Friday, December 7, 2007

News Corp to tap US faith market with takeover of Beliefnet website

News Corporation, parent company of The Times, bought the leading American religious website Beliefnet yesterday in an effort to tap the faith market in a country where 88 per cent of the population say that they pray regularly.

Beliefnet, formed eight years ago, attracts 3.1 million monthly users. It was sold by its founder Steve Waldman, who wanted to find a big media company willing to provide investment that the standalone business could not afford. No transaction price was disclosed.

Mr Waldman said in a video posted on the company’s website that he had received several approaches from large media companies, which “have come to realise that there is a thirst for information and services about spirituality”, although he said that he was “in no rush to sell”.

News Corp is perhaps best-known for its newspapers, with titles such as The Sun and the New York Post, and mass entertainment through the 20th Century Fox film studio. However, the media group also owns a handful of faith-based businesses, including Zondervan, the largest Christian publisher in the United States, and Fox Faith, which makes faith-based films.

Their presence in the company’s portfolio helped to persuade Mr Waldman to sell. He described News Corp as owning a number of “high-quality companies that produce religious and spiritual content”.

Appealing to a Christian audience is big business in the United States, where films such as Walt Disney’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe are marketed, at least partly, at a Christian audience. Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of Christ earned $611 million (£295 million) worldwide despite an uncompromising narrative, of which $370 million was taken in the United States.

Beliefnet describes itself as the “largest online community” for spirituality and sends out daily e-mail newsletters to 11 million addresses. It aims to be independent of any religious organisation or movement and provides content aimed at more than merely a Christian audience.

The website will be absorbed into News Corp’s Fox Entertainment Group, owner of the Hollywood film studio, rather than its Fox Interactive Media division, which is the group that includes MySpace, the social networking website.

Dan Fawcett, president of Fox Digital Media, said that the company hoped to grow Beliefnet “across a broader media canvas”. Beliefnet is trying to develop its social networking technology aimed at the website’s users and in future the effort could see it sharing techniques with MySpace.

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