Unchaining the Monitor

How an early Web-first strategy worked out

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.

An aha! moment occurred when we shed the last of the industrial publishing process. The Monitor brand, we realized, was the real value of our business. We had pedigree, a skilled staff, and a fan base. And so, starting in mid-2009, we began to look around the Web and find others who shared our mission to illuminate the human dimension behind global events, others looking for solutions to global problems like CO2 emissions or the oppression of minorities. The Monitor brand, we realized, could act as a kind of umbrella under which a federation of blogs, small sites, and individual journalists could be organized.

Staking our future to Web traffic brought problems as well.

Like everyone, we had to downsize in making the adjustment from five-day print to Web-first plus one-day print. It was modest, but it was painful. We said goodbye to some old pros and were not able to hold onto some rising stars. We lost bench depth, and it would be a lie to say that didn’t hurt. We couldn’t cover as many subjects as we once could.

We had an ongoing newsroom conversation (we are a polite place; elsewhere this would be called an argument) about the proper form of Monitor journalism on the Web. Just as in print we had to learn to modulate what we were doing—to do stories that would be popular enough to stay relevant, yet to pursue our own sense of what story was important based on our editorial judgment. We found that we could still dare to be dull, especially if our overall Web traffic was building and we were bringing in revenue. But the truth is that we think twice about the DBIs, those pieces that are Dull But Important. And I sometimes wonder whether the handful of people who used to read those DBIs, now so rare, might not have gotten something especially valuable from them, perhaps understanding an issue or a culture for the first time. As one of the foreign correspondents says in Tom Stoppard’s 1978 play Night and Day, “Information is light. Information, in itself, about anything, is light.” So you hate to lose light.

Yet with continuous updates and with what I consider our unique approach to global news and perspective, we have established a following, built a community, and generated sufficient traffic to bring in the advertising revenue necessary to keep us going. Can prosperity be right around the corner?

When the daily print newspaper died, we lost an icon, a lovely tangible thing that leaves ink on your fingers, lets you unfold it in a cafe, toss it down on a desk for dramatic effect, or tear out an article and pin it to a bulletin board. A photo hanging on my office wall shows a skinny, T-shirt-clad John Kennedy studying an article in the Monitor while Jackie, in a summer blouse with big polka dots, reads over his shoulder. It must have been the mid-1950s. The world was young.

Those days are gone. Still, I’m hoping one day to see a photo of Barack and Michelle Obama poring over an article on our Web site or peering at one of our pieces on that cool new foldable version of the BlackBerry.

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John Yemma a former deputy managing editor of The Boston Globe, is editor of The Christian Science Monitor.