Beliefnet acquires Patheos; Pagan bloggers guardedly optimistic

Terence P Ward —  September 14, 2016 — 9 Comments

ENGLEWOOD, Co. — Last week came the announcement that religion site Beliefnet has acquired Patheos, the far more popular home of a wide variety of religious blogs, include a vibrant Pagan channel. While Beliefnet also once hosted Pagan bloggers, since being acquired by the Christian-focused BN Media company, those writers all eventually moved on. With the new purchase, it has been stated that plans thus far are to keep the two sites independent of each other.

beliefnet-logo-6-25-10 A Wild Hunt investigation into BN Media buying Beliefnet in June, 2016, disclosed the company’s focus:

BN Media seems to be a different sort of owner, if their two largest initiatives, Affinity4 and Cross Bridge, are any indication. In short, it seems they are a conservative “family friendly” Christian group. All you have to do is pay attention to all the subtle buzz-words. . . . It doesn’t paint a very rosy picture of future interfaith interactions and diverse viewpoints on Beliefnet.

It’s true that, while Beliefnet no longer hosts Pagan blogs, Patheos Pagan channel editor Jason Mankey isn’t expecting any purges at Patheos. Mankey told The Wild Hunt:

There are currently no plans to change anything at Patheos and at Patheos Pagan. Patheos will continue to maintain its own brand and the sites will be run as a separate entities. As in all acquisitions, there will be some changes but we believe these changes will be in the background and focused on the technology and supporting infrastructure, and we anticipate that these changes will be about improving the experience of the reader.

I’ve spoken to many of the folks coming in from Beliefnet and genuinely believe they are excited about both Patheos in general and more specifically the Pagan Channel. Change is a part of life, and I’m looking forward to this one.

Mankey has earned the respect of people in the Pagan blogosphere since he took over as channel editor, including that of Anne Newkirk Niven, who runs one of the largest independent Pagan blog sites, pagansquare.com, who called him an “excellent administrator.”

patheospagan-300x300Niven’s sentiments were echoed by those Patheos Pagan bloggers who agreed to comment for this story as well as Star Foster, who was the channel’s first editor. In her statement, she also touched upon the value of purely Pagan alternatives.

Like many people, I was sad to watch Beliefnet lose its initial luster, particularly after it was bought by Fox and then by an Evangelical organization. The purchase of Patheos by the same Evangelical organization is momentous. An acquisition means merger and all that comes with it. Resources are allocated to the segments of a company that make money, and cuts are made to increase profitability. It will be interesting to see how this acquisition affects Patheos, particularly those writers who left other platforms with whom they had become disenchanted.

For minority faiths, who cannot easily compete for resources with larger faith demographics, it may prove more fruitful to invest talent and resources in quality, homegrown religious journalism, columnists, devotional writers, and cultural analysts. Since the dawn of Beliefnet the religious internet has undergone dramatic changes, and it will be fascinating to see how it continues to evolve.

Support your Pagan media, wherever you find it to be doing good work. In anticipation of The Wild Hunt’ drive, I have already made my contribution.

Editing the Agora for Patheos Pagan is David Dashifen Kees, who agreed with Mankey’s assessment. “I’m cautiously optimistic. My understanding is that, after the purchase, Patheos will be operating essentially as it always has been. We’ll keep writing what we write and the readers will hopefully continue to visit.”

Gus DiZerega has been a presence at many major Pagan blogging sites, including Pagan Square and Patheos. He also wrote for Beliefnet, and he’s more suspicious. “The people who controlled Beliefnet acted unethically in my experience, and cannot be trusted,” he said.

After he wrote a post criticizing management, “they removed comments and when [he] objected.”  He said, “They told me it was their site and they could do what they wanted, I also left. I see no reason to legitimize anything controlled by Evangelicals such as that. Perhaps the Parliament of World’s Religions could someday host a genuine interfaith site free from the imperialistic ambitions of Evangelicals.”

Druidic blogger John Beckett doesn’t think it’s the end of the world. He said:

Nothing is constant in life, much less on the internet. While I had no idea this merger was coming, I’m not the least bit surprised it happened. We’ve been told the merger will have no effect on bloggers – Patheos will remain a unique site and all the changes will be on the technical and business side. That could be helpful.

As long as Patheos stays within its mission of being a multifaith religious site, as long as Pagans continue to be treated with the same respect as everyone else, and as long as I continue to have full control over what I write, I plan to stay.

If any of that changes, I own all my content and can move at any time.

Others also see two sides to this coin. “It seems that the merger is a pretty mixed bag,” said David Pollard, who edits the UU-centric Nature’s Path group blog at Patheos Pagan. “While a lot has been made in the Pagan blogosphere about Beliefnet’s incivility towards Paganism in recent years, when they started they were able to get some very high profile Pagans like Margot Adler and Starhawk to write for them.

“The problem was, that’s where they stopped,” Pollard continued. “They never really developed a second tier of writers, which is something that Patheos through its Pagan Channel editors has really excelled at.”

Pollard said he very much hopes that Patheos bloggers will be left alone, “given how many times Beliefnet has changed owners over the past decade, who knows what their next owner will want?”

