Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

CSMonitor and the future of international news

A few years back, I observed that the Christian Science Monitor, a small paper with a strong focus on international news, published in Boston, was one of the “bloggiest” papers in the world. Despite a small paper circulation – now roughly 52,000 – it’s frequently cited by bloggers, usually pointing to their rich international coverage, delivered via eight overseas bureaus and a large contingent of foreign correspondents.

Due to business pressures and a changing print journalism market, the Monitor is embracing its bloginess and becoming one of the first newspapers to shift away from print. Currently a weekday paper, the Monitor will stop producing print editions in April 2009 and focus resources on their website, as well as a daily email edition. They’ll introduce a new print product, a Sunday magazine, and writers will focus on updating stories a few times a day on the website and producing longer editions for the magazine.

On the one hand, you can read this move as a brave embrace of the future business reality that faces high-quality journalism. Readers are moving away from print and towards the web. While revenue has yet to follow them to the extent that newspapers would like, it’s no longer possible to believe that adding color photos, more local coverage or snappier graphics to a daily paper edition is going to regain lost readers, at least in print editions. It’s a scary move for the Monitor, because everyone agrees that advertisers aren’t paying the premiums online that they’ve paid for print placement, but it seems like the best way maintain the paper’s commitment to investing heavily in international coverage.

However, some of the figures and statements coming from Monitor management in discussing the change are downright stark. The Monitor is a nonprofit venture, and it’s heavily subsidized by the Christian Science church. According to an announcement on the Monitor website announcing these changes, the paper will lose $18.9 million in its final year as a print daily – that’s a loss that the vast majority of newspapers could not survive. The new strategy isn’t designed to make the Monitor profitable, but to reduce the loss to $10.5 million a year. While the Monitor is hoping to convert current subscribers into subscribers to their weekly magazine – with a reduction in subscription costs from $219 to $89 – editor John Yemma doesn’t sound very confident about its value as a moneymaker: “‘We certainly know newsmagazines are cratering,’ Mr. Yemma said. ‘We’re under no illusions about it being a growth vehicle.'”

Anyone who cares about the survival of international news – or perhaps the survival of independent, high-quality journalism in general – will be watching the future of the Monitor closely. But the traffic numbers the website is currently experiencing are dispiriting, not just for the Monitor, but for all internationally-focused news sites. The Monitor’s website sees roughly 1.5 million visitors a month, and those visitors generate $1.3 million in ad revenue. I’m surprised by how small the online readership is. It’s huge in comparison to the print readership, of course, but only about 3-4x of the readership of Global Voices, across our different language editions. Given that reach, I would have expected less online revenue – that’s encouraging, as GV starts looking to increase earned revenue and decrease our reliance on foundation funding. Yemma is quoted in the New York Times as hoping to build online traffic to 20-30 million unique viewers a month over the next five years. That’s a huge growth curve, and perhaps an unrealistic one, but it’s likely what the paper needs to do to cover the subsidy from the Christian Science church.

One of the groups that will be watching the Monitor closely are the folks behind GlobalPost, a new, for-profit project designed to provide rich online coverage of global news through a worldwide team of freelance journalists. With extensive foundation supportWith the backing of investors willing to take a great deal of risk in support of journalistic goals, GlobalPost will provide modest income to a large stable of freelance foreign correspondents, making these stories available online and syndicating them to local and international news outlets. It’s a very good deal for the corresondents – while the money GlobalPost is offering isn’t enough to support most correspondents, it’s a fantastic safety net for someone trying to make a living as a freelancer. It’s much less clear that the model can work for GlobalPost without a large, continued subsidy. Unfortunately, the numbers the Monitor are revealing are a strong signal that there’s not an enormous, pent-up demand for high quality international news in the US right now.

Updated: My friends at GlobalPost point out that they’re structured as a for-profit, not non-profit. While they are backed by some adventurous and risk tolerant investors who may be willing to take on high risk to support their model, they intend to turn a profit with this model in the long run and not to rely on foundation support. My apologies for mischaracterizing.

Of course, circumstances could change. If there were critical international issues affecting people’s lives, I’m sure we’d all pay more attention. You know, a global financial crisis where mortgages in California sink banks in Iceland, cutting police budgets in the UK. Or a worldwide energy shortage coupled with global climate change. Or a complex war, with many international actors and complex religious and cultural dynamics. I’m sure something like that would have readers looking for more international perspectives. I’ll just keep crossing my fingers that some important international news occurs soon.

I wanted to close this post by urging people to subscribe to the Monitor as a show of support, and to do so myself. Unfortunately, the subscription offers on the site still point towards a daily subscription. I haven’t subscribed to the Monitor because I’m so rarely home that daily papers end up becoming expensive kindling. I hope that the Monitor will follow their announcement with an opportunity to subscribe to the new print magazine and that lots of folks who appreciate the high quality of the Monitor’s coverage will sign up for that new product, showing support for the paper’s brave new direction.

7 Responses to “CSMonitor and the future of international news”

  1. Clark Boyd says:

    Hey Ethan —

    I know you tend to focus on the print outlets, but don’t forget that PRI’s The World continues to fight the good fight for international news on your radio and in your earbuds.

