A sanctuary for faith and doubt

CATCHING UP WITH ... BELIEFNET.COM

Who knew religion would be a hot commodity on the Internet? The two partners who created Beliefnet.com.

January 23, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,STAFF WRITER

As the national editor at U.S. News & World Report, Steven Waldman noticed a curious phenomenon whenever the newsmagazine put religion on the cover: Sales went up.

Waldman knew something must be up. Religion and spirituality, often the least of a hard- bitten journalist's concerns, seemed to be very much on the minds of the American public, and, more important, of interest to the baby boomers and their children sought after by advertisers.

Waldman, 37, along with his partner, Robert Nylen, 55, founding CEO of New England Monthly, hit on an idea of creating an independent, nonsectarian clearinghouse for information on religion.

But instead of creating another magazine, they have taken their venture to the Internet. Beliefnet.com, a Web site covering news and features on all major religions, made its debut earlier this month.

"We're independent," Waldman says. "We're multi-faith, multi-ideology, multi-approach. We're a neutral ground. We're not pushing our view of what you need. We're trying to help you meet your own religious and spiritual needs."

There are other places on the Web, mostly the large search engines like Yahoo or AOL, or sites associated with particular religions, that act as clearinghouses for religious information. But its creators say Beliefnet is different in that it is run by journalists.

"The big guys are great at assembling huge amounts of religion news," Nylen says. "But they're not journalistic organizations. They don't have the finding of reportorial truth as the basis of what they're all about. They're very nervous about giving offense. They quail at the thought of giving information that might alienate. And we're not."

Spirituality sells

What Beliefnet is also about is making money. It is funded by Highland Capital Partners, a Boston capital venture firm, and considers itself a conventional for-profit business.

"Most strong media organizations are avowedly for profit. They are all out to provide a service for readers to attract advertisers and make money," Nylen said. "We're for profit and we want to provide a service for our visitors and we want to provide goods and services for them, too."

Waldman and Nylen say that Beliefnet eventually will make its money from advertisers and e-commerce: selling spiritually oriented books, music, videos, religious items, holistic and alternative health products, opportunities for travel and a line of products bearing the Beliefnet logo.

Many sectarian sites, particularly evangelical Christian ventures, are already successfully doing this, Nylen says.

"In the aggregate, we calculate there is something like a $40 billion industry already in existence," he said. "We didn't invent it. We want to help organize it. We want people to be able to make their selections wisely."

The fact that Waldman and Nylen took what is basically a magazine format and went to the Internet is what generated interest in the venture, they say.

"The Internet idea just devoured the magazine, it just ate it up," Nylen says. "When we started developing an Internet-only plan, we found venture capitalists, who were just very polite before, were starting to compete for our favors.

"Within a matter of weeks, we became the recipients of overtures from a half-dozen would-be funders," he says.

Fostering a community

Their plan for success is to develop a three-prong approach. First is to provide content, news, features and high-profile columnists like the Rev. Andrew Greeley, author Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Harvey Cox and Bishop John Shelby Spong.

But the key to making Beliefnet work is to develop a community of people who log onto and interact in the site.

"It's not so much people reading the articles we do, but people talking to each other and using the site's interactive features," Waldman said. "Getting help and inspiration from each other is as or more important as getting help and inspiration from our writers."

To foster that interaction, Beliefnet gives its users opportunities to offer feedback to its articles. There are discussion groups divided according to religion and topic, and online seminars on theological topics are planned. And in one of its more innovative offerings, users can create online, interactive memorials to loved ones.

"I like to remind my friends in Washington who cover politics that the most important news event in most people's lives is not the presidential election," said Waldman, who worked for eight years in Newsweek's Washington bureau.

"It's the birth of your child or the death of a loved one. Newsweek or The Baltimore Sun can't cover every funeral or birth. But the thing about this medium is you can give people the tools to cover those events for themselves."

Once that community is built, then there is a constituency for e-commerce. "We see these as being inextricably interwoven," Nylen said. "We start with content, build community and go to commerce so we can keep this thing going."

'We can be controversial'

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