistas have been getting quite a bit of email asking what we think of the sale of Beliefnet.com by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Folks are especially interested in the semi-mysterious buyers.

Truth be told, there has not been that much mainstream news coverage of this event, which may tell you something about the identity issues that Beliefnet.com has faced in the past (and will almost certainly continue to face in the future). What was the old Beliefnet.com, anyway? Was it an interfaith site built on opinion, weight-loss information, ads for vaguely spiritual books/media and, buried in there somewhere, a collection of links to hard-news reports about religion (mostly, thank goodness, from Religion News Service)?

In one online report, you could learn a few basic facts about the buyers:

BN Media is the investment group behind long-distance services company Affinity4 and religious online video operator Cross Bridge Media, according to a Belifnet memo written by Beliefnet GM/COO Beth-Ann Eason (which is embedded below). Beliefnet has had existing relationships with both those entities.

Here is a key snippet from that Eason memo:

For those of you who aren’t familiar with these companies, Affinity4 is an affinity marketer that has raised more than $76 million in funding for charities, ministries and other nonprofit organizations by turning ordinary activities into extraordinary giving. Cross Bridge features online distribution and monetization of audio-video content for nonprofits and ministries. Steve Halliday, who runs BN Media, will visit our offices to address our team and share more about his vision for our company on Monday.

We have also taken the difficult step of cutting a number of jobs from Beliefnet’s staff. We are losing a number of great people, each of whom has contributed to our success over the years, and I hope you will join me in thanking them for their efforts and helping them through this transition. These cuts were a necessary step to ensure Beliefnet can continue growing as efficiently and effectively as possible.

How big are the staff cuts? I have not seen an on-the-record quote about that.

Now, early on, I found that it wasn’t too hard to click a mouse two or three times and find out that Cross Bridge management team was full of people with rock-solid credentials in the world of evangelical/charismatic Protestantism. It goes without saying that this would be a bit intimidating for those who appreciated the old Beliefnet.com formula that reached out to the mushy middle in the world of OprahAmerica spirituality.

To study that information for yourself, click here to see the “senior advisers” for that organization — led off by co-founder Jay Sekulow, a leader in conservative law, culture, media and politics. Oh, and you may have heard of another co-founder — Pentecostal bishop and superstar preacher T.D. Jakes.

However, I am happy to report that Christianity Today online has posted a hard-news piece that gets into many essential angles of this story, including the upcoming departure of Rod “friend of this weblog” Dreher, whose wildly popular blogging work at Beliefnet will soon move over to the new Big Questions Online site that he will edit for the Templeton Foundation. We can assume that he will continue to post his usual 5,000-10,000 words of blog commentary a day at that site.

Near the end of the CT report, Dreher notes:

“Beliefnet could have been integrated into the News Corp. organization as a gatherer and disseminator of religious news and opinion for News Corp. properties, but that never happened,” Dreher said in an e-mail. “I know too that Beliefnet has long wanted to get back into the business of religious ‘hard news,’ but the fact of the matter is, the soft-focus spiritual features are what drove traffic to the site.”

Dreher, who usually writes commentary related to current events, said he wondered whether his blog’s readers were that interested in the rest of Beliefnet.

“[R]eligiously observant journalists like me love to complain that the American media doesn’t get religion, and it really is true. But what if the American public doesn’t get religion either, at least not in a journalistic sense?” he said. “I mean, what if they don’t want serious, sustained and critical coverage of American religious life, both the good and the bad, but rather prefer their religion news to be soft and self-helpy?”

I am sure that this was a sobering quote to the CT reporter, one Sarah Pulliam Bailey.

Keep your eyes open and help us watch for mainstream coverage on this. Watch the New York Times, in particular, which I imagine will be tempted to jump on the Religious Right takeover angle.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Martha

    What on earth is “affinity marketing”? And as for “turning ordinary activities into extraordinary giving”, can it really be possible to make a profit running a business telling people “Hey, you know that little local cake sale you have to raise money for the church hall? Well, if you go nationwide with ‘Everyone Bake A Pie Thursday’, you can make $$$$!’. Apparently it is.

    And is it mean of me to giggle every time I see T.D. Jakes refer to himself as a bishop? (I know it’s dreadfully unecumenical, but is it mean as well?)

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

    I covered the sale earlier this week. I have no idea what will ultimately become of Beliefnet, but I’m not going to wager any money on the site’s official Pagan blogger enjoying a prolonged residency with the new paymasters. Frankly, I think there’s too much competition for the site to ever regain the prominence it once held, so maybe a cultural/theological shift rightward might actually be a good move for them.

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

    Martha, whenever I see someone call themselves “Bishop”, I think of a particular Monty Python sketch. But that’s just me.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Be nice, folks. The next thing you know someone will be saying that the Pentecostals have as much right to the word “bishop” as the Anglicans. Actually, in Associated Press style, they DO have just as much right.

  • Jettboy

    I stopped participating with Beliefnet when content became too complicated and overstuffed. They seriously need to slim down their discussion content. Too many sub-subjects and sub-sub subjects were put on the site that it became near impossible to follow. I gave up trying and left.

    Another problem is that they relied too heavily on outside sources of information. It became a news dump rather than its own content. As a participant I no longer felt part of the community, but a cog in the wheel of a bloated machine.

  • http://home.sandiego.edu/~baber H. E. Baber

    I participated in some of the Beliefnet blogs a few years ago. The clientele were weird. They couldn’t tolerate any serious argument. When disagreement developed within one of the zillions of message boards Beliefnet maintained, the management subdivided it so that no one would have to see posts–even en passent while scrolling down–which they found disagreeable.

    That seems to have been the draw: here was a safe place where everything was nice, with sweet little adverts for nice products and inspirational stories.

    But this is the religion that sells–not only on the internet but on the ground: self-help, sentimentality, uplift and suburban cheer. Conseder Saddleback and other Evangelical-Lite megachurches who thrive on that formula.

  • http://faithandreason.usatoday.com Cathy Grossman

    Gee, where have I read something like Rod’s comment, “What if the American public doesn’t get religion either, at least not in a journalistic sense?”
    That sounds a whole lot like what I said was the next big story, the “Meh,” story.
    I stopped reading Beliefnet when Waldman checked out.

  • Maureen

    Well, it was never called Serious News Site about Religion Nuts and Bolts. It was freakin’ BeliefNet. It was always soft focus. What did Rod expect?

    I mean, if you go get employed by Highlights Magazine, you don’t expect to be doing much hard-hitting investigative reporting on Chinese pencil manufacturers.

  • http://home.sandiego.edu/~baber H. E. Baber

    Watch the New York Times, in particular, which I imagine will be tempted to jump on the Religious Right takeover angle.

    Not. Here’s the NYTimes article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/03/us/03beliefs.html.

    Most apt comment? “Beliefnet, an online magazine that has survived since 1999 by nurturing every aspect of our conflicted spirituality. It has united angels and yoga, monotheism and meditation. Beliefnet has become America.” Most depressing? “Waldman confirmed that overtly religious content was sequestered from certain parts of the site; many advertisers fine with yoga and angelology are allergic to the words “God” and “Bible.”

    Jeez: why is yoga, and such bs and sentimental slop as angelology ok but God and Bible allergenic? Fair reporting, yes. But the irritating assumption is that while new age slop is a neutral, embedded part of our culture OF COURSE Christianity isn’t socially acceptable–makes advertisers break out in hives.

  • MJBubba

    At least Highlights Magazine gets religion.