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WFN – Ten years Old and Googling Up a Storm

by Philip E. Jenks

 

New York, September 1, 2005 -- If you write news releases for a faith group, chances are Worldwide Faith News (WFN) is the first site you hit each day. 

If you wondered how churches responded to Hurricane Katrina, chances are also good you quickly found yourself on the WFN Web page. 

Persons who went directly to WFN on September 6 – or typed “Katrina” into Google and other search engines – found themselves linked to a score of stories on what Church World Service, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Sikhs and others were doing to assist victims. Persons who typed “Rehnquist” into the Google Search engine that day soon found themselves referred to WFN – and the revelation that the late Chief Justice was a “prominent Lutheran.” 

“Google links more religion news hits to WFN than any other news source but the BBC,” says the Rev. George Conklin, a retired professor of communication at the Pacific School of Religion who maintains WFN from his home in Berkeley, Calif. Conklin, right, a United Church of Christ clergyman, is awed by WFN’s Google visibility. “The BBC is a little bit bigger than us,” he concedes. 

Regardless of size, the truth is, if it’s happening in the world of religion, it’s happening on WFN, the favorite Web site of the insatiably curious in matters of faith. It has become such an integral part of many Web diets that it’s hard to believe it didn’t exist a decade ago. 

Like many good inventions, recalls the Rev. Martin Bailey, former director of communications for the National Council of Churches USA, WFN was born of necessity. 

In 1991, Bailey was an ecumenical reporter assigned to report on the World Council of Churches’ Seventh Assembly in Canberra, Australia. 

“That was before there was an Internet as we know it now,” Bailey said recently from his home in East Orange, N.J. “It was just very hard to use the computer to send daily news from Australia to the U.S.”  

Bailey, whose assignment was to channel assembly news to the fledgling Ecunet Web network and to the news offices of several U.S. denominations, found the task to be exceedingly slow. “It took some doing to make connections inexpensively from Australia to the U.S.,” he recalled. “It was a very long distance call to transmit stories to Ecunet. The news had value for churches that didn’t have a lot of money to spend on telegrams and all the fancy stuff the secular press had available to them.” 

Bailey and his co-writer, the Rev. Curt Ackley, now association minister for the UCC’s Western Reserve Association in Ohio, had a series of lunches together in Canberra in which they pursued the topic, “There must be an easier way to do this.”

“I was just coming on the NCC staff at that point,” Bailey said, “and we began to give priority to the development of Ecunet and new technologies to make it easier to communicate religion news around the world.” 

Key persons in that process, Bailey said, included Ackley, the late David Pozzi-Johnson, who developed the WCC’s computer technology, and NCC Staffer Dave Pomeroy, now Vice President, Digital Division, Faith and Values Media, New York.  

Pomeroy staffed an NCC Communication Commission committee on new technology. Conklin, who lectured on developing computer technologies at Pacific School of Religion, was a member of the committee. 

Conklin, Bailey and Pomeroy saw real possibilities in a religion news wire and news release data base that would carry unedited press releases from faith groups in the U.S. and around the world. And Canon Richard Anderson, then chief of communication for the Episcopal Church and chair of the Communication Commission, speculated that the Trinity Grants Program of historic Trinity Parish (Episcopal) in New York might be willing to come up with some seed money. 

“Odessa Elliott, a grant officer at Trinity, took a real interest in the project,” Bailey said. “She worked it out for a $15 thousand start-up grant.” (For additional history and technical information about WFN, click here.) Trinity gave several grants to WFN beginning with a generous start-up allocation of $98,000. 

When WFN was formally launched a decade ago, most of the active members of the NCC Communication Commission signed-on. Today, more than 30 faith groups regularly post their news on WFN, including mainline and Orthodox churches, Bahá'ís, Jews and Muslims. The service opened on December 24, 1995. 

Why Christmas Eve? George Conklin, the communications professor, offers a succinct explanation on the WFN page (www.wfn.org/story.html). The first extended broadcast of the human voice transmitted through the air was conducted by Reginald Fessenden, a former employee of Thomas Edison, on Christmas Eve, 1906 from Brant Rock, Mass. WFN’s December 24 birth 89 years later is a tribute to Fessenden and that auspicious moment. 

Martin Bailey’s immediate successors in NCC communications showed a similar commitment to WFN. Mike Maus, a former senior correspondent at NBC News and now president of Mike Maus Associates, and Randy Naylor, now general secretary of the World Association for Christian Communication, helped nurture the growth of WFN, as has Wesley M. Pattillo, the current associate general secretary of the NCC for communication.  

Today, wfn.org stands ready to provide a daily comprehensive religious news digest to anyone who signs on. (Some people subscribe to WFN but most readers have book-marked the home page, which continuously updates headlines as new releases are posted.)  

Stories sent by faith groups to WFN are automatically posted through the magic of computer science, and Conklin does not edit them. Writers who produce convoluted headlines are on their own. At any given day, readers can catch up on denominational conventions and board meetings, relief programs, obituaries, statements on public events or any other subject the senders can conceive. About the only things contributors are asked not to post (in addition to language or allusions that would frighten the FCC) are stories that proselytize or criticize other denominations or faith groups. 

WFN, according to its bare-bones credo, is intended to be a resource for journalists, academics, religious leaders, clergy and lay people. It is available without charge to Internet users. All documents posted are in the public domain and may be reproduced or quoted. Most Faith Groups who use WFN to expand their news audience pay a minimum maintenance fee of $500. 

The layout design is stark and simple with no moving logos, streams or music – and both the designers and readers seem to prefer it that way. The most recent innovation added this year by Conklin is a set of RSS feeds that offer free syndicated news from nine WFN contributors, including the National Council of Churches USA. 

Looking back, Conklin takes satisfaction in the fact that WFN has developed just the way he planned it. In the summer of 1995 he was asked to introduce the newly forged Internet to cyber-clueless denominational staff at The Interchurch Center in New York. “I distributed a two page document, ‘Worldwide Faith News – Under Construction on the Internet,’ detailing the 1994 feasibility study and our plans for WFN,” Conklin recalls. “We have evolved exactly the way we envisioned it back in 1994 and 1995.” Today Conklin serves as WFN project director. 

Like most good ideas, it’s difficult for purveyors and consumers of religious news top imagine a world without Worldwide Faith News. It’s an idea whose time has come – and with creative parents like George Conklin still at the helm, it’s a service that promises to grow and expand annually along with the Internet itself. 

Contact: NCC Features. Philip E. Jenks, 212-870-2252.


 

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