When the Old Connectors Are Fading, By David Crumm

Posted on July 13th, 2009 | Filed under Best Practices/Non-Profit, In Print: New Books, InterViews, IR News and Events

The Internet has radically reshaped the media landscape. Here's one expert's advice on how religion communicators can make the most of it.

"We haven't seen times like these in 500 years." With that sentence, ReadTheSpirit online magazine and publishing house debuted in late 2007. Each day, as we watch the connective tissue of global media turbulently transform itself, we recall the urgency of those prophetic words.

Of course, the reference is to the Reformation era, although scholars now argue that the Reformation was far more than a discreet series of events in Europe five centuries ago. Some argue that we still are caught up in a 500-year cycle of transformation.

I'll leave that debate to others. As a 30-year veteran of American journalism, I'm far more interested in rebuilding the connective tissues - the media - that connect important voices in religion and spirituality with the millions of men and women seeking them on a daily basis. Five hundred years ago, change came through movable type and pamphleteering. Today, it's the Internet and blogs.

What remains constant are three universal spiritual questions: Why should I climb out of bed in the morning? How can I make it through another stressful day? And, at the end of the day, did anything I accomplish truly matter? These are echoes of the timeless questions from ancient philosophy through centuries of writers like Tolstoy - to today.

Here's the problem we now face: We're in the midst of dramatic global change - religious, cultural, economic and otherwise - that is so wide-reaching that to cope people are grappling with those three questions as intensely as perhaps they ever have. However, many of the media voices that spiritually sustained people - regardless of their particular belief system - are losing their connective power.

Full-time newspaper religion writers once numbered around 200 and blanketed the United States on a weekly basis. Now, a handful of those professionals are left. Major publishing houses that once produced a successful stream of books on religious themes now limp along with reduced lists - and shrinking budgets to reach readers. Bookstores are failing coast to coast and even a giant like Borders faces an uncertain future. It's true that Bible publishers and denominational publishing houses survive, but their products have limited ability to reach out into the heart of diverse American communities.
That's the context calling us toward dramatic changes in the way important voices about religion, spirituality, values, and cross-cultural issues are published and distributed.

How are we to respond?

1.)    Practice radical transparency. We've been taught as journalists, scholars and group leaders to work in secrecy - then to go public with polished products. Now, we need to open the barriers to let readers see the development process and invite them to become a part of the creative process. Among the pioneers in this are writers from the Iona group and Wild Goose Publications in Scotland.

2.)    Publish quickly-and often. We have no choice. It's simply a truth of the pace of media, today. But it's also a radical rethinking of how journalists, scholars and group leaders traditionally worked. In the old style, we guarded our exclusive work until it was ready to publish. Now, we need to publish new insights immediately to "time stamp" them on the global stage - and to encourage a community of contributors to help us. Then, update often. Online magazines were built for this. Even new-style publishing systems can update versions of a complete book within 48 hours. We've done it. We know it works.

3.)    It's all about cooperation, not competition. That's one of our founding principles that we practice daily and it's a revolution in thinking for traditional journalists and writers. If you plan to step out into new subject matter, begin by trying to meet other people already working in the field. Become a colleague, not a competitor.

4.)    Moderate our public media. Newspapers and the Internet led the way in the 1990s toward a Wild West Web of unrestrained fury and crude language. As people of faith, we must dare to moderate our public spaces. We do this at ReadTheSpirit and it costs us in the sheer numbers of reader responses - but our readers love us because we are a safe place where very strong opinions can be expressed, but individual readers know they will not be personally vilified.

5.)    Think first about what readers want, each day. Usually, as writers, we think of what we are itching to say. Traditionally, many writers, scholars and leaders didn't spend much time thinking about how a general grassroots audience might receive their words. One reason they were able to survive is that hundreds of newspaper religion writers were eager to translate complex voices into messages that would touch real people. Now, we must do this ourselves. Example: This is why Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, whether you like or dislike their views, have huge grassroots audiences.

6.)    Identify gaps and fill them. Example: Authoritative information out of Asia, especially India and China, is tough to find in American media. It's surprisingly popular with readers.

7.)    Identify emerging issues. Example: Only now is "aging" emerging as a crucial issue in spiritual life. Too often, we sought to exclude its consideration in favor of reaching "the young," who were seen as a preferred market. The truth is that America is aging - and millions across faith boundaries are looking for positive spiritual insights into this natural part of life.

8.)    Dare to ignore the tired debates. The atheist-theist debate may still be raging, but it's boring to most readers. Denominational conferences these days aren't even interesting to core members. Similarly, the old debates over homosexuality and evolution are dramatically reframing themselves in America's grassroots. Don't refight the old debates from the old seats - lift up intriguing voices taking fresh approaches to these issues. They're out there.

9.)    Invite readers to help you. They will, but only if you explain carefully how they can help and you encourage them as they show up trying to assist you.

10.)    Finally, share your spotlight so that others can be seen. If we're truly collegial, we recognize that part of our mission is shining a spotlight on other important voices struggling to be heard.

It's true that we're in the midst of turbulent seas. But, if we are people of faith, then the truth is: We are the people who know how to swim in such seas. These are the exciting times in which we truly are needed.

David Crumm is an author, journalist and filmmaker. He spent more than two decades as a religion writer for the Detroit Free Press and the Knight-Ridder and Gannett newspaper chains before founding ReadTheSpirit, a Web publication focusing on religion and spirituality from an inter-religious perspective, which he now edits.

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