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Christian Science Monitor Interview Part 1: Why the move away from print?

Christian Science Monitor Interview Part 1: Why the move away from print?

The 100-year old Pulitzer prize winning Christian Science Monitor has bravely announced that it is ending its daily print format and going fully digital: it will now only print a weekly "magazine" edition. The Editors Weblog caught up with the Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Science Monitor, John Yemma, and we discussed the thinking behind this move and how on earth a nationally distributed newspaper completely restructures itself for a digital future.

This story has been broken down into two parts. Part 1 focuses on why the CSM took this step and its initial steps down this path. Part 2 looks at the nuts and bolts: restructuring the newsroom, retraining, and managing staff through change.

The CSM's decision has sparked the inevitable debate about whether this is the beginning of the end for daily printed newspapers, a debate which will run and run in the years to come. However, the peculiar nature of the CSM's subsidised business model, its relatively small print distribution run and international readership base, make it difficult to draw any firm conclusions on industry trends from this move. Nevertheless, many in the industry will be watching closely to see how the CSM manages this move and whether it proves successful or not. If the CSM is successful, then this may lead to other newspapers pursuing this business model, but these papers will have to have a distinctive and loyal readership like the CSM if they have any hope of being successful.

Why the move away from print?

Yemma (left) states that there are two main reasons behind the CSM's controversial decision to move away from the daily print model. Firstly, the CSM's publishers, "saw the writing on the wall, they knew that the Internet user patterns and reader preferences and so forth were changing the business model of print. Print was becoming increasingly untenable, especially for the Monitor, which has an international audience. We just don't have enough reach with our print product, but we have great reach with our web product. That's not uncommon in the world of publishing right now to come to that conclusion, but for the Monitor we were able to make the change a little faster, because the Christian Science church wanted to move away from subsidising the Monitor within about three to five years."

The CSM is subsidised by the Christian Science church, with the church contributing approximately 50% ($13 million) of the newspapers revenue. The newspaper itself makes about $12.5 million in terms of print advertising, circulation, web revenue and syndication. Therefore, the publishers of the CSM felt that, secondly, this level of subsidisation could not continue forever, so the team decided to look at the newspapers various options.

How the move to digital began - where to begin?

Two years ago the CSM convened a task force to look at the possibility of dropping its daily print edition. The newspaper worked at it from all angles; from prototyping to financial analysis, and working with a consultant (newspaper consultant Chris Urban), marketing group (Kadence Associates - who organised focus groups and surveys), and a PR company (Shift Communications - who handled assisted the company in communicating this move). A former editor of the Christian Science Monitor, John Hughes, and newspaper consultant, Chris Urban, headed up this task force.

Surveying the core readership base - will they buy it?

Given the nature of the CSM and its relatively small daily print run, international appeal as a Christian newspaper and its worldwide reputation, the reasoning behind this move - no matter the financial calculations and industry trends - is sound. However, if the core CSM readership did not largely support the change, then all bets would be off. The CSM surveyed its core loyal readership base, taking sample groups to sound out their response. Yemma states that the CSM was most concerned with converting this core group as quickly as possible to reading the newspaper in a new way. Its focus groups revealed that 50% welcomed the idea of decreasing the frequency of the CSM and that of the 50% who were "on the fence" only half of these wanted to preserve it as it is now.

Once the decision to drop the daily print edition was announced, the CSM had a customer service team field all calls and emails about the decision from readers, which Yemma receives a daily report on. The accumulative report of this over the past few weeks is consistently running at just 14% negative. 35% are asking questions about this new model will work, such as price and so forth, with the rest being positive. Yemma feels the CSM has got a, "pretty good response. We expected worse."

Yemma is clear that the most important thing for them to find out is how many people will convert from buying the daily newspaper to the weekly magazine. This will not be known until the new format is marketed in the spring, and they begin selling the weekly in April. The CSM's marketing estimate is that they can covert about 80% of the people currently buying the daily to take up the weekly model. On this, Yemma says, "that is the best we can do at the moment without having perfect knowledge of the future."

Communicating with your reader

On the CSM website currently there is a web cast featuring John Yemma and the Managing Publishing, John Wells. Here they talk over the various changes and why they have come about for their reader. The site also has an in depth editorial on the changes ahead for the venerated newspaper.

"The Web is not just a paperless publishing medium, it is a totally new way of telling stories"

The move to a web focused future will, "unshackle the newsroom from print." Yemma says "We will get to see what we can do online in a way that we have never been able to do before. I really believe that journalism in is the infancy of story telling online and that online story telling is about interactivity. I expect us to look more at intelligently moderated user generated content, crowd sourcing, and expanding the reach of CSM journalism. We can look more at speaking to our readers, and asking them to send us their images and stories of the events hitting the headlines, and thus expand our eyes and ears. There is a non-linear way of telling stories on the web that I think has to be developed by journalists who want their stories to be told in the most appropriate way for the medium."

Yemma goes on to say, "The Web is not just a paperless publishing medium: it is a totally new way of telling stories. We can really start using the web for what it is really all about, which is this three dimensional medium getting information and providing it at whatever level you can convey it."

Part 2 - In our next article on the CSM, the Weblog talks to Yemma about reorganising the team and the newsroom for a weekly magazine and web future, retraining, and staff cuts.



Katherine Thompson


2008-11-19 15:41

The World Editors Forum is the organization within the World Association of Newspapers devoted to newspaper editors worldwide. The Editors Weblog (www.editorsweblog.org), launched in January 2004, is a WEF initiative designed to facilitate the diffusion of information relevant to newspapers and their editors.

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