One thing that any owner of Patheos is likely to want is a profitable venture, and the main way to achieve that with a content site is through advertising sales. The ads on the site now have been the subject of criticism by Pagans over the years, including from The Wild Hunt founding editor Jason Pitzl, who entered into a partnership in 2011-12.

In announcing the relaunch of an independent Wild Hunt, he promised “zero ads endorsing Mormonism or Liberty University.” Those result from buying into pools such as ones offered by Google, which serve up ads based on a variety of factors, including one’s behavior generally on the internet and search terms used.

Quaker Pagan Reflections blogger Cat Chapin-Bishop has also been concerned about the push for profit. “It has sometimes seemed that there’s been an increasing stress on monetizing our writing, and I have wondered whether the finances were really working out: the ads have always been off-putting, not always relevant to Paganism, and so slow to load some of my friends tell me they can’t read my blog at all. I’ve wondered if we Pagans have been a good investment for the owners, and whether the site is a good fit for us, to be honest. I guess my questions have only grown with this news.

“Patheos has been good to my blog, in that I’ve seen a big increase in readership, and I’ve been part of a conversation with other writers I really admire,” Chapin Bishop said. “Still, I’ve often wondered if it would make more sense to go it alone, or at a Pagan-owned, Pagan-run site.”

“They’re not going for direct-place ads,” agreed Newkirk Niven, who runs such a Pagan site. When she recently looked into advertising at Patheos, she was told that “they don’t even talk to people who aren’t able to spend a grand a month. I think we’re operating in a different universe.”

For most Pagan advertisers, she said, $12,000 is impossible; even $100 a month can be a challenge from owners of businesses the size she works with, she said.

For now, Patheos remains independent, but it’s likely that the new owners will seek to find ways to use this property to improve Beliefnet and other sites. As of this writing, Patheos is ranked 1,922 by site-ranking service Alexa, while Beliefnet stands at 12,451. It’s a question of when and how, rather than if or why the Patheos traffic will be captured. The Wild Hunt will cover developments as those changes unfold.

Terence P Ward

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Terence P Ward is a moneyworker, journalist, Hellenic polytheist and convinced Friend who lives in the bucolic Hudson Valley with his wife, five cats, and multiple household shrines.
  • Chas S. Clifton

    My experience blogging with BeliefNet was odd. At first they solicited my blog, “Letter from Hardscrabble Creek,” and picked up its feed. After a time, it disappeared. I asked why, and was told that that was a mistake. It ran for a while longer and then disappeared again.

    Fortunately, I still had it on my own site. I advised Jason to keep TWH independent too. You cannot trust outfits like BeliefNet not to say one day, “Well, those Pagans aren’t generating enough eyeballs, so let’s cut that section.”

    • PegAloi

      Jason very much regretted taking The Wild Hunt to Patheos; even after deliberating about it for a while, things happened he could not have foreseen. I kinda regretted moving my blog there, too, but it’s too late now.

      • Tauri1

        Can you not make your blog independent?

        • PegAloi

          I could go back to the blogger version, sure. But I’ll stay with Patheos for now and see how this shakes out…

    • Tauri1

      I, for one, am very happy that you kept “Letter from Hardscrabble Creek” independent. I would hate to see it disappear as I read it every day.

    • Your blog, like mine, doesn’t always fit neatly under the Pagan umbrella, Chas… Or at least that’s my perception: part of the charm of the Letter from Hardscrabble Creek is the way it also includes such a range of cultural reflections and thoughts about your local environment and landscape.

      Of course, those things are in tune with Paganism, but their appeal is wider than our religious community.

      I have sometimes thought about how, while my readership is larger at Patheos, it’s also narrower. I’m not complaining, but it has been something I’ve noticed.

  • Franklin_Evans

    Disclosure: I had a personal connection with Beliefnet in the early years, including the period of their near bankruptcy and resurrection. I was a volunteer discussion board monitor, assigned (variously and not at the same time) to the two main Pagan sections and a couple of smaller controversial side boards.

    It is not true that they ever devalued a topical content area on any grounds. Yes, they became heavily dependent on traffic and ad revenue, but they did not arbitrarily remove or change things on that basis. If that changed in more recent years, I’d be both surprised and chagrined about it.

    I had an in-person conversation with Steve Waldman, the founder of the original site. I found him to be sincere, passionate about dialogue in general, and committed to in inclusive environment. The people he hired, including one lady with whom I was honored to be friends, reflected my impression of him.

  • Alma Mercer

    I have feeds to all of these and I pass on alot of their articles to my clan on the web. and I dont see why we cannot draw from all of them ? and why would one cut one just because they don’t generate enough look see ? I pick my articles to what my people are more intone with , not because a certain person wrote this , but because of its content and possibly hitting on something that others might not have thought of , their in lies the interest factor , but all in all , I think all theses sites do a really good job of keeping the pagan , wiccan , and everyone well informed .

  • I suggest anyone with web development skills and experience start now designing an alternative. I am cautious, without the optimism, but not yet pessimistic. Just… cautious.