May 2, 2012

Three years ago, the Christian Science Monitor began a jump-in-the-deep-end version of digital transformation. The Monitor killed its five-day-a-week print edition, started a weekly magazine version and shifted daily operations entirely to the Web.

A protracted period, most of the first year, followed where everyone “was learning how to swim,” editor John Yemma recalled in a phone interview last week. For news staff particularly, the break from the “old industrial process” of once-a-day deadlines was wrenching.

But over the last two years, a slightly reduced staff has hit its stride with big improvements in traffic and the news organization’s finances.

Measured either by page views (42 million a month) or uniques (8 to 10 million), digital traffic has increased to five times what it was before the big changes, Yemma said. Both ad revenue and content sales grew more than 50 percent for the fiscal year closing April 30.

With an operating budget of $18.6 million, the Monitor brought in roughly $8 million from operations and earned about another $6 million from an endowment. So the additional subsidy from the First Church of Christ, Scientist, Yemma said, is down to $4.5 million this fiscal year and budgeted for $3.3 million next.

The objective is for the Monitor to be self-sufficient by 2017, he added, and he expects to get there ahead of schedule.

There has been a lot of learn-as-you go, Yemma told me, adapting the Monitor’s serious “what it means” and “why this matters” style of journalism to the Web’s possibilities.

For instance, lists and quizzes have become a staple of the report but they are on topics like “are you scientifically literate rather than the Kardashians.”

The site backed off heavy video use and “elaborate multi-media presentations that were nice to do but didn’t attract much readership,” Yemma said. Video is back now, used more selectively, done with a production partner and attracting more robust advertising.

To my eye, the Monitor home page has a comparatively light emphasis on fast-breaking news — no time stamps on stories or conspicuous display of which stories happened in the last hour or two.

It’s a matter of degree, but Yemma said that the Monitor has gotten more “in-the-moment” since the change-over and that “more timely pieces (often go) straight to the Web where (the news) is crawled and shows up in places like Google News.”

With the caution that the Monitor’s editorial objectives and financial structure are atypical, I see some interesting parallels for the larger newspaper industry.

A publication pattern of once-a-week in print and otherwise all-digital may become more widespread within a few years as daily editions continue to shrink in advertising and content while Sunday stays healthy.

The Monitor Weekly has 60,000 paid subscribers, roughly a 40 percent increase on daily print circulation when in stopped (though at a lower price).

One of the issues for the Monitor had been was that its widely dispersed circulation added to delivery costs and required a noon deadline.

Whether the typical daily print report suffers from lack of timeliness is debatable. The industry trend to remote and consolidated printing to save money does leave many readers without late sports scores and other staples of an earlier era.

There is a pendulum swing back lately, though, to the notion that newspapers need to emphasize value-added journalism, what they do best, rather than run with the 24-7 crowd.

The Monitor offers one model for striking that balance in a Web-based report.

In the years since the Monitor shifted its publishing strategy, the difficulty of culture change within newspaper organizations has emerged as a big issue.

Yemma sides with Digital First CEO John Paton and Clark Gilbert of Deseret News on pushing for fast and thorough-going digital reorientation.

“Culture change is the biggest opportunity, but also the biggest single problem,” he said, and “if you don’t make a radical shift it is sort of schizophrenic for an organization” trying to innovate digitally with one foot still in the daily print business.

“You might wonder if we are a model for the rest of the news industry,” Yemma wrote in an e-mail. “Yes and no, I would say. We never had a big local circulation base to protect. But you might see the church’s systematic decrease of its subsidy as similar to the inexorable erosion of print advertising at a locally based newspaper…

“The point is that our tradition of global, humane, explanatory journalism is not only undiminished by our digital-first strategy (OK, I’m biased) but is more timely, relevant and widespread than ever.”

Or to revisit Yemma’s learning-to-swim analogy, it seems the takeaway is “come on in, the water’s fine.”

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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