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.