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Where The Spiritual Meets The Digital

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Martin Luther, a disaffected Roman Catholic monk, posted 95 Theses on a cathedral door in 1517, launching the Protestant Reformation in Germany. Nearly 500 years later, in Ann Arbor, 2007, David Crumm, a former print journalist specializing in religion, posted 10 principles on a new website called ReadtheSpirit.com, establishing a new way for individuals to access religion and spirituality content through a pluralistic portal.

A retired Detroit Free Press religion writer, Crumm experienced an epiphany during a 2001-2002 Knight-Wallace fellowship. He realized that a change was occurring in the information-seeking behavior of Americans as well as attitudes toward religion and spirituality. "I became convinced that media inevitably was moving into new digital realms. I wanted to be part of that."

He also realized that religion no longer was the domain of large institutions with rigid hierarchies, but spirituality of choice, driven by a hunger for new ways of expression. "I went back to the Free Press and began covering religion itself in a different way," he recalls. "Previously we had done institutional coverage of religious organizations. We shifted to covering the spiritual and religious experiences of people rather than institutions."

Crumm says his 10 principles deliberately echoed Luther's actions. "The invention of the printing press was crucial because it allowed people to have low cost material in their hands. It took more than 70 years from the invention of the printing press until the Reformation happened. … People needed to learn to read and people needed to take the technology of type and set up pamphlet shops. There's a direct parallel with blogging and the Internet today."

The website is an outgrowth of a wider social reformation involving the internet and spirituality, he says. "What do millions of people do today? They go to their Facebook page and put something on a wall. The parallel (with Luther's posting) is very strong. The major thing that has occurred here is that the old sources of authority are collapsing. Part of that means religiously we don't look for our clergy or our bishops to tell us what we must believe; we look to them to inspire us, to counsel us. The movement of digital media isn't that Facebook is cool and you ought to learn it. Facebook exists because it allows people to control their own media universe."
ReadtheSpirit.com is also a publisher and online bookseller. It has published 12 books, mostly by local authors, including two editions of Interfaith Heroes, collections of short biographies written by Hamtramck-based author Rev. Daniel Buttry, and Friendship & Faith, a book about WISDOM, an interfaith women's movement in southeast Michigan.

Ann Arbor writers, in particular, provide content for the website. A regular feature in the magazine is OurValues.Org, which is produced by Dr. Wayne Baker of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. The publication also has a cooperative relationship with AnnArbor.com (which is regarded as a bridge between the organization's focus and 'traditional' media outlets). Ann Arbor high school students from the First United Methodist Church produce short videos for the website, and local authors include local business consultant Rob Pasick, who just released his second book, Conversations with My Old Dog.

The commitment to local authors extends to helping cultivate the local interfaith community. Crumm has worked closely with Robert Bruttell, chair of the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit. An adjunct professor of history and religion at University of Detroit Mercy, Brutell says that ReadtheSpirit.com represents "religious transformation."
 
"When you're at a point of transition like this, the main parallel is the question of authority," says Bruttell. "Mainline churches are losing membership. Mega churches are gaining membership. … David and John are trying to figure out how to lend authority to the voices of people who are seeking some new way of understanding the essential questions of our lives: How do you form community? How do you form family? What are the values they should have? How do you define the new truth or the new authority that will anchor your life?"

Although ReadtheSpirit.com is based locally, the business is national in scope. "We do a fair amount of coverage and projects here because of David's background and connections, but we're really aiming at country-wide impact," says John Hile, Crumm's business partner. "We're involved in the interfaith movement and have selected out the more progressive views. The people interested in us tend to be of that sort."

One of the last journalists in the nation dedicated to daily coverage of religion and spirituality, Crumm estimates that only 10 cover the beat today – remarkably low at a tumultuous time for religion and spirituality.

"There are many religion writers who feel passionately about this and are doing it part-time or doing it out of retirement…. 
Basically that specialty has all but ceased to exist. What that means is that there is very little authoritative coverage of religion in America right now. The coverage hasn't extinguished completely but it's a major problem. There a lot of authors, filmmakers, musicians, religious leaders, activists, who used to be able to depend on this broad network of journalists nationwide… because that structure is gone now, that has caused a real crisis in the way that news is conveyed about religion."

This summer, Crumm took a 40-day tour of the United States by car, which renewed his optimism in American spirituality. He posted stories daily about people he met along the way. "There are a tremendous number of creative stories across America about Americans reinventing themselves and reinventing their communities that are totally invisible in national media," he says. "Part of that is because most national magazines and newspapers don't have correspondents on the road, and part of that is because our media is so fragmented now that it's hard to even find these stories online."

While Crumm is the visible partner of ReadtheSpirit.com, he credits Hile with the technological innovation that ultimately will allow the site to succeed. "From the early days of digital communication, John has been an innovator," he says.

Hile developed communications software for Microsoft and anti-virus software used by Symantec. He also got his start working in the newspaper business before moving into software development. "Even though the public doesn't see John's side of the business, it may turn out that's the most valuable part of our business," Crumm adds. "He's writing pieces of software that can be widely adapted to other small publishers. We're at the point where we're working with other publishers."

ReadtheSpirit.com provides a platform for professional writing and community building in the areas of religion, spirituality, values, and diversity. Operating out of the principals' homes and working with a network of 11 part-time employees, the website also exists to make a profit, which Crumm and Hile expect will come within a few years.

While the content is free, the business model is designed to motivate the reader to buy books. ReadtheSpirit.com sells through Amazon as well as its own site. By January, Crumm says, a new digital retail service offering specialized options will be on offer. For example, the company will publish small quantities of books and offer customization for congregational and small group use.

But profit is almost secondary to mission. "We just have to survive and we've done something very important," says Crumm. "If we can survive, we've proven that journalists, writers, and those who care about balanced accurate media, can come together and build a sustainable model to keep our work going."


Dennis Archambault is both a reader and a writer. He is also a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Metromode. His previous article was University Presses Go Local

Photos:

David Crumm in front of a sculpture by Douglas Gruizenga - Doug Coombe

David Crumm- Doug Combe

David Crumm and son Benjamin on their 40-day tour - courtesy David Crumm

John Hile - Doug Coombe
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