    Clark

  2. Ethan says:

    A totally fair point, Clark. The analogies between GV and print media are a bit closer than between our work and shows like The World… but it’s a great reminder that you guys, Link TV and others continue to put critical information from around the world in front of us everyday.

  3. Chris Blow says:

    I heard that tiny slice of frustration, Ethan! I’m interested to know if you think things are getting better or worse — you seem to have gone from being concerned about the quality of reporting (attention profiles) to deeply questioning the “survival” of international news.

  4. Ethan says:

    Just a tiny slice, Chris?

    I don’t know that things are getting worse, Chris, though I suspect they’re not getting better. But yes, you’re right to detect a shift in my depression. When I started studying this issue, I blamed journalists and editors for not focusing closely enough on developing nations and not telling the stories of ordinary people. Increasingly, my research suggests to me that the problems are at least as much of demand as supply. That is to say, it’s hard to convince newsapers (or radio programs or television) to focus on developing nations if there’s not demonstrated interest from audiences in this news. This is rough news if true, because it means my goal is now not just to change media, but to change media audiences. Always nice to have a modest, achievable goal… :-)

  5. I’d be curious to see you build this out, Ethan. I keep trying to figure out where the money is going to come from in the new media environment, and so far I am stumped (case in point — how is Chris Anderson going to SELL a book called FREE? I worked in a bookstore when Abbie Hoffmann was trying to flog his volume, “Steal This Book” (I know–that dates me) and–guess what?–we wouldn’t carry it). I agree that the CSM is a huge loss for international journalism (David Carr is even gloomier in today’s NYT, btw) — but it touches on a wider issue, of what information from far-away places is FOR. Neil Postman argued (in Amusing Ourselves to Death)rather convincingly that foreign news was an invention, mostly to sell newspapers (along with his charming surmise, that they also invented crossword puzzles, so people would have something to actually do with the huge surplus of new-but-unusable information they now possessed). So could it be that we are just reverting to a primordial state of natural parochialism against which the past century of international news was just an anomaly?

    Related concern–if there is no commercial model for journalism/media/information in this new world, does our choice then become either sponsors (ie, state-controlled or special-interest-controlled media) or ignorance?

  6. Ethan says:

    Charles, great observations and questions. Thanks for weighing in. I disagree with lots that Postman has to say, but it’s rare that I encounter something I disagree with as strongly as the crossword puzzle idea. The problems individuals and nations face today – economic, environmental, security – are deeply transnational. Just ask a policeman in England who’s on leave because his town has lost money in an Icelandic bank due to bad mortgages in Las Vegas. You can make the Postman argument if you’re arguing that citizens have no capacity to influence international issues – either by voting, lobbying or starting or supporting international movements – but you’re making a pretty dark argument about political participation at that point. If you’re going to pull that argument to its logical extreme, why not eliminate the entire newspaper and replace it with TV listings and sudoku? (Wait, I’m not serious. Give me back my newspaper!)

    As for how serious international journalism will be done in the future, the following players are going to be very important:

    – news organizations supported by national governments or by license fees, like BBC, CBC, etc.

    – organizations that operate as nonprofits, supported by foundation and direct fundraising, like NPR

    – advocacy organizations trying to promote news stories on issues they see as important and undercovered.

    There are concerns about all these models. But in the absence of profitable models to tell stories from the developing world, I think it’s worth exploring all of these seriously and in a sustained fashion.

  7. Sorry–you confused my citing of Postman’s argument with approbation. I agree that far-away conditions and events can have all kinds of impact on my life (or, to de-personalize it, on the life of a British policeman whose superiors have unwisely put the country funds in an Icelandish bank)–but this issue of agency is huge. How do I translate my concern about Foreign Issue X into something that genuinely affects F-I-X? And–a more Naseem-Taleebish-question–how do I KNOW that my agency has had an effect? (or, a lesser standard, how can I BELIEVE that I have had an effect?). What bothers and confuses me is this link of news to a sense of ownership — I am responsible but somehow have no authority to effect change. Postman argues — and here I feel some agreement — that the invention of “news” was a kind of commercial ploy (create a substance of social capital that needs to be replenished daily — only a slightly less sure-fire business model than selling cigarettes!)that has left us now with huge problems –not least of which is your sense of outrage that the industry that created that foreign awareness is now walking away from it, because it can no longer make money on it. One of the reasons why I love your blog is that you are so invested in the “teach to fish” paradigm (vs “give a fish”) — which I think is the only way out of this conundrum. I wonder–is it more important to have outside organizations publicizing problems, or is there more impact in the kind of thing that you (and many others) seem to do every day, sharing your expertise and absorbing that of others, to leverage in-region people to tackle their own problems (I am thinking particularly of those terrific Tunisian activists you highlighted some time ago).

    Anyway, too long an answer–and I have trick-or-treaters at the door. One thing to note though — suduko maybe, but TV schedules, no. Apparently TV Guide was just sold for $1. The business — not a copy of the magazine.

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  1. Michael Nielsen » Biweekly links for 10/31/2008 - [...] …My heart’s in Accra » CSMonitor and the future of international news [...]

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