Christian Science Monitor to end daily publication

By Denise Lavoie
Associated Press Writer / October 28, 2008
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BOSTON—The Christian Science Monitor said Tuesday it will become the first national newspaper to drop its daily print edition and focus on publishing online, succumbing to the financial pressure squeezing its industry harder than ever.

Come April, the Boston-based general-interest paper -- founded in 1908 and the winner of seven Pulitzer Prizes -- will print only a weekend edition after struggling financially for decades, its editor announced Tuesday.

The Monitor's circulation has fallen from a peak of 223,000 in 1970 to about 50,000 now, while its online traffic has soared. The newspaper gets about 5 million page-views per month, compared with about 4 million five years ago and 1 million a decade ago.

The Monitor was one of the first newspapers in the country to put content online, beginning in 1995, when correspondent David Rohde was taken prisoner in Bosnia.

"Obviously, this is going to help with our costs, but it also enables us to put much more emphasis on the Web and basically put our reporting assets and our editorial assets where we think growth will be in a very tough industry in the future, which we think is the Web," said Editor John Yemma, who was The Boston Globe's multimedia editor before he moved to the Monitor in June.

Cutting print editions also will help the paper reduce its dependence on sizable subsidies from its owner, the First Church of Christ, Scientist, which now provides more than half its operating budget, Yemma said.

Yemma said the move to "Web-first" publishing will likely result in some job cuts, but it is unclear how many.

The Monitor is known for its in-depth international reporting, particularly in the Middle East.

In 2006, Jill Carroll, a freelance reporter for the Monitor, was kidnapped in Baghdad and released safely after nearly three months in captivity. Carroll, who was made a staff writer while she was still being held hostage but has since left the newspaper, described her ordeal in an 11-part series published in the Monitor.

Like many other newspapers, it has suffered as more people get their news from the Internet -- which offers newspapers much less revenue even when it brings many more readers.

Andie Tucher, an associate professor at Columbia University's Graduate School Of Journalism, said the Monitor has traditionally been a newspaper people read for in-depth articles after they get local news from a local or state newspaper. With even small newspapers being squeezed by the Web, it makes sense that a "second read" like the Monitor would be harder hit.

"That's the real crisis for papers like this. Rather than reading that as my second or third paper, I now go online and browse Slate and Salon and the political sites, and I can read any other paper I like. It becomes much less urgent to indulge in The Christian Science Monitor," said Tucher, who teaches a course on the history of American journalism.

The paper is not the first but is the most prominent to scale back its print version in favor of online news. In April, The Capital Times, of Madison, Wis., switched to publishing mainly on the Internet. The Daily Telegram, in Superior, Wis., announced in July that it would print only two issues a week and its Web site would become the primary source for daily news. In Ohio, several local papers plan to print their final Monday editions next week.

Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, said it's tough to draw too many conclusions from the Monitor's decision because it is so unusual: It's owned by the church, has a small but national circulation and sells relatively little advertising.

Still, the industry will be watching, he said.

"I think to the degree they are successful ... that could be important for others looking at that action down the road," he said.

The newspaper was founded in 1908 by Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science Church. Despite its background, it is not considered a religious newspaper, though it continues to publish a daily religious article at Eddy's request.

Ken Doctor, a newspaper analyst for Outsell Inc., a research and consulting company for the information industry, said the Monitor's decision is part of an accelerated shift from print to digital. Over the last several years, many newspapers have reduced their physical size and number of pages to cut newsprint costs, and many have had employee layoffs or buyouts to slash payroll costs.

"We are seeing the amazing shrinkage of the U.S. press," Doctor said.

"What the Monitor is saying to its longtime readers is that the best way we can maintain and preserve the kind of journalism we're doing is to deliver it to you online, even though many of you would prefer it in print. We just can't afford to do it that way anymore."

Citi Investment Research analyst Catriona Fallon wrote Monday that she expects newspapers' revenue from classified, national and retail advertising to continue falling through 2009. And, in the context of initiating coverage of three major newspaper publishers -- Gannett Co., The New York Times Co. and The McClatchy Co. -- she said online revenue is years away from offsetting declines in print.

Yemma said the newspaper has been operating at a loss for years, and has received a subsidy from the church to fund the deficit. In the current fiscal year, the newspaper's operating costs were about $25.7 million, but the church paid about $13.3 million of that.

Over the next five years, the church wants to move to a break-even point where it does not have to subsidize the newspaper anymore, said Yemma. To do that, the newspaper needs to focus on the Web, Yemma said.

"There's no magic bullet on the Web. There's only doing what essentially works ... doing high-quality journalism and doing it continuously so that your site becomes a destination, a place where people can expect newly updated news the way you do it," he said.

The new weekly newspaper will be a 44-page publication that reads like a news magazine, and looks like a hybrid between a newspaper and a magazine, Yemma said.

Dave Aeikens, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, said some readers are sure to feel a sense of nostalgia for the Monitor's daily publication.

"It's really sad to see a great paper such as The Christian Science Monitor stop its print edition," Aeikens said. "It's really unfortunate, but things are evolving."

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