All of us are seekers, in one way or another. In everyday life, we seek meaning, understanding, ways to pass the days. On the Internet, everyone's looking for something, be it news articles or cat pics. But there's a spectrum: Websites like Beliefnet or Biblegateway.com cater to a more stereotypical version of "seekers," offering endless inspirational quotes and meditative-looking stock photos. Traditional news sites satisfy a different kind of craving, a desire for straightforward information about what's going on in the world—readers are just seekers by another name.
It's a tricky thing to try balance seeker and reader, but The Boston Globe is going to try. On Tuesday, the newspaper launched a new site called Crux, dedicated to coverage of the Catholic Church. The site will include reported pieces about the Vatican, discussions about topics like abortion and gay marriage, and "lighter fare, including quizzes, travel coverage, and recipes ... and a column called 'OMG,'" which will focus on ethical and moral dilemmas, according to the press release.
On a strategic level, a lot of things about this venture make sense. In 2012, the Archdiocese of Boston estimated that the metro area had 1.9 million Catholics—nearly half of the population. Pope Francis is extremely popular and a source of endless fascination. A decade ago, the Globe won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Church sex-abuse scandal. Plus, there are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world. "My vision is that we’re aiming not just for a national audience, but also an international audience," said John Allen Jr., a longtime Vatican reporter and one of the lead writers for the site.
But on a more abstract level, this is a fairly radical move. "It’s definitely a first to have a website from a legacy news publication launch a religion-specific site," said Diane Winston, a professor of religion and journalism at USC. It's true that there are several prominent Catholic news sites out there, including the National Catholic Register and the National Catholic Reporter. In the broader world of religion writing, there are sites like the Baptist Press, which focuses on evangelical news, or Deseret News, a site owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that wants to be "a leading news brand for faith and family oriented audiences in Utah and around the world." And there are a limited number of totally religiously unaffiliated faith news sites, like the Religion News Service.
To a limited extent, big newspapers have also created religion-focused verticals in the past, like On Faith, an independent site that started at the Washington Post. Even so, this is a new experiment: Crux not only offering reported coverage of one particular Christian denomination; it's also selecting topics and presenting information through the lens of Catholicism. As Winston pointed out, it would be like The New York Times starting a news site just for Jews.
It's also a counter-intuitive time for a news organization to pour money into any kind of religion reporting. "We all know that in the U.S., religion is in a steep decline," said Winston. "The future of Catholicism, based on the stats we have, isn't really rosy." This is particularly true for the Internet's primary constituency: Millennials, who are more religiously unaffiliated than any American generation before.
When I asked Allen about this, he acknowledged these issues ("I will affirm the question you asked," he said). But he has a lot of confidence in the Francis factor. "The Church is at a moment, which is: For the first time in a long time, it is of interest, of positive interest, not just suspicion or opposition, to a pretty wide cross-section of people out there, including young people." Winston put it more bluntly: "John Paul II was similarly charismatic, but I'm not sure Benedict would have been a big traffic driver."
It's true: Francis gets the clicks. From a business perspective, this is appealing: The Globe is betting that Catholicism is a topic with reader-growth potential, and it sees religion coverage as part of its wheelhouse. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out in its coverage of the site's launch, "building a portfolio of niche news websites has been a hallmark of the new wave of digital media companies." Just like a lot of other new ventures that have launched recently, including the New York Post's site Decider, ESPN's site FiveThirtyEight, and independent sites like Vox, Crux is betting that people are interested in reading the world through a specific lens—this one just happens to be Catholicism instead of pop culture or policy-oriented data journalism.
Which is the most radical part of all. It's common for news sites to propose that technology or politics or economics are the primary modality through which people want to read the world, but it's extremely rare for religion to be considered in the same category of knowledge. "It's hard for news media, which is determinedly secular in nature, to admit that religion is a motivating factor for people," said Winston. As she put it, religion is often treated as epiphenomenal—something that happens because of something else, like the forces of capitalism or political power.
But "there are still millions of people who go to church, who believe in God ... For them, religion is one of the primary ways they see the world," she added. "They don’t necessarily see the world in terms of their class or political affiliation."
According to Allen, a lot of resources have been put behind Crux—"doing this kind of thing isn't cheap," he said—and, as could be expected, he feels optimistic about its potential to shape the future of the newspaper. "If we pull all this off, it would change the way people think about the Globe."
And so far, articles have talked about the launch of Crux from exactly that perspective: as a media organization's move to enhance its brand and secure its future finances. But as nice as it would be to see a storied newspaper get a financial windfall, Crux is symbolic in a bigger way. As Winston said, "It's a good corrective in a society that feels like religion is totally divorced from public life."