The religion of journalism has always found believers in Boston. The same goes for Catholicism. No small wonder, then, why the flagship Boston Globe intends to practice the former creed to examine the latter, an ambitious attempt to attract readers outside of city limits.
On Tuesday, the Globe launched Crux, a standalone website dedicated entirely to Catholicism. It covers not only the church itself, but also topics such as politics, entertainment, travel, and spirituality — all of them through a Catholic lens. The newspaper has been recognized for its local religion reporting in the past. But Catholicism, of course, stretches far past the Archdiocese of Boston, holding potential for a Globe audience spanning, well, the globe.
“We have a pope who is somewhat of a rockstar in terms of the attention he’s getting,” editor Brian McGrory told CJR, referencing Pope Francis, who was elected in 2013. “We’re in this unique moment when there’s not just a thirst of information for the pope and Vatican, but also Catholicism around the world. There’s a need for an unbiased site steeped in good journalism to discuss these issues.”
Crux’s content falls outside the metered paywall protecting most Globe journalism. The single-subject site will instead rely on digital advertisements at a time when many newspapers move their online products in the opposite direction. McGrory said a new ad sales hire, steeped in the Catholic market, will be devoted to Crux. But others wonder whether the site will be able to attract the huge readership needed for sustainable revenue.
“Where’s the money coming from?” said Dan Kennedy, a Northeastern University professor and Boston media analyst. He added that Crux could be well-positioned for a future print product. “We know what the story is from online advertising, and it’s not a pretty story.”
The Globe has made a habit of shirking conventional wisdom, a manner that has seemingly intensified since Red Sox owner John Henry bought the paper last year. “We are going to concentrate on what we are good at, and we are going to dispense with things that we aren’t that good at,” Henry told the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce in January.
New owner Boston Red Sox and Liverpool Football Club owner John Henry purchased the Globe in 2013 for $70 million (AP Photo/David Duprey)
He didn’t specify at the time what those things are. But in March, the Globe launched BetaBoston, a site focused on the local tech sector, expanded its Sunday opinion pages, and added a weekly, 12-page, broadsheet real estate section. It also widened the gap between BostonGlobe.com — original Globe content behind a metered paywall — and Boston.com — a free site populated with Web-friendly features and aggregation. Three months later the company debuted Capital, a politics section printed on Fridays. (Disclosure: I covered national politics for the Globe for three months in early 2013.)
The newspaper is unique among its metro counterparts in that it employs a half-dozen journalists in its Washington bureau, a huge expense that most other metro dailies have long since cut. While Capital tries to showcase that rarity, along with state and local political coverage, the section is “for diehard Globe readers,” Kennedy said.
“Crux is trying to be more than that,” he added, describing it as the latest addition to the company’s “hub-and-spoke” business model. “What’s really ambitious about it is a bid for a national or even international voice and mass audience.”
While the site’s editor, Teresa Hanafin, will be based in Boston with a Web producer and two regular opinion writers, much of Crux’s original reporting will boast out-of-town datelines. Its Vatican reporter will be based in Rome and its national reporter is expected to move to Chicago by the end of the year, Hanafin said. John L. Allen Jr., a prominent religion reporter who will anchor Crux’s news coverage, is based in Denver.
“If all we were doing was covering the Vatican, put me to sleep now,” Hanafin said, offering examples of the broader scope that Crux readers should expect, such as a feature on Catholicism as practiced by a Native American community in North Dakota. “There’s so much more to Catholicism than what goes on in Rome.”
Indeed. Despite that expansive coverage area — and impactful, breaking stories aside — Hanafin said Crux won’t call for reinforcements from the Globe’s main newsroom. If the site needs an infographic, for example, “I’ll pay a freelancer to do it,” Hanafin said. That comes as little surprise after scrolling through the site. Whereas BetaBoston calls itself “A Boston Globe Site” on its homepage, there’s no such description on Crux. The venture aims to be a new product entirely.
“If I look at this a few years down the road, ultimate success will be if people read Crux and have no idea that it’s affiliated with The Boston Globe,” said David Skok, digital adviser to the editor. It will likewise take years to evaluate whether Crux is a financial success. But if so, it could very well inspire other newspapers — beyond the biggest players — to experiment with niche sites of their own.
Globe brass realize they’ll need huge traffic to reach that promised land. And to attract clicks, the site will publish highbrow religion reporting in concert with light-hearted, Web-friendly content: advice columns, first-person spirituality essays, saint and cardinal databases, and BuzzFeed-esque quizzes such as, “Which biblical heroine are you?”
“We did not want a heavy-handed site,” McGrory said. “We didn’t want a whole lot of dark stained glass or velvety curtains around this.”
Crux proved as much with its first tweet in late July:
Habemus Twitterus.— Crux (@Crux) July 30, 2014