Your GetReligionistas were exchanging emails the other day, just talking shop, and I suggesting taking a look at a news feature that had just gone online at Crux. One of the gang responded by asking this question: Do we still view Crux as a mainstream or "secular" news outlet, as opposed to being part of the world of official and semi-official Catholic news and commentary publications?
In other words, is Crux still a publication striving to use the American model of the press -- with a commitment to balance, fairness and accuracy -- or is it now an advocacy publication covering news from a distinctively Catholic point of view? After all, it used to be part of the Boston Globe operation and now it's a nonprofit publication linked, financially, to the Knights of Columbus.
These days, Crux runs copy from all over the place, including Catholic wire services as well as mainstream news from Religion News Service, the Associated Press and its own veteran scribes. Of course, there's lots of clearly-labeled commentary and op-ed work, as well.
As you would expect, the head man at Crux has been asked that question plenty of times, including by yours truly in an interview for a Universal syndicate column. Now John L. Allen, Jr., has written an "Editor’s note on Crux redesign and vision" to update his readers.
So what does he have to say?
First, here is what Allen told me several months ago, after "Crux 2.0" opened on April 1. This was a crucial test case for the whole "nonprofit journalism" model that is becoming so common today in this tense, troubled age for independent journalism. During its Globe run, Crux had plenty of readers, but the digital advertising dollars were not adding up. Thus, the goal in this new nonprofit hybrid model 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." ...
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."
Now, here is the core of Allen's new letter to his readers, provided as an update after two months of work in the new business and editorial model (and a new design for the webpage itself):
To put our foundational idea into a phrase, here it is: “Balance within Catholicism.”
We’re unambiguously committed to the teaching and tradition of the Catholic Church. We believe the Church, for all of its undeniable failures and challenges, is fundamentally a force for good in the world, and that it’s important enough to merit the highest standards of journalistic coverage.
We also believe deeply in that famous line from Chesterton: “Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground.”
We want to be open to different voices in the Catholic conversation, without stacking the deck in advance in favor of a particular viewpoint or agenda. That’s why, for instance, there are no staff editorials on Crux. Everything carries a byline, and represents the position of the author.
As much as possible, Crux itself has no editorial line other than getting the story right and fostering informed, constructive debate. My personal definition of success will be if, over the long haul, smart readers have a hard time saying whether they find us “liberal” or “conservative.”
This is, admittedly, a counter-intuitive project. In an era in which everything is presumed to have a political agenda, the idea of a media outlet trying as best it can to operate without one will always jar, and because we won’t supply a label for ourselves, others will occasionally try to do it for us.
All I can ask is that you judge Crux by the totality of what you see, not individual pieces that might irk or irritate.
That last line is crucial for any news publication.
I'll say it again: The Crux project is crucial for anyone who is interested in the future of specialty beat journalism of all kinds, especially covering religion news. With the continuing woes linked to digital advertising, it's clear that foundations, academic institutions and powerful donors are going to become involved in more and more news projects.
The key is whether veteran journalists remain at the wheel of the ship and retain the right to do accurate, balanced coverage of voices on both sides of hot-button issues. It also helps if the news is clearly labeled "news" and the advocacy, commentary product is clearly labeled, as well. Readers are confused enough about the fading lines between those two different kinds of reporting and writing.