CNN’s religion blog ends first year

Well, it’s been about a year and a half since that first meeting in a Thai restaurant in Union Station in which I met with a GetReligion reader named Eric Marrapodi to talk about what seemed, at first, to be a logical, yet still audacious concept. Marrapodi is a CNN pro and he wanted to create a serious religion news and commentary weblog at CNN. Thus, he wanted to pick my brain a bit.

I blogged about that meeting a few months later, when Marrapodi told me it was fair game to do so, since the site was then on the launch pad. Here’s a piece of that earlier summary of the facts behind the project (facts that, quite frankly, apply to quite a few other news organizations that have yet to take this leap).

The topic for the day: Blogging about religion, especially in a multimedia, multi-platform world. It seems that the wider CNN world included a fair share of people, working in various job descriptions, who are interested in religion news. The problem was that they were spread out all over the place.

What they needed was a hub, a place where their work could be collected and then turn into something bigger. At the very least, we concluded, there needed to be a multimedia weblog.

We talked about signing up one or two big-idea people to write essays about trends in religion. Most of all, we talked about the need to CNN to commit to landing one major-league professional with print and multi-platform experience on the religion beat. They needed an air-traffic controller at the hub to control the signals coming in from across the wider CNN world. That person, of course, turned out to be Dan Gilgoff — best known for his work at U.S. News & World Report and Beliefnet.

Well, the CNN Belief Blog recently turned one and I’m sure that it’s been an interesting first year in that newsroom in cyberspace.

From my point of view, the site has been a success — even if it has, at times, leaned toward the whole “let’s run a freelance opinion essay about that really controversial issue since that will be easier than doing an actual news story” approach to religion “news.” Please know that I am not blaming the core team, of course, since that’s the direction that so much of the media is taking today.

Opinion is cheap. News is expensive. Welcome to the Internet, in the age in which a satisfactory digital advertising business model remains illusive.

However, the point of this post is to find out what GetReligion readers (who are hopefully Belief Blog readers, as well) think of Gilgoff’s anniversary post called, logically enough, “10 things the Belief Blog learned in its first year.” This post, he notes, follows the experience of “publishing 1,840 posts and sifting through 452,603 comments.”

To get things started, here is a quick, edited look at the top five items. Some of this is going to sound very familiar to GetReligion regulars.

1. Every big news story has a faith angle. Even the ordeal of 33 Chilean miners trapped underground for more than two months. Even the attempted assassination of Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords. Even March Madness. Even — well, you get the point.

2. Atheists are the most fervent commenters on matters religious. This became apparent immediately after the Belief Blog’s first official post last May, which quickly drew such comments as:

Can we have a fairy tale blog too? …

3. People are still intensely curious about the Bible, its meaning and its origins.

It’s an ancient tome, but more than any other book in the Western tradition (with the Quran being the lone exception), the Bible still fascinates us. And it still feeds our most heated debates. In February, a guest post here arguing that the Bible is more ambiguous on homosexuality than traditionally thought elicited more than 4,000 comments. A response post insisting that the Bible clearly condemns homosexuality brought in an equal number of comments — and was the most popular story on on the day it was published. …

4. Most Americans are religiously illiterate. Despite the appetite for stories and commentary about the Bible, most Americans know little about it. A huge Pew survey released in September found that most Americans scored 50 percent or less on a quiz measuring knowledge of the Bible, world religions and what the Constitution says about religion in public life. Ironically, atheists and agnostics scored best. How did you do on the quiz?

5. It’s impossible to understand much of the news without knowing something about religion. Why did the Egyptian revolution happen on a Friday? Why was Osama bin Laden’s body buried so quickly after he was killed? Why did Afghan rioters kill seven United Nations workers in April? You simply can’t answer those questions without bringing in religion. …

By all means, read it all. And let’s keep the comments focused on the journalistic consequences of these observations. That goes for you atheists, too. And all of you illiterate Bible lovers.

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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.

