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The Christian Science Monitor Moves to a Web-Based Model—Is This the Future of News?
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Posted On November 10, 2008


On Oct. 28, 2008, The Christian Science Monitor (www.csmonitor.com) announced what managing publisher Jonathan Wells called a "period of big change," moving from daily print distribution to the production of daily web editions with a print weekend edition and a daily email service. Wells described the newspaper industry as being in a "nexus of change," a "rapidly changing media landscape," with readers increasingly migrating to the web for information.

Monitor editor, John Yemma, noted that the "old business model for print journalism is broken," with the internet creating major disruption to all traditional news media. In meetings held over the past 2 years, Monitor staff and Christian Science church leaders looked at how the internet offered a "tremendous opportunity" for true global distribution of news and information, the Monitor’s core mission.

Barrie Gunter, author of the book News and the Net (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003) and journalism professor at the University of Leicester, believes that print newspapers will cease to be published in coming years. "There is no doubt that hard copy circulation figures have generally fallen despite occasional format changes designed as cosmetic revamps and that more and more people are going online to get news content from an increasingly diverse array of news suppliers."

The Monitor’s announced move involves far more than just cosmetic changes. Monitor research has shown that its readers still wanted a print weekend edition for having a "deeper read" when people have "more leisure" time, Wells noted. Instead of abandoning print, The Monitor has worked to develop a model that integrates newer and traditional media with the goal of better serving the information needs of readers.

A Bold Move

No media organization "of our size has taken this bold a move, moving so dramatically toward the web and toward a weekly print product," Yemma states. The Monitor’s decision, he continues, offers other newspapers, which have been "shackled to their printing presses, their local distribution, local advertising base," a new model. The publishers believe that their unique position, as a unit of an established church, allows The Monitor "to make a change that most of the rest of the news industry will have to make very rapidly."

Wells notes that, "changes in the industry, changes in the consumption of the news and the economics underlying the industry hit The Monitor first and sometimes we are forced to be an early change agent in terms of figuring out how to be a viable news organization." While The Monitor’s print circulation, which is primarily delivered by U.S. mail, has trended downward for nearly 40 years, "looking forward, The Monitor’s web readership clearly shows promise."

Inevitable Move to the Web

Xigen Li, author of Internet Newspapers: The Making of a Mainstream Medium (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2006), sees declining ad revenues and increased competition from the internet, portal news sites, RSS, blogs, and other systems as core problems for the industry. "It will be difficult to provide a success model for all newspapers. Aggregation or convergence is the way to go," Li believes. "Local newspapers may be able to form partnerships with local television services," for example.

"At this point," notes Rich Gordon, director of digital technology in education at the Medill School at Northwestern University, "just about all newspapers are publishing on the web and in print. The problem they face is that most of the cost structure and most of the revenue come from the print side." For The Monitor—as well as any newspaper today—Gordon sees little hope for a quick solution. "Online revenues aren’t sufficient to support the costs of news reporting, let alone the production and distribution costs associated with online publishing."

Revenue, especially in our current economy, is the problem for newspapers, which are caught between the rock of digital and the hard place of print. "Newspapers," according to Gordon, "as well as TV networks and TV stations, need to manage and slow the decline of their traditional businesses for as long as possible, while seeking to develop the new business models that will support online content. I’m guessing it will take at least 5 years, and probably closer to 10, before this transition is complete." In the meantime, we can expect to see more announcements of changes—and even failures—in the news media business.

USA TODAY, the country’s largest circulating newspaper, is likewise facing drastically falling revenues. The paper announced last May that its advertising revenue fell by more than 18% and the number of paid ad pages dropped to 260 from 324 in the previous year.

Li believes that "at least 60% of the changes [we are seeing] are due to the inevitable trend" of information moving to the web. "Technology and the internet offer newspapers opportunities to expand their services and business. If newspaper managers open their minds and expand their horizons, newspapers will revitalize, based on developing new products and services; but not necessarily the old-fashioned printed products."

Monitor Leads the Way

The Monitor, which celebrates its 100th anniversary on Nov. 25, was launched at the direction of church founder Mary Baker Eddy, whose Christian Science movement resulted in the formation of The Church of Christ, Scientist (www.churchofchristscientist.org) in 1879. The Monitor was founded in 1908, after Eddy had been attacked in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, with the goal to "injure no man, but bless all mankind." Church officials were able to get the first issue of The Monitor published in less than 3 months and have created a highly esteemed newspaper that has won seven Pulitzer Prizes and other honors.

Despite critical acclaim, keeping The Monitor afloat has required church subsidies for most of its history. The announced changes are intended to gradually decrease The Monitor’s net operating loss to $10.5 million by 2013, according to Wells, and will decrease the annual church general fund subsidy to $3.7 million.

The Monitor’s new weekly print edition will launch in April 2009 and will be priced at $3.50 per copy or $89 for a year’s subscription. A full-price subscription to the current daily print edition is $219.

The Web Creates Cracks for Information Access

"The economics of news publishing is requiring people to consider a full range of publishing options," notes Nora Paul, director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute for New Media Studies. However, accessing content is becoming more complicated. "Right now on web sites there are 14-day archives of web content and perhaps some type of paid access to print content, but things can fall into cracks."

Paul believes that, "there isn’t a recognition in the newspaper industry for the importance of having long-term access to information content. Unfortunately these changes may mean that we [lose] access to information. Newspapers are eliminating news libraries, and the professionals who staff them. These are the people, generally, [who] advocate for access within news organizations. Today, information integrity is at stake because no one in a leadership position seems to be making the case for these kinds of concerns."


Nancy K. Herther is American studies, anthropology, Asian American studies, and sociology librarian at the University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin Cities campus.

Email Nancy K. Herther
Comments Add A Comment
Posted By Linda Robinett11/10/2008 4:07:27 PM

The fact that people have been lining up around the block at the Los Angeles Times building in LA to grab up multiple copies of the Wednesday November 5th LA Times to have a physical souvenier of Barack Obama's victory in the Presidential election says a lot about what newspapers still mean to people.

I mourn the passing of the hardcopy Christian Science Monitor.
Posted By Pat Garcia11/10/2008 3:19:25 PM

My employee is a public library--we subscribe to the CSM for our patrons. We will lose our daily readership as the email and web versions are for single user only. Any thought to how to handle this?

Answer from author:

I'm afraid that we don't have any easy answers, yet. The newspaper industry is focusing on staying afloat today and not on archiving content. Newspapers don't necessarily see the same issues in access and archiving their content that libraries do. Aggregators such as LexisNexis, Factiva, and Proquest Newsstand may be our best hope for access until all of this shakes out. It is a serious issue for libraries and one that is discussed in an upcoming article for SEARCHER magazine. -- Nancy K. Herther


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