The Monitors web first approach

Nearly one year after the newspaper presses stopped rolling at The Christian Science Monitor, editor John Yemma continues to fine-tune the 102-year-old international news outlet’s transformation from a daily into what he calls a “web-first” publication.

 “The biggest lesson to me of having a ‘web-first’  newsroom is that you begin to think more like some version of a wire service,” said Yemma. That means online articles are a little shorter and, of course, publication is only a click away. But while the push for breaking news makes the paper more relevant, it also demands that editors and reporters have to constantly rethink what they’re doing and why. 

The web-first approach prompted some soul-searching in the Monitor’s Boston offices. Mary Baker Eddy, the paper’s founder, established the Monitor brand as an alternative to the “yellow journalism” of her day.  The challenge now is to cover news as it happens without diluting the Monitor’s long-standing approach to analyzing global news and ideas. “We’re trying to reach thoughtful people, not just everybody,” said Yemma.

The Church of Christ, Scientist is prodding the Monitor toward a more sustainable future. Currently, the Monitor relies on a $100 million endowment in addition to an annual subsidy from the church. In the current fiscal year, the Monitor will operate with about $7 million from its endowment, along with a nearly $13 million subsidy. The Monitor’s goal is to bring the annual payout down below $4 million by 2013 and eventually to zero.

Yemma thinks every journalism organization has to have diverse revenue streams. That’s especially true for non-profits. “You can’t keep going to a philanthropy or a charity or a church or a Guggenheim or a Carnegie Foundation and say, ‘Help us make our budget this year,’” he said.

But can the Monitor survive without the annual subsidy? Yemma thinks that’s a realistic goal, particularly if the organization continues to reduce operating costs and boost subscriptions to the weekly print magazine ($89 for one year) and the Daily News Briefing ($69 for 12 months).

On the cost-cutting front, the Monitor saved about $4 million by trimming print production and distribution by half and another $1.5 million by cutting staff. Ending the daily newspaper and jump-tarting the weekly magazine has been “a wash” financially, although marketing costs have increased as the Monitor tries to build its visibility, Yemma said. With most newsroom staff now freed up to work on the web, web traffic has increased, which, in turn, could translate into increased web advertising revenues.

Circulation and traffic have only begun to surge in the past three to five months. The weekly print magazine’s circulation has doubled, rising to 77,400 current subscribers from the 43,000 subscribers at last April’s launch. (About 2000 people subscribe to the Daily News Briefing.)  In January, the Monitor website hit 1.4 million unique visitors, up from 1.017 million in December. (, by comparison, had nearly 15 million uniques in December and had 6.2 million uniques last month.)

Yemma says the weekly print magazine may go digital in the next year or so, but even though that move would reduce costs by as much as $6 million, the Monitor would ;probably continue to sell print copies as well. Right now, the news weekly is doing better than original projections. Yemma believes the print business has potential and that the magazine could break even in three to five years as long as subscriptions continue to grow steadily.

Yemma believes the Monitor is meeting the needs of two types of people: regular or occasional Web news consumers and those who want longer “stand-back” features and analysis. But the pressure in the industry to break up serious news with lighter fare is also apparent.

Along with the “eat-your-spinach stories,” as Yemma labels them, there are short takes on events like a Washington, DC neighborhood snowball fight earlier this month organized on Facebook and Twitter. The daily news budget for a recent Monday was about 35 stories; three to five of those stories, done by interns or junior staffers, were softer articles.

After every four magazine issues, the Monitor surveys readers online. The editors listened last summer when readers lobbied for more news features after a raft of softer magazine cover stories on pampered pets and the like. Editors “hardened up” a feature that started out focused on comedians Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien and ended up exploring the impact of political humor on American culture.   

The magazine “is basically trying to stay newsy now,” the editor said.  A recent article on industrial cyberspies typifies the new approach, which addressed reader complaints about too many soft features. Yemma says another complaint Monitor editors heard initially has dropped off the radar completely. “The complaints about ‘I wish the daily newspaper were here’ have gone away,” said Yemma.


Gabrielle Gurley is CommonWealth magazine’s senior associate editor.

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