Providing online religion for the masses

The ichthys, an ancient Christian symbol

The ichthys, an ancient Christian symbol

In the past three years, a quintet of engaging religion news sites has cropped up across the country. Why? By the end of the past decade, it was clear that newspaper editors were cutting costs wherever they could and the religion beat was often the first to go. Numerous cities were without any non-sectarian religion coverage whatsoever as religion reporters were either laid off (which is what happened to me) or transferred to other beats (Jeffrey Weiss for the Dallas Morning News is a key example). One writer who was laid off from her Connecticut paper was Tracy Simmons. She dreamed up her own religion news web site for the Hartford area called and did quite well, eventually winning an award in 2011 for best religion news section. She was a pioneer in independent religion news sites.

Pick your faith

Pick your faith

Meanwhile, the Religion Newswriters Association, the professional group for people who cover religion for the secular media, was thinking of ways to launch similar sites. Their affiliate, the Religion Newswriters Foundation, formed a nonprofit, Religion News LLC, and got a three-year grant ($3.5 million) from the Lilly Endowment to pay for staff, web site maintenance and other expenses. The majority of the Lilly grant was to cover the expense of acquiring and running/expanding a site known as Religion News Service, a nationally syndicated wire service with a Washington DC-based staff. The money also went toward developing a website template/technology that RNS would use. Part of the grant also went towards the founding of a handful of city-wide religion news sites. The major caveat for the latter is that those sites would not be in a city where there was an existing religion writer at the local paper. Tracy Simmons was the first person hired. She requested a move to Spokane, as the daily paper there had no religion writer and the closest such reporter was in Tacoma, more than 200 miles away. She also had some family in the area; hence a move to Washington state.
The site was called Religion News Spokane. Now it’s FAVS for Faith And ValueS. SpokaneFAVS was unofficially launched in August 2011, then went official in the spring of 2012. It was followed by one in Wilmington, N.C., overseen by Amanda Greene, who left the Star News (the local paper) for the effort which gave her an opportunity to be at home with her children. Then came the Columbia., Mo., FAVS, which is overseen by Kellie Kotraba, a University of Missouri School of Journalism graduate who is assisted by students at the university. Then there was one started in Toledo, Ohio, overseen by David Yonke, who left the Toledo Blade to start the FAVs site. The most recent launch (Sept. 6, 2012) was the Hartford FAVS, overseen by Ann Marie Somma, a local Hartford journalist. The platform for all the sites is WordPress.
The sites in Wilmington and Spokane have managed to partner with local radio stations or papers to run some of the pieces in their print and online editions. FAVs include everything from religious art walking tours, comments sections, guest columnists, religion questions of the day (last Friday’s was “Does God Have Favorites?”). Part of their strength comes from their linkage to RNS. In addition to local religion news, each site gets an RNS feed, so that the local editor doesn’t have to come up with all the content. They also share content with each other.

Hanukkah menorah

Hanukkah menorah

Each FAVs editor has 20-40 community contributors and they have 3-7 stories a day on each site (much of it from RNS). The editors do fundraising, community engagement, reporting, advertising plus oversee their volunteers. Pay is roughly $30K a year, so either the writers have to be married to someone who’s bringing in a salary or do adjunct work at local universities to make ends meet. However, they do get benefits through the University of Missouri where Debra Mason, the executive director of the RNA, also teaches journalism. The FAVs effort is headed up by Tiffany McCallen, the former associate RNA director and now community manager for Religion News LLC. She is based in Ohio. She’s had queries from other RNA members about starting more sites but plans are not to do more until money for the next three years is assured. Religion News LLC is in the final year of the Lilly grant and they are applying for renewal soon.
When I asked Tiffany about reaction to the sites and feedback, “We’re getting a wide variety in different places,” she told me. “The formula is different in each city. Consumption of news is different. In Spokane, there is a great hunger for this kind of news. Tracy is changing peoples’ lives out there. We are getting testimony after testimony from people about it.” People in Washington state tend to be very engaged online, where as in Wilmington, “It is more Old South,” she said. “They are not as tech savvy. Amanda has to engage with her community in person.” So Amanda put a request on the site asking faith communities to each contribute a square for an interfaith quilt. A local quilt chapter put it together and a local museum displayed it. That helped stoke interest. Other editors have thought up progressive dinners, cemetery tours, film festivals, online church listings, ads (which on FAVs are a lot cheaper than those the local print newspaper has) and coffee talks on certain topics.
But it’s not just the faith crowd that likes the FAVs sites.
“Every city is interested in religion news,” Tiffany said. “They like the interfaith aspect…the free-thought folks and the nones (people are not affiliated with a house of worship) like being included in the dialogue. Seems like atheists consume religion news enmass.”

Yes, atheists read religion news

Yes, atheists read religion news

Typically, she added, it takes about a year with one of these sites to figure out how your audience is responding to you and then craft a strategy on how to turn it into a profitable venture. The goal is to get each site sustainable, increase salaries and hire help for each of the editors. (They do get some help from students who are social media interns who will do the posting on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.) All the site operators have to be entrepreneurs and get up to speed fast on advertising and fundraising. It helps greatly that Tiffany is a graphic designer who turns out brochures, banners, business cards, web ads and at least 10 marketing messages a month for each of the five FAVs sites, helping them save loads of money.
I drew several conclusions from our conversation. There is definitely a market for this sort of site, as many cities lack any sort of centralized religion coverage or religion bulletin board. The only other comparable effort that either of us knew about was “A Journey Through NYC Religions,” which only concentrates on the country’s largest city. But the FAVs effort is the only such project that works on a national scale.
The biggest challenge is funding. One problem with seeking funds from community foundations is that some won’t fund anything to do with religion, even though the FAVS sites are not in themselves sectarian. However, the idea of non-profits subsidizing journalism is a growing one and may be the only way efforts such as the FAVs sites can work. See Rem Rieder’s column in USA Today about such philanthropic support. Religion sites, like symphony orchestras, will need ongoing support even though the idea behind FAVs is to attract enough local advertising that each site can eventually be financially independent. When I was a religion writer for the Houston Chronicle, one of the greatest services we performed was running tons of announcements, which is how folks figured out what was going on. Any site that provides this service to a community will survive, now that few newspapers are providing it. Contributing to the ongoing religious vibrancy of a community, especially for smaller religious groups that have trouble making their voices heard, is a worthy outcome for funders. All the FAVs sites show plenty of community engagement and impact, so hopefully some of the big media foundations, like the James L. Knight Foundation, will step up to the plate.
Lastly, it would be very difficult to run one such site alone. All five sites rely greatly on the RNS feeds and Tiffany’s support. One writer in one city could never produce several stories a day to fill such a site. AOL’s Patch system of hyper local sites is similar. The individual city editors get support from each other and a staff of managers funded by AOL, plus national ads. Even so, Patch just laid off hundreds of people, so the FAVs folks have a right to be cautious and not over expand. There’s been an exodus lately of religion writers from large newspapers, which has piqued discussion about whether the American public wants religion news. The success of the FAVs sites proves that they do.


2 thoughts on “Providing online religion for the masses

  1. Carrie Brown says:

    Fascinating. An excellent and instructive startup example that could help us a lot going forward. . Great job, Julia, offering so much good detail and good quotes.

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