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Finding faith online remains popular, challenging 20 years after Web explosion

POSTED: June 19, 2014 11:00 a.m.
Patheos.com/

Patheos is celebrating its fifth anniversary.

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The Internet, many will claim, is a repository of some of the lowest elements of society: pornography, hateful propaganda and ranting, intolerant screeds and rampant commercialism.

It's also a place to find connections to faith, a priceless commodity if ever there was one.
But can a faith-based website be a profitable business as well as a public service?

Five years ago, interfaith couple Leo and Cathie Brunnick decided to find out, launching patheos.com, an "independent religion and spirituality website" that now draws, it claims, 6 million unique monthly visitors. According to Web advertising research firm quantcast.com, which says Patheos' monthly global audience is 5.8 million unique visitors, its online viewership places it in the top 500 U.S. websites.

"The world is calling for intelligent, civil conversation about faith, and Patheos meets that need," Patheos CEO Leo Brunnick said in a statement. "From Atheists and Muslims to Pagans and Christians, Patheos is a model for how the world’s divergent belief systems can not only coexist, but engage each other in meaningful dialogue."

Yet while different faiths can coexist and engage, history has shown it's a tougher road for entrepreneurs to earn income from, or "monetize" in Internet-speak, their rich content. Readers may want to read about faith topics, but whether those numbers are large enough to attract the advertising dollars and related revenue to sustain such ventures remains to be seen.

Casting a large shadow
The idea behind Patheos, Leo Brunnick said, is to "create a multi-faith conversation in a for-profit model."

Leo and Cathie Brunnick created their own multifaith conversation first. The couple, both veteran executives with various software and technology companies, met as single parents, dated and planned on blending their families.

"I was raised Catholic," Leo Brunnick recalled, "and Cathie was raised Lutheran but was now a nondenominational kind of evangelical." As the two sought a church appropriate for all their children, Leo Brunnick found little useful in the way of online resources, especially those that helped people understand various religions. Searching led to thinking and planning, and in 2009, the Patheos site launched.

Today, there's little doubt Patheos casts a large shadow in the religious sphere.

Speaking from his Denver, Colorado, headquarters, Brunnick said Patheos hosts what he said were the largest websites — "channels" in Patheos-speak — on Catholicism, atheism and "progressive" Christianity, which is often defined as both politically and theologically progressive by observers.

More mainstream fare is also available, with channels covering Jewish, Mormon, evangelical Christian, Buddhist and Muslim topics, as well as one for spirituality. The site also hosts forays into general culture, including an entertainment channel and GetReligion, a blog (to which this reporter contributed before joining the Deseret News) covering how the press does, or doesn't, cover issues of faith.

Patheos is not the first or only multifaith website, however. Beliefnet.com and crosswalk.com are pioneers in the formula and have been around for close to 20 years. Neither venture has become wildly profitable, and neither Beliefnet, Patheos nor Crosswalk have cracked the ranks of the top 100 websites, according to comScore, another Web ratings firm.

Profits vs. proselytizing
Many religious websites — from the Roman Catholic Church's www.vatican.va to the Orthodox Jewish website judaism.org and islamicity.com, a Muslim outreach — are nonprofit sites aimed at promoting a given faith tradition. The more savvy among those doing outreach — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' mormon.org is a noted example — actively seek to bring Web surfers in as visitors.

Commercial sites, such as Patheos, aim at profit over proselytizing. And to accomplish that, the sites also need to be found by Internet users and then viewed by them, a task sometimes easier said than done.

Viability, for many media properties, has long been a challenge of the Internet. While commercial media websites such as espn.com, buzzfeed.com and nbcnews.com — to name just three — have drawn massive traffic, as well as advertising to help sustain their operations, many others have faltered, both before and after the famed bust of the "dot-com bubble" in the spring of 2000.

Beliefnet.com, the pioneering multifaith website founded by journalist Steve Waldman, burned through $26 million in venture capital before filing for bankruptcy in 2002, The New York Times reported. The site remains in business, under its third owner in a decade, and is as likely to include a piece on "Inspiring World Cup Moments" as it is to have a link to an online Bible study.
A commercial site with a decidedly evangelical focus, crosswalk.com, is also a longtime Internet presence with nearly 20 years online, but Quantcast puts its total of unique monthly visitors — the online world's equivalent of magazine circulation — at 490,000, hardly an overwhelming success in a nation with as many as 90 million to 100 million like-minded believers, according to estimates from Wheaton College's Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals.

Will advertisers bite?
Stephen O'Leary, an associate professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, has his doubts that sites such as Patheos and Beliefnet are viable. He describes them as "a hodgepodge" and wondered if committed believers would "go to a site where you are one faith among many." He said such wide-ranging sites "don't monetize very easily."

Websites generally "monetize" through the sale of advertising to big business, commissions or profits on products sold via an online Web store or subscription fees for full access, as are charged by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other large newspapers. Patheos sells advertising and has a Web store — Brunnick says the firm has tried several revenue streams — and offers "premium subscriptions" to interactive blogs covering Hindu and Pagan beliefs, though the vast majority of its content is available gratis.

Patton Dodd, a former senior editor at Beliefnet and former managing editor for Patheos, says selling online ads alongside religious commentary can be a challenge.

"The way the story usually is told within the industry is that national advertisers that spend money on ads are nervous about religion; (companies) don't want their brand associated with religious debates and sectarian piety," he said.
"Even though there's lots of eyeballs on the content," Dodd, now vice president of content for faithstreet.com, said these firms have had "a hard time getting major advertisers committing to buying ads on their pages."

A canvass of the Patheos site tends to confirm this. Along with a banner ad across the screen for Kraft Foods are other ads more likely to feature Game Show Network's "The American Bible Challenge" series or an ad for "Certification in Spiritual Direction" from Southern Methodist University. The country's top national advertisers — which AdAge magazine lists as Procter & Gamble Co., General Motors, Comcast Corp., AT&T and Verizon Communications — are far less likely to show up, however.
Privately held Patheos doesn't release financial figures, and Brunnick conceded the site isn't yet profitable.

"We are spending more than we make, but those lines are in the process of crossing," he said. "Patheos could spend less than it makes if we didn't want to grow to the next level."

Brunnick remains optimistic that Patheos can hit "a home run" by growing its audience for multifaith content from its current 6 million unique visitors to 10 million, a number he said is a threshold for being taken more seriously by major advertisers and their media buyers.

One longtime observer of the interplay of faith and cyberspace has his doubts, however.

Quentin Schultze, a communications professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, believes people will go to huffingtonpost.com's religion section or the Belief blog at cnn.com for faith news and conversation, rather than a more specialized site such as Patheos.

"Most people are too busy to follow religion (separately) as a news item or as a matter of public discourse," he said. Instead, these readers will come across religion news at mainstream outlets more easily, ending their search there. Busy users "don't feel they have the time to go in and participate" in the specialized sites, Schultze added.

Email: mkellner@deseretnews.com
Twitter: @Mark_Kellner

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