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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