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www.chiesa, a case study

 par Sandro Magister

In the field of information on matters of religion many now consider the website “www.chiesa” a case study.

It was born on the web platform of the L’Espresso conglomerate in the late 1990’s, when online religious information was just at the beginning, with few dedicated presences on the net.

It was born through the initiative of its author, the vaticanista of l’Espresso since 1974, apart from any editorial program of the conglomerate.

It quickly gained attention in Italy and the world with a base of ten thousand free subscribers to its newsletter, which rose to twenty thousand after it was offered complete in English beginning in 2001.

Since 2006, “www.chiesa” has been offered complete in French and Spanish as well, and today is assiduously followed by about 250,000 “unique visitors,” two thirds of them outside of Italy. The largest source of foreign readers is the United States, with twenty percent of the total, followed in order by France, Spain, United Kingdom, Canada, Argentina, Australia, Germany, Mexico, Brazil, Switzerland, Belgium, Peru, Colombia, Portugal, Ireland, Chile.

But even tiny Vatican City, in spite of having few residents, registers proportionally a very high number of assiduous readers. There the reading of “www.chiesa” is considered obligatory. Just as it is in the embassies to the Holy See, by the admission of various ambassadors. Not to mention the American State Department, one high-ranking official of which, on a visit to Rome a few years ago, wanted to meet in person with the curator of the site, whose articles were already back then included regularly in the press review furnished to the secretariat of state.

Online religious information has been enriched recently with major portals created “ad hoc” by important names in journalism, not Catholic but secular. In Italy La Stampa has brought to life “Vatican Insider,” and in the United States the Boston Globe has launched “Crux.” In both cases putting to work a pool of journalists coordinated by an experienced vaticanista: Andrea Tornielli for “Vatican Insider” and John Allen for “Crux.” Plus a network of skilled outside collaborators.

“Vatican Insider,” even more so than “Crux,” has the ambition of covering the news of the Church and primarily of the Vatican with a constant flow of updates, accompanied by in-depth articles and interviews and partly furnished in multiple languages, including Arabic and Chinese.

In this, “Vatican Insider” must however fight for elbow room with online information agencies that have substantially ramped up their activity in recent years. Exemplary from this point of view is the network of agencies affiliated with the American multimedia group EWTN: in English “CNA” (Catholic News Agency), in Spanish “ACI Prensa,” in Portuguese “ACI Digital,” in Italian “ACI Stampa,” the latest addition, with the acronym “ACI” standing for Catholic information agency.

Other sites are characterized by geographic specialization. For example, on the life of the Catholic Church in Asia, with particular attention to China and with numerous readers in that country, “Asia News” and “UCA News” stand out.

And so on. There are sites that distinguish themselves by the pronounced militant orientation of their offerings, determined by the cause pursued by each within the dynamics of the Church, in a progressive or conservative direction. Although the fact is that none of the sources cited so far is without a particular orientation, more or less evident. For example, one cannot mistake the openly “ultra-Bergoglian” character – more papist than the pope, one might say – of “Vatican Insider.”

So then, “www.chiesa” defies the categorizations just mentioned and instead uses a modality of information that essentially has no close competitor. Originality is its strength. Its success implies the appreciation of the articles that it provides, and that one finds only there.

“News, analysis, documents,” is written in small type above its banner. Every article always springs from a news item, which in some cases can also be a forecast. Or it springs from a document, sometimes not previously released, that in its turn becomes news.

The keystone, however, is always analysis. For the news, which often is already known, as also for documents, there are provided with the greatest possible precision the context, the background, the reactions, the possible future consequences. In orderly form. And always with precise reference to the original sources. For a readership, therefore, that is not made up of huge numbers, but is highly demanding and equipped for the “exertion” of reading that is challenging and absorbing at the same time.

In “www.chiesa,” as in the rest of the media, the author’s opinions cannot be separated from the account of the facts. But they are not the preponderant element, as in an editorial written to “set things straight.” The reader grasps these opinions but is put in the position of forming his own, even one that may be very different, precisely because each time he finds within easy reach – with a simple click – all the bricks of the construction, factual and documentary.

This is one of the reasons for the apparent contradiction between the opinions of the author of “www.chiesa” – on some non-marginal questions concerning Christianity and the Church in their relationship with today’s culture – and the opinions of l’Espresso and La Repubblica, the publishers, which are of a notably and markedly “secularist” character.

The publisher, in fact, allows the highest autonomy for the curator of “www.chiesa” – who has always worked without any supervision or filter – precisely because of the objective quality of the articles that he puts online and the general appreciation that they elicit, not only from a vast international readership but also from expert observers of the most diverse tendencies.

The costs of the operation – which are fairly contained, much lower than those of “Vatican Insider,” for example – come with the payoff of greater visibility for the Espresso-Repubblica brand on an international scale, given the frequent republication of articles from “www.chiesa” by foreign outlets.

Further confirmation of this international presence comes from the blog “Settimo Cielo,” which the curator of “www.chiesa” publishes as a supplement to the main site, also on the web platform of l’Espresso.

“Settimo Cielo” is made up of brief notes on current events – always with references to the sources – and is in Italian only.

But among its approximately 100,000 “unique visitors” there are quite a few outside of Italy. Who become much more every time – and it happens often – one of its posts is translated and reposted in another language, evidently on account of the interest that it raises outside of the national confines.

The blogosphere, of course, has no boundaries. But it is not populated by indistinct voices. On the contrary, the more a voice distinguishes itself by its quality, the more it is able to establish itself on a worldwide scale. The one described here is no small example.

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