  • carl

    Atheists are the most fervent commenters on matters religious.

    I have assiduously avoided the CNN religion blog because .. well .. it’s CNN and as the saying goes “Can anything good come out of Atlanta?’ But I did try out the religion blog at USA Today for a month or so, and found it to be utterly pointless. Almost every thread was littered with the comments of atheists who saw every subject as an opportunity to hurl insults. It was like Kudzu. The comments weren’t even worth addressing, but they strangled every thread. It’s intolerable when you are used to places like GetReligion.

    As a general rule, I avoid large media weblogs for this very reason. The commenter pool is too large. There are just too many 19-year old college students out there who think they have discovered the Philosopher’s Stone and consider ‘Flying Spaghetti Monster’ to be hilarious. It gets old after about two weeks. Reasonable people leave because nothing of substance can be said. No conversation or argument can occur. A few brave soles stick it out, but I don’t know how. As I said, I lasted about a month. And it was unfortunate because the USA Today weblog did address some interesting topics. But the purpose of a weblog is interaction, and if it’s impossible to interact, then it’s best to go elsewhere.


  • Jerry

    I read and enjoy the CNN blog. The problem is, as noted, that it’s not a site for news but it does have quite a bit of news on the site. That can be confusing because when I look at an entry I first have to decide if it’s news, opinion or news-driven opinion. I do avoid the comment section the vast majority of the time because of the low level of discussion there.

  • Justin

    I’m kind of with Carl — I’ll check out the site, but I steer clear of the comments. There’s too many people who think themselves to be the next PZ Myers just because they read his blog.

    As for the other findings, I’m glad at least one news organization is catching on. Despite some of the opinions running a similar gamut (does Stephen Prothero really need a take on everything?), the stories are a lot more diverse than I initially expected.

    Now the bigger question for me: Is this type of thing permeating the rest of CNN? It’s nice that they have a blog looking for stories with a faith angle, but is the rest of CNN growing more aware of the faith angles in other stories?

  • GhaleonQ

    Count me among the pleasantly surprised. The year-in-review post also proves that they “get it.”

    Now that a traffic baseline has been established, both quantity- and content-wise, I hope to see them experiment and improve.

    My biggest concern is that they operate in a vacuum. Thus far, it doesn’t seem like they have had much influence within CNN or the larger online news sphere. They have an opportunity that (brilliant) websites like Get Religion don’t.

  • Bram

    The “atheists” methinks doth protest too much. If they are the most vocal group regarding religion, they are also the most insecure group regarding their faith. I think *anti-theists* would be a better term — “atheists” are people who hate God so much that they are desperately trying to pretend that He doesn’t exist.

  • Harold

    I think it’s interesting that athiests are so active on religious blogs, although I guess it isn’t surprising. Religious blogs appear to attract a lot of people who believe they are victims of some injustice. Comment sections, generally, seem to attract a lot of victimhood and a desire to voice self-interested injustice and religion news blogs are just a reflection of that reality.

  • Tim J.

    So how does GetReligion avoid having the comments section strangled by atheist attacks? Ruthless moderators?

  • http://Faith&Reason Cathy Grossman

    I’m sorry to lose thoughtful readers such as you both. I don’t know whether your concerns are with the primary F&R blog — my baby — or with its accompanying forum where readers run the threads (and sometimes run amok).
    I agree — to a degree — that the comments are a chaotic mess most of the time. But we don’t screen readers and we don’t pre-judge who is “wise” enough to respond. Back in the stone age of my young reporter days, when I got snooty about who read the paper where I then worked, the ME knocked me back saying, “I don’t care whose 25cents buys the paper.”
    If someone wants to read and react to an F&R post, come on down. We block abusive remarks and otherwise let folks go.
    What I’ve encouraged is that when you see someone whose ideas resonate with you, make that person your friend in the USA Today network and continue the conversation off the main board. Thousands of people do this.
    Hope you’ll drop back in. Cathy