BOSTON, 2014—In October 2008, The Christian Science Monitor announced it was shifting to a “Web-first, multiplatform strategy.” The bulk of our international reporting resources, we said, would be devoted to our Web site, CSMonitor.com, on a 24/7 basis, and print would go from daily to weekly. Smaller newspapers had made similar changes, but the Monitor, while not a giant among circulation leaders, was the biggest name to do so at the time.
Not that plenty of people weren’t ringing alarm bells about print back then. David Morgan, a longtime media executive and a board member of the Belo Corporation, warned that a hard rain was about to fall: “Newspapers,” he declared at a new media conference in October ’08, “prepare for disassembly.”
Indeed, the years following the financial panic of 2008-2009 were devastating. Every media company was shaken and some are still spiraling downward—yearly revenue eroding, layoffs resulting, erosion resuming. Five years later a lot of the great names in newspapering are gone, their brands retired or flying atop Web-only operations, their brick and mortar sold by Chapter 11 receivers. Just as old-timers wistfully recall the New York Herald Tribune, The Washington Star, and the Dallas Times Herald, two dozen more mastheads have fallen since 2009, and another dozen or so just don’t know it’s coming yet.
The survivors transformed themselves into true multimedia operations, with a core editorial group publishing via newsprint, mobile, the Web, and of course the foldable electronic readers that are the latest rage. Their video and audio reports are often indistinguishable from the work done by companies that started out in broadcasting, which have gone through their own shakeups.
The Web-first shift at the Monitor happened shortly after I became its editor—and just as the paper celebrated its hundredth anniversary. It has been something of a struggle ever since. We expected media wise guys to take shots at us. There would be the inevitable “Happy 100th; Goodbye Monitor” headlines. Some skeptics contended that all the Monitor was doing was masking a money-saving retreat.
Of course, it is true that the move from five days a week to one was intended to save money. The Monitor’s daily print edition had not been profitable for decades. With a circulation of fifty thousand and an annual subscription price of $240, the paper required a multimillion-dollar subsidy from the Christian Science church each year to keep publishing.
Still, moving toward a sustainable business model was important not just for our benefactor but also for the newsroom. Sustainability would end the annual hat-in-hand ritual and promote editorial independence. Moreover, it was evident to everyone by the first few years of the twenty-first century that almost all news organizations would have to make the leap out of print sooner or later. We chose sooner.
Not entirely, however. Despite falling advertising, we wanted to retain longtime print subscribers and thought we might find some modest growth in a reduced-frequency, ten-by-twelve-inch magazine/newspaper hybrid. Our weekly was a risk, but for our own reasons, we saw it as a necessary transitional product.
Here is the five-year plan we developed back in 2008: a big improvement in our traffic by 2014. Traffic analysis told us that aggregators and people using search engines liked our individual articles but that, like most news operations, we had a hard time converting the one-time visitor into a return visitor who lingered. Our goal was to quintuple page views—then five million a month—in five years. At a conservatively estimated CPM (cost per thousand impressions), we calculated, our operation would then be on a path to sustainability.
So our site needed to be more compelling. We knew there was no magic bullet for that beyond what has always worked in journalism: high-quality reporting and analysis, relevant to readers and timely in publication. We had to free our reporters and editors from the industrial shackles of print and energize our site. With print, everything was organized around and funneled into our daily deadline. The Web is like the old UPI motto: a deadline every minute. As our reporters, editors, photographers, and graphics artists began to understand the rhythms of Web usage, we learned techniques that helped pieces succeed: we honed our headlines, timed our posts, streamlined our site, and practiced linking diplomacy with other sites to build traffic.
And with the print-first paradigm dead, our approach to journalism changed. The Web is really about interaction, and that meant conversation, citizen journalism, and other forms of reader/user involvement. Everybody was trying that back in 2009, of course, but doing it right meant closely tending reader involvement and creating a community that amplified the Monitor’s capabilities rather than just acting as a sounding board or a forum for mindless chatter.