Charting a New Course

Will The Christian Science Monitor’s new model save the rest of journalism? No.

The future is here, sort of. On Tuesday, The Christian Science Monitor announced that starting in 2009 it would stop putting out the daily paper, cutting back to a weekly dead-tree edition, and a concerted focus on daily web content.

The Monitoris a nonprofit whose moneys come from three sources: $9 million in subscriptions; $2 million in print and online ad revenue; and a $12 million endowment from the Church of Christ, Scientist. According to Business Week, it’s “currently posting net losses of $18.9 million a year.” The initiative is geared to eliminate the high cost of printing and shipping the paper, as well as make it more timely: the Monitor’s far-flung subscribers receive the paper via the U.S. Postal Service.

The move comes at a time that many publications are looking for a solution to their financial jigsaw puzzle, which means that publishers’ ears around the country are perking up. But, what’s good for the Monitor may not a be a one-size-fits-all solution for other publications, says Alan D. Mutter, a businessman and news industry veteran who blogs at Reflections of a Newsosaur. “They’re such a specialized business that whatever they work out that is successful for them, there’s lessons to be learned, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to the general circulation daily newspaper,” Mutter says. “And if they fail in it, which of course we hope that isn’t the case, that failure doesn’t mean that the ideas that they have bad ideas. It just means they couldn’t make them work.”

Monitor editor John Yemma says the business plan going forward is to drop the subscription price from $220 to $89 for the year. This price will include a weekly newspaper as well as a daily e-mail newsletter with a news digest and links to current stories on the site. He expects that the lost subscriptions from customers who want a print product will be compensated by readers attracted to the lower price point. The business plan also includes hope for growth in online ad sales, which now generate more than $1 million annually.

However, this may be harder than it sounds, Mutter says, because advertisers from the print edition may not necessarily follow the publication online. “People who are buying print advertising are buying print advertising on purpose,” he says. “If they wanted to buy online advertising, trust me, the newspapers would be glad to sell it to them.”

Yemma also says he’s expecting staff cuts next year. His current prediction: ten to fifteen percent of positions, which will be identified in the future.

Still on paper, his plan looks good: eliminate high production costs, grow circulation, increase web traffic, cut staff. So why can’t everyone follow suit? According to Mutter’s calculations, most newspapers still earn as much as 90 percent of their revenue from their print editions, so a digital shift is simply not an option.

The big question facing the Monitor and any other publications considering such a shift face is the entrenched reading habits of their subscribers. The Monitor’s print readers are, on average, in their sixties. Online, they are in their forties. So the Monitor may draw a younger reader online, but for longtime readers who may not be so computer savvy the switch may hurt.

“One thing that would be really interesting to know, and we won’t know and will only become clearer with time is, how many people still subscribe to The Christian Science Monitor do so because they like the print format and so, you may be asking a lot of people who aren’t comfortable on a computer, or don’t like using a computer,” Mutter says. “You maybe asking a lot of people to change their habits in fairly dramatic way. And if, in fact, that’s who their readers are, many of those people may say, that’s not what I signed up for, so I’m out.”

Still, Yemma says, there might be ways around the problem: “Some of our readers who maybe don’t read online, they may get e-mail. And they also may have people who can print it out for them. So imagine someone who is in a rest home, for instance. They love their Christian Science Monitor. It’s one of their companions. They may not want to go and sit down at a computer terminal. But it may be that in the rest home the people who are could print it out and distribute twenty copies. So we’re hoping that it may satisfy people.”

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.