Murdoch meets Oprah, kills Beliefnet?

Today is a big day in the ongoing story about the status of and what that says about the world of mainstream religion news and commentary. Why is today a big day? More on that latter.

But first, here is an update on my recent post here entitled, "Beliefnet: Trying to sell fog?" You might recall that I tried to sum up the rather sobering marketing lesson learned by Beliefnet founder Steven Waldman this way:

The bottom line: People didn't want information. They wanted a kind of vague, non-judgmental help -- in the form of listservs and prayer circles in which they were communing with people they would almost certainly never meet in a religious context involving doctrine and face-to-face contact. It was niche, digital spirituality, pure and simple. ...

Please note how well this fits the view of religion in American that is emerging from the statistics generated by the Gallup team, George Barna & Co., the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and others. Right now, America consists of about 10 percent of dedicated non-believers or true religious liberals on the left, about 10 to 15 percent of dedicated religious traditionalists on the right and, in the middle, is OprahAmerica.

Now, a veteran commentator on these kinds of issues (and someone who used to frequent the GetReligion comment boxes) has weighed in with a fascinating feature on the same topic and, alas, has reached a rather similar conclusion. The author of the piece is Michael Triplett of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association and the headline on the piece asks a very basic question: "Did Rupert Murdoch Kill Beliefnet?"

You need to read the whole essay, but here is the top of the report:

When Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation took over Beliefnet in 2007, some feared that the site known for its ecumenical approach to religion and faith would turn into a Fox News-styled mouthpiece for social and religious conservatives. With the storied site now sold and some people writing its obituary, it appears that Beliefnet was harmed not by becoming Fox, but instead by becoming too much like O, the Oprah Magazine full of self-help columns and vague spirituality.

Beliefnet will always have a place in the history of the online journalism world, having experienced a meteoric rise and fall and rebirth helmed by Steven Waldman, one of the site's co-founders and a pioneer of online journalism.

But when Fox Entertainment Group -- which ran faith-related entities HarperCollins' Zondervan, HarperOne brands, and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment's faith-based programming -- took over the site, the news content that made Beliefnet famous began to collapse to be replaced by self-help blogs, prayer requests, and mystical, pop-religion talk of angels and gauzy spirituality all in an attempt to make more money.

Look past, please, the slap at Fox being a mouthpiece for "social and religious conservatives." One of the ironies in this whole story is that the Murdoch media companies -- especially Fox -- are essentially libertarian in their approaches to the world of morality and culture and, while their commentary shows love to take slaps at the cultural left (I base that on my reading, since I never watch TV commentary shows), the Fox network itself has made no attempt to devote in-depth coverage to religion news that is of interest to people on the right, the left or in the middle.

But Triplett's main point is dead on accurate. The Murdoch folks were perfectly willing to spin even further in the direction of mushy, post-doctrinal religion if that was what was wanted by readers and online advertisers (hello, faith-based diet squads). The question everyone is asking is whether the site's new owners, with their post-denominational evangelical/charismatic roots, will stay faithful to this non-news approach.

Note the howling irony here. At the heart of this approach is the assumption that religious faith and commitment is rooted in emotions and experience. Thus, why cover news that is based in information and facts? There are no facts here. Everything is opinion. This is, of course, the same philosophy that seems to drive most (not all) of what is published at the "On Faith" site run by the Washington Post and nonNewsweek.

But is this simply the way things are today? That's depressing. Thus, we read:

David Gibson, now at AOL's PoliticsDaily, joined Beliefnet to cover Pope Benedict XVI's 2008 visit to the U.S. at the urging of Waldman. In an email to Mediaite, he said he was drawn to the site not for the money -- which is notoriously low -- but because he got to do the kind of coverage he wanted and Beliefnet had the reputation as a good outlet for religion journalism.

"I'm not sure anything in particular went wrong that anything could cure," Gibson said. "Beliefnet was one of the first sites of its kind, and the Internet tends to be kinder to next generations of inventions rather than the original."

Now, Triplett notes, it is time for to face another major challenge:

By far, Beliefnet's most well-known and successful current blogger is Rod Dreher, a former Dallas Morning News editorial writer who also had stints at the National Review and the New York Post. His blog averages about 400,000 pages views a month, which is around 100,000 fewer a month since he changed the blog's focus to be less political after joining the staff of the non-partisan John Templeton Foundation.

Dreher, who has been at Beliefnet since 2006, is leaving the site ... when the blog moves to Templeton's Big Questions Online. The move was part of the deal Dreher struck when he moved to Templeton and was agreed on before News Corp's decision to sell the site. ...

Despite the notoriety he's gotten from the site, Dreher says he's disappointed that Murdoch and News Corp. didn't push for more commentary and a harder news focus. He said that there was initially hope that Murdoch and News Corp. would use Bnet to create religion news content for its other properties -- including Fox News -- but that never happened.

"[A]s far as I can tell, Fox has no interest -- zero, zilch, nada -- in religion news," Dreher said. "It's such a mystery to me -- as if the Fox News Channel demographic has no natural interest in religion! But that's how it was, and it was a bit discouraging. There was only so much Steve could do."

By all means, read the whole essay. However, there needs to be an update.

Why? Because yesterday was the day that Dreher -- a close friend of my whole family, I confess -- locked down his Beliefnet blog and opened his new Macroculture cybershop at Big Questions Online.

Thus, it's time to change that bookmark. It is also time to pay even closer attention to and its fortunes, because a massive congregation of readers -- or a goodly number of them -- may be headed over to a new sanctuary.

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