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About the Author

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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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Trying, and Failing, to Measure Religion Online

First off, Happy First Birthday to ReligionWriter — this website went live a year ago today, featuring my interview with religion journalist and blogger Gary Stern. The day I launched the site was, of course, the day of the Virginia Tech massacre, so that week also featured my interviews with religion experts on evil and theodicy. Thanks to my readers, supporters and interview subjects for this year-long learning experience, and, of course, props to my fantastic web developer, Suleiman Khan.

Recently, I’ve wondered why PR people send me their books, movies or research reports to write about on this site. If they’ve read some of my previous posts, they would know I can be a harsh critic.

Someone from the Douglas Gould and Company, a progressive communications firm, got in touch a few weeks ago about their recent report, “Religion in the Media,” which surveys the state of religion coverage in the news media. I was immediately interested, mostly because I like to have some facts handy when I hear the usual critiques of the media’s coverage of religion (i.e. that it’s non-existent, or biased, or of poor quality.) The report finds generally that religion coverage is up, but only among the top news outlets, and particularly from the Associated Press, which has doubled its religious coverage since 2001. Another interesting finding is that religion, more than ever, is front-page news, largely because of the role of faith in US politics, including the presidential campaign, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can scroll through the other key findings here (and I guess that last sentence answers my question of why PR people want me to review their stuff.)

But the part of the report that most interested me was the final section, called “Online New Media.” Ah ha, just what I’ve been looking for: an in-depth, survey-based report on religion online. This topic is important to me because, A., I’m a religion journalist and my profession either has to move online or die, and B. I love new media myself and want to see more religion stuff online, and C. I see very few authoritative assessments of online religion trends. (For my own earlier thoughts on Religion 2.0, see “Faith on Facebook: In Search of the Killer Religion App,” “Is your church ready to blog?” and interviews about blogging and online religion content with Gary Stern, Jeffrey Weiss, Sally Quinn, Amar Bakshi, Terry Mattingly and Shahed Amanullah.)

So, jumping right in to the this report, I was disappointed as early as the second paragraph, which mentions “the growing popularity of the World Wide Web,” a phrase that might have been newsy a decade ago, but which seems terribly outdated now. As Dale Peskin and Andrew Nachison said at the We Media conference in February: “We Media has arrived.” In other words, the web is not some trendy tool — it is a transformation in the way we live, shop, relate, learn, etc., and because everybody can participate and create content, “we are all the media now.” So the framing in the report is not right: The web is not some appendix to the print world, it is swallowing the print world.

The report analyzed a number of religion websites: the list is fantastically random: Street Prophets, the Religion News Service, Speaking of Faith, Soujourners, Alternet, the Pew Forum and Beliefnet. That list is the equivalent of saying, “Let’s survey print material that covers religion: the Encyclopedia Brittanica, a book by Ann Coulter, The New York Times, and my church’s weekly newsletter.” In other words, it’s completely incoherent.

Just to give two examples: the Religion News Service is a wire service, serving publications across the country, and its website is simply a wholesaler’s storefront — there is no content for the average person to consume. (RNS does now have a blog, but this was not mentioned.) Soujourners is a lefty evangelical magazine; Alternet is an aggregator of progressive conent. [UPDATE: StreetProphets is a progressive online forum on faith and politics at the Daily Kos.] The Pew Forum is a “fact tank,” and “Speaking of Faith” is a website for the radio show by Krista Tippett. To top it all off, the report says, “websites of traditional media outlets such as CNN were not analyzed.” Well, many “traditional” media outlets have innovative religion features on the web, and’s “On Faith” is a case in point. The report mentions Beliefnet, but even this needs to be disaggregated — Beliefnet runs religion news (much of it from Religion News Service), hosts a number of individually popular blogs, like Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Con, and has social networking and video features.

Why does all this bother me? First of all, the writers of this report don’t “get” the nature of interactive communication on the web. While you can lay down a bunch of newspapers and analyze their content, online content cannot be analyzed the same way. The Religion News Service website is a good example — there is nothing to interact with there, indeed, there is no content to consume. Compare that to the popular website, Get Religion, were knowledgeable folks analyze the portrayal of religion in the news: That site has many regular readers and commenters, and it influences the national conversation in a very different way than the website of the Religion News Service (RNS as a wire service, of course, provides valuable news and information, much of which is printed by its subscribers online.)

Second, if we’re going to make sense of religion online, we need to break it down into meaningful categories. In fairness to the folks at Douglas Gould, this is an incredibly challenging task, exactly because the web blurs the lines between professional journalism and its audience, between news and opinion, and even between news and social relationships. So you could make a list of the leading blogs written by professional religion journalists (Reuter’s Faith World, Dan Gilgoff’s God-o-Meter, and the Dallas Morning News religion blog are some I read and like), but that is only one very small group. Then, sticking just with the category of blogs, there are religion-oriented activists and leaders who blog (like Jim Wallis or basically all the bloggers at On Faith). And beyond that, there are entire universes of blogs written by people with a particular religious outlook — there are literally thousands of “Muslim blogs” or “LDS blogs” and many of these blogs are now gathered together through interconnected blog-rings. And we haven’t even mentioned the online presence of faith-based publications and stand-alone websites — like Christianity Today, Soujourners, MyJewishLearning — or faith leaders like Rick Warren who have a big reach online, or academic-minded religion sites like Religion Dispatches or, or or — it’s exhausting, and I haven’t even mentioned religion-related social networking, social bookmarking, virtual worlds, and video-sharing sites.

So is it even possible to categorize and analyze religion online? Does it matter? Maybe Douglas Gould failed, and I can’t seem to do much better, but I think the issue is an important one for anyone with in interest in creating religion content online (especially those of us who plan to make money from it.) If we can’t map and measure religion online, how can we hope to create strategic plans for the future? And as we see with the continued demise of many newspapers, without a good strategic plan, you’re finished.

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  1. [...] Trying and Failing, to measure Religion Online. Andrea Useem’s Religion Writer blog is a year old. Happy blogday! Check out her work, she is one of many fine religion writers online who get the medium and care about the message. Published 0 minutes ago // Used for showing and hiding user information in the comment form function ShowUtils() { document.getElementById(”authorinfo”).style.display = “”; document.getElementById(”showinfo”).style.display = “none”; document.getElementById(”hideinfo”).style.display = “”; } function HideUtils() { document.getElementById(”authorinfo”).style.display = “none”; document.getElementById(”showinfo”).style.display = “”; document.getElementById(”hideinfo”).style.display = “none”; } [...]

  2. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.

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