At a time when most Net entrepreneurs are playing to the material interests of consumers and businesses, Steven Waldman is pitching to their spiritual needs.
The 36-year-old veteran of the magazine business believes that the masses' interest in God is strong enough to build an enterprise around. The result is Beliefnet.com, a Web site that explores religion and spirituality in a personal but multidenominational way. The site - which offers news, chat and eventually e-commerce - comes out of Waldman's belief that the media has done a poor job covering the most important events in people's lives - births, deaths, marriages - events which, for many people, bear religious significance.
"I had plenty of complaints about journalism and the way journalism works," the former national editor at U.S. News & World Report says about his 16 years in the profession. "Starting a business is one way to get things the way you want them."
A stubborn adherence to personal convictions has been a hallmark of Waldman's career. During a stint at Newsweek during the early 1990s, for instance, Waldman wrote a book about the creation of the Corporation for National Service, the federal agency that oversees the AmeriCorps volunteer program.
Waldman's decidedly unglamorous choice of topics left many of his colleagues scratching their heads. Writing about the formation of major law "was something that dweebs were supposed to do," says James Fallows, Waldman's boss at U.S.
News and a columnist for The Standard. But the book received wide praise, and is now a staple in political science courses.
Waldman soon doubled his bet, quitting his job at Newsweek to work for AmeriCorps. Waldman says he had misgivings about that move. His first day came in the winter of 1996 amid a congressional impasse that shut down most federal agencies. Not long after, Waldman left AmeriCorps for U.S. News, where he worked until the high-profile firing of Fallows in 1998. The ouster so upset Waldman that he protested publicly and soon left.
If Waldman's string of departures makes him sound like someone who acts quickly, his editing style suggests otherwise. He's been known to labor over the same headline an hour or more. "He tends to need other people to keep him mindful of deadlines," says Timothy Noah, a columnist who has worked with Waldman.
Between jobs, Waldman had time to think about what he really wanted to do next.
While at Newsweek and U.S. News, he noticed that newsrack sales always spiked when covers featured religious and moral themes. At the same time, Waldman, who was raised Reform Jewish, and his wife, a Protestant, had to decide how to incorporate faith in the lives of their two young sons.
The interfaith dilemma was a wake-up call for Waldman, who decided to launch a print magazine about religion. At the same time, Highland Venture Partners was in the process of incubating a portal based around religion. Waldman abandoned the magazine, and along with Robert Nylen, the founding CEO of New England Monthly, signed up for the online project.
Colleagues credit Waldman for hiring key talent. Beliefnet has gathered more than 50 contributing writers from national publications, such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Family Circle. Will strong writing be enough to draw visitors? And will those who visit stick around to buy religious products? Waldman is likely asking such questions himself.
"It's safe to say Steve never made a decision he didn't have second thoughts about, usually within the hour," adds Lee Rainie, another journalist who has worked with Waldman, in an e-mail interview. "The piece is almost inevitably better for being worried this way. At the same time, ... [W]hen you're constantly revisiting decisions, it can put a strain on the folks who have to implement those decisions."