No one is surprised when The Wall Street Journal covers Wall Street, Disney releases a princess movie or Apple creates another wonder framed in aluminum.
Some professionals just do what they do. Thus, anyone who follows religion news knew that The Boston Globe's Crux website, which debuted 18 months ago, was going to be bookmarked by legions of Catholic-news junkies. Reporter John L. Allen, Jr., was going to do that thing that he does.
Alas, as so often happens, an online journalism project that drew millions of computer-mouse clicks failed to generate the stream of advertising revenue Globe executives needed to keep the cyber-doors open. This has led to a partnership -- raising many Catholic eyebrows -- between Allen and the Knights of Columbus, producing a "Crux 2.0," which opened on April 1.
This kind of union is becoming increasingly common. The goal is to marry a commitment to real journalism with financial support from a cooperative nonprofit group.
For this to work, the "people on the other side of the deal have to believe in what you are doing and see the wisdom of becoming part of your brand," said Allen, reached by telephone in Rome. "Your partners also have to be smart enough to realize that a key part of your brand is that you are seen -- by your readers -- as being truly independent."
The Crux project is crucial to anyone who cares about the future of journalism and, especially, quality reporting on specialty news topics like religion. That certainly includes me, after decades of work in this field. That includes, as of this week, 28 years writing this syndicated "On Religion" column.
Those who follow Catholic news know that Crux is not Allen's first journalism rodeo. The former Catholic high school teacher is best known for his 16 years of work with The National Catholic Reporter and as CNN's top Vatican analyst. He is also the author of nine books including, in recent years, "The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution" and "The Francis Miracle: Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church."
Allen said he learned three sobering truths about covering religion news online, while fighting to keep Crux alive.
* For starters, "It's a hell of a lot of work" to feed the online-news beast -- especially with a small staff. But the readers are out there, said Allen, as demonstrated by the million-plus readers that Crux drew in a typical month. Put Pope Francis and Donald Trump in the same story and "we went well north of a million-plus."
Obviously, this pope is "a very compelling story. … We are not having trouble finding eyeballs. I'm having trouble, right now, finding the time and energy to keep putting information in front of those eyeballs, hour after hour, day after day."
* Everyone knows the bottom-line question for websites such as Crux: How does one fund -- in an age when journalism's old advertising-plus-subscriptions revenue model has broken down -- a team that can produce news about Catholic events and trends around the world, 24 hours a day, seven days a week?
Allen stressed: "You have to find people who believe in what you're doing, people who want to support quality journalism and they want to do it for the right reasons."
* Like it or not, the key to finding readers and maintaining a network of supporters is social media, such as Twitter and Facebook. "That's the reality, now. That's just the way things spread," said Allen. "The problem is that no one really understands how that works."
The other problem is that when news "goes viral" online, this often happens because networks of like-minded activists are pushing a particular cause. It would be easy, admitted Allen, to keep pushing these buttons with waves of opinionated prose that preaches to the same choir day after day.
After all, opinion is cheap, while producing truly independent and well-sourced reporting is, and always will be, much more expensive.
"It is our delusional conviction," said Allen, that "we can keep covering Catholic news for readers who are pro-information and don't want to settle for an approach that polarizes everything that happens. … But whatever happens, we are not losing interest in the Catholic story."