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Sept. 2, 2014, 2:18 p.m.
Reporting & Production
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Building a bigger congregation: Why The Boston Globe is launching a site devoted to Catholic news

The Boston Globe is betting that Crux, a standalone Catholic news site, will serve a new, global audience.

vaticancityccLooking at the newly launched Catholic news site Crux, you’ll find plenty of stories on the travels and exploits of Pope Francis. This makes sense — he’s the head of the church and easily one of the most charismatic leaders operating on the world’s stage.

What you won’t readily find is an indication of who or what is behind the new site dedicated to “Covering all things Catholic.” Only if you scroll to the bottom of the homepage, tucked in the footer, will you see the text: “A Boston Globe Media website.”

It’s been almost a year since Red Sox owner John Henry completed his purchase of the Globe, and he’s pushing forward on a plan he hopes will help broaden the company’s readership beyond people who want a printed newspaper on their doorstep. Crux, as the site’s branding makes clear, is aiming for a readership far outside the 617 area code to the more than 1 billion Catholics worldwide.

Crux joins a small, and growing, network of sites connected to the paper, including Boston.com, BostonGlobe.com, BDCWire, and the most recently launched Beta Boston. For newspapers like the Globe, diversification typically means finding a way to spin off parts of the existing business to niche audiences inside a geographic boundary. Crux shares a strategy more common with online publishers who want to tap digital audiences through interest areas.

“We saw an opportunity to fill a need,” said Globe editor Brian McGrory. “There’s a real hunger. We’re at a unique moment.”

That moment was kicked off by the arrival of a new pope who has captured the world’s attention with everything from his statements on gay priests to his choice in soccer clubs. Crux will focus on Francis and his efforts to transform the church, but will also have features on Catholic life and culture, as well as stories that explore spirituality. “We want to be surprising, we want to be unpredictable, and at the same time we want to be a site of interest and common sense on the Catholic church,” McGrory said.

According to McGory, the Globe is invested in expanding its digital readership in topic areas that are connected to Boston, but not necessarily bound to the city. Crux will already have a built in local audience thanks to Boston’s large Catholic population. The Globe has its own history with the church, having won a Pulitzer Prize for uncovering the history of sex abuse in the Boston archdiocese.

The idea for Crux was born at a Red Sox game, according to Jason Schwartz’s Boston Magazine profile of Henry:

During a game against the Yankees on September 13—Henry’s birthday—the Sox owner sat down next to Barnicle and began to chat about how religion is covered in the news. “He was very interested in how the element of faith plays a role in all of our lives,” Barnicle says. “It was pretty interesting to listen to, but I was trying to watch the fucking ball game.” Henry asked Barnicle if he was familiar with John Allen, a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. Though not a household name, Allen is the Peter Gammons of the Catholic world—an impeccably sourced must-read on the Vatican. Barnicle says Henry then asked him if he had Allen’s email—it turns out, he did.

Henry emailed Allen and, a few days later, they talked on the phone. “Then I called Brian [McGrory], and he was just as excited as John was,” Henry says. “So we all met in Boston the day after the World Series ended.”

Crux launches with a small staff anchored by Allen. On a day-to-day basis he’ll be writing news and analysis about the the Vatican, Pope Francis, and how the church interacts with global politics. Margery Eagan, joining Crux from The Boston Herald, will be the site’s spirituality columnist. Inés San Martin is the site’s on-the-ground reporter at the Vatican, and Michael O’Loughlin is a national correspondent. Teresa Hanafin, a former editor of Boston.com, is the editor of the site.

Allen said Crux plans to bring a little more journalistic heft to their reporting, going beyond the celebrity of the “teflon pope” and examining how he deals with the continued fallout of the priest sex abuse revelations as well as the financial reforms he wants to bring to the Vatican.

Allen has covered Catholicism for almost 20 years and he sees the future of the church in much broader stories, as places like Africa, Asia, and South America see a growing Catholic population. Even within the U.S., the face of the Catholic faithful is becoming increasingly Hispanic, he said.

Those stories only get passing coverage in most mainstream news organizations. While religion isn’t exactly absent from the news landscape, the coverage tends to be piecemeal, Allen says. Reporting on the pope often gets reduced to AP coverage, which can strip out the religious contexts and nuance, he said. Newspapers that still have a religion beat tend to have reporters who are generalists that have to cover all stripes of faith.

“The problem with the Vatican as a beat is it’s too far away, too weird, and utterly unlike any institution people cover,” Allen said. “It’s hard to penetrate and it’s expensive to have someone who has the luxury to focus full time on that beat.”

But Crux is entering a crowded field of Catholic news sites like the National Catholic Reporter, the National Catholic Register, and Commonweal. Allen said many religious news sites can be too close to the story, either backed by the church or sponsored by Catholic groups.

Allen said they hope their independence and backing from the Globe will give Crux credibility and a distinct identity. “The trick is to be close enough to the story to get it right, but far enough away to be objective,” he said.

crux-homepage

The hope is for Crux to become self sustaining, so the site will be largely independent from the Globe. The only Crux content that will also appear in the paper is Allen’s “All Things Catholic” Sunday column. In addition to a separate editorial staff, Crux has its own ad sales staffer.

Hanafin said their goal is to pull in different types of audiences, those looking for the tick-tock of Vatican coverage, people chasing all news related to the pope, and readers at different points in their own spirituality. That’s why alongside the day-to-day coverage of the church you’ll find quizzes, polls, and and an advice column titled “OMG.” The sparse navigation bar for Crux speaks volumes about the site’s aim. There are only three sections: church, faith, and life. Hanafin said the key is finding the right mix of stories to engage audiences and create repeat visitors.

“It’s one thing if all of us in here share Crux content. The real trick is you have to get other people to share your content. And the only way you do that is if they think it’s interesting enough to share with their friends and family,” she said. “You can run all the the social marketing campaigns that you want, but if your stuff is mediocre it’s just going to be a waste.”

The site was built with social sharing in mind, and that means making a site that works well on mobile devices, said David Skok, digital advisor for the Boston Globe. Skok said they wanted to focus on the article page as the point of discovery since so many new readers find websites through shared links.

From start to finish the site took 10 weeks to build, and Skok expects they’ll continue to tweak things as they learn about the audience. It’s likely Crux will not be the last new launch from the Globe, Skok says, comparing the paper’s digital expansion to the relationship between Quartz and The Atlantic.

“You have to go out on your own and create your own audience with the hope being that if we get to a point in six months, a year, down the road, the people who read Crux may not even know it’s affiliated with the Boston Globe,” said Skok. “That to me is a big success.”

Photo of Vatican City by Christopher Lance used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 2, 2014, 2:18 p.m.
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