Four years ago, I traveled to Kiev to take part in a gathering of journalists from across Europe, especially Eastern Europe. The reason we made the trip (I went because of my role in The Media Project) to Ukraine was to talk about faith and journalism -- especially the lives of believers who work in mainstream media.
That really wasn't the topic that dominated conversations, both in the hallways and in our formal discussion groups.
Reporter after reporter, editor after editor, talked about the growing number of attempts in their nations to carry on with independent journalism despite the failure of digital advertising programs to deliver the financial goods. The readers were there. The ad-based business model was failing. Everyone was seeking some kind of compromise with the new digital realities.
What was the alternative? People were trying to find ways to hook journalists up to support from non-profit groups, even religious groups, to provide critical financial support for these online projects -- but with few, if any, editorial ties that would bind.
You can probably tell where I am going with this. Every year, I write a column in early April linked to some kind of religion-news centered event or topic. I do this as close as possible to the anniversary of the creation of my weekly "On Religion" syndicated column, which began 28 years ago, this week, with Scripps Howard and then switched to the Universal syndicate.
This year, I wrote about the symbolic and practical importance of the Crux project in online Catholic news, which began with The Boston Globe and just -- after the Globe cut the financial lifelines -- now continues in a partnership with the Knights of Columbus. This was also the topic of this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.
I contacted Allen and we hooked up -- Rome to hills of East Tennessee -- to talk about what he has learned, so far, during the Crux project. Then I wrote my column. It starts like this:
No one is surprised when The Wall Street Journal covers Wall Street, Disney releases a princess movie or Apple creates another wonder framed in aluminum.
Some professionals just do what they do. Thus, anyone who follows religion news knew that The Boston Globe's Crux website, which debuted 18 months ago, was going to be bookmarked by legions of Catholic-news junkies. Reporter John L. Allen Jr. was going to do that thing that he does.
Alas, as so often happens, an online journalism project that drew millions of computer-mouse clicks failed to generate the stream of advertising revenue Globe executives needed to keep the cyber-doors open. This has led to a partnership -- raising many Catholic eyebrows -- between Allen and the Knights of Columbus, producing a "Crux 2.0," which opened on April 1.
This kind of union is becoming increasingly common. The goal is to marry a commitment to real journalism with financial support from a cooperative nonprofit group.
For this to work, the "people on the other side of the deal have to believe in what you are doing and see the wisdom of becoming part of your brand," said Allen, reached by telephone in Rome. "Your partners also have to be smart enough to realize that a key part of your brand is that you are seen -- by your readers -- as being truly independent."
There's the big idea, right there.
The Crux project was very important, when it began, because it represented a major commitment by a mainstream news organization to the subject of religion-news coverage -- of Catholicism wo be specific. Would that work? Would the add revenue be there.
Once again: The readers were there, but not the revenue stream from digital ads.
Now, Crux 2.0 is highly symbolic because it represents real, brand-name mainstream journalism that is being supported by a non-profit that -- in writing -- says it understands that Allen & Co. need real independence as journalists.
But let's look in the rear-view mirror for a moment. Here is another major chunk of that column:
Allen said he learned three sobering truths about covering religion news online, while fighting to keep Crux alive.
* For starters, "It's a hell of a lot of work" to feed the online-news beast -- especially with a small staff. But the readers are out there, said Allen, as demonstrated by the million-plus readers that Crux drew in a typical month. Put Pope Francis and Donald Trump in the same story and "we went well north of a million-plus."
Obviously, this pope is "a very compelling story. ... We are not having trouble finding eyeballs. I'm having trouble, right now, finding the time and energy to keep putting information in front of those eyeballs, hour after hour, day after day."
* Everyone knows the bottom-line question for websites such as Crux: How does one fund -- in an age when journalism's old advertising-plus-subscriptions revenue model has broken down -- a team that can produce news about Catholic events and trends around the world, 24 hours a day, seven days a week?
Allen stressed: "You have to find people who believe in what you're doing, people who want to support quality journalism and they want to do it for the right reasons."
* Like it or not, the key to finding readers and maintaining a network of supporters is social media, such as Twitter and Facebook. "That's the reality, now. That's just the way things spread," said Allen. "The problem is that no one really understands how that works."
The other problem is that when news "goes viral" online, this often happens because networks of like-minded activists are pushing a particular cause. It would be easy, admitted Allen, to keep pushing these buttons with waves of opinionated prose that preaches to the same choir day after day.
After all, opinion is cheap, while producing truly independent and well-sourced reporting is, and always will be, much more expensive.
And I love this brave final quote:
"It is our delusional conviction," said Allen, that "we can keep covering Catholic news for readers who are pro-information and don't want to settle for an approach that polarizes everything that happens. ... But whatever happens, we are not losing interest in the Catholic story."