Sunday, March 29, 2009

Christian Science Monitor moves online

The Christian Science Monitor (CSM) has joined the growing litany of newspapers that is stopping its daily print run. On Friday it published its last edition. The 100 year old paper’s editor John Yemma announced the move saying, “as of today, we are shedding print on a daily basis.” The editor said it was necessary to keep the paper relevant and to move toward financial sustainability. The paper is currently posting net losses of $18.9 million a year on $12.5 million in revenue. The CSM, in common with almost every other newspaper on the planet has been suffering decreasing readership and reduced advertising revenues.

Yemma said that in to order to survive in today’s business environment, newspapers everywhere were “taking radical steps”. Some were decreasing print frequency, some were web only. Others still have shut down or gone into to receivership. Common to all of them is the collapse in classified advertising which is moving towards free web platforms. Yemma’s own hand was forced as circulation dipped below 50,000 (from a high water mark of 223,000 in 1970). “Saying goodbye to daily print closes an era,” he said. “But the Monitor itself…is becoming more daily than ever.”

The paper is not totally shutting down the presses - there will still be a weekly print edition which will commence operation on 12 April. Unlike most newspapers the CSM mainly relies on mail subscribers. The 44-page weekly edition (the daily edition ran 20 pages) will cost $89 a year to subscribe (down from $219 currently) and this move will reduce costs by $10 million. The editorial team has reduced from 97 to 80 in the last year and there may be other layoffs. But Yemma says the paper’s core value won’t change. “We are putting on new clothes for a new era, but we are the same Monitor, committed to the same objective we have adhered to since we were launched a century ago: `to injure no man but to bless all mankind,'” he said.

The CSM is a Boston-based non-profit publication. It wants to lessen its reliance on subsidies, which totalled about $20 million last year. Of that figure, $13.3 million came from its owner, the First Church of Christ, Scientist and another $6.8 million came from an endowment fund. The paper was started by the Church's founder Mary Baker Eddy in 1908. Despite its name and ownership, the Christian Science Monitor is not overtly religious. However its church ownership, allied a public-service mission, and commitment to covering the world has given the paper a strong independent voice in journalism. As Business Week says, its strong suit is sober analysis, not breaking news.

Consumer advocate and serial presidential candidate Ralph Nader is a former reporter for the CSM. He said received the news of the paper’s print closure with “special sadness”. The paper launched his freelance writing career after he graduated from Harvard Law School. He wrote for the business, travel and foreign affairs pages and was paid $75 an article. “I'll always remember the Monitor as a liberator, a polite agitator, an open-minded newspaper that gave voice to many writers in many places around the world,” he said. “It is only a small stretch to describe this newspaper as an early successful experiment in "open-source" journalism.”

The new move to digital follows a similar move by the high profile Seattle Post-Intelligencer recently. But as Jeff Bercovici warns, going digital is no guarantee to salvation. The business model is unproven and the advertising revenue is not yet there to make general interest journalism pay for itself. No one is exactly sure how to turn the online advertising audience into revenue. Other newspapers such as The Ann Arbor News and the Rocky Mountain News could not take that risk and shut down completely. Yemma himself admits the strategy is risky: "I feel like this is a high-wire act that we're all doing."

The scale of that high wire act is acknowledged in The State of the News Media 2009 released earlier this month. The sixth such report, it is also the bleakest and says some of its numbers are “chilling”. Newspaper ad revenues are down by a quarter in the last two years. Some papers have gone bankrupt while others have lost three-quarters of their value. Nearly one out of every five journalists working for newspapers in 2001 is now gone, and 2009 may be the worst yet. It says the combination of the Global Financial Crisis and the migration of the audience to the web is proving fatal. “The problem facing American journalism is not fundamentally an audience problem or a credibility problem,” it says. “It is a revenue problem—the decoupling…of advertising from news.”


Ann oDyne said...

I wouldn't have thought that the CSM would actually do anything about it's ailing Bottom Line, but just have someone sit with it till it died.

John E. Why said...

Thanks for the blog post. But I'm not sure of your statement that: "The editorial team will reduce from 25 to 10 and there is likely to be other layoffs. But Yemma says the paper’s core value won’t change."

We have an editorial team of 80, down from 97 a year ago.

I'm always happy to answer any questions if you have them.

Derek Barry said...

thanks for the clarification John - and my apologies for the error. It is fixed up.