Christian Science Monitor goes Web-mostly

The only reason to publish an old-fashioned print newspaper in 2008 is because print advertising is more lucrative than Web advertising. Flip through the print edition of the Christian Science Monitor and you will see virtually no advertising. Therefore, the paper’s announcement today that it will switch to a mostly Web model next April makes eminent good sense.

The Monitor’s daily print edition is already little more than rumor. Where would you get one, other than stopping by a Christian Science Reading Room? Yet the Monitor’s Web site is popular enough to attract about 1.5 million visitors a month. (For purposes of comparison, Boston.com, the Globe’s Web site, attracts nearly 4.5 million visitors a month.)

The Monitor’s announcement makes it clear that the paper, founded by Mary Baker Eddy nearly 100 years ago, is in pretty tough financial shape — as is every newspaper operation. What the Monitor has that commercial papers lack is nonprofit ownership that can look at the long term — and pay a subsidy, as new-media consultant Ken Doctor notes, thus providing a vital bridge to the day that online revenues will start to cover the cost of news-gathering.

Those who insist on the printed word will be able to buy a weekly edition, which will allow the Monitor to engage in reverse-publishing — that is, in republishing content that appears online first. That’s what they’re doing in Madison, Wis., where the Capital Times earlier this week dropped its daily print edition and replaced it with two free tabloids filled with material from its Web site.

What’s happening at the Monitor had been long anticipated. If handled properly, it could be a positive development — and another big step in the paper’s (and the industry’s) evolution toward a model of putting the Web first.

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The Monitor’s hybrid strategy

Don Aucoin reports in today’s Boston Globe that the venerable Christian Science Monitor might be heading down the road blazed by the Capital Times in Madison, Wis. — a hybrid Web/print model, with the print newspaper coming out just once a week.

According to Aucoin, at the moment the Monitor is considering only a modest tweak — a weekly edition to supplement the daily. But, reportedly, there is a possibility that the weekly might eventually replace the daily. If that happens, the print edition could conceivably become an example of “reverse publishing,” a digest of the best content that’s already been published online.

Recently the Capital Times abandoned its paid daily edition in favor of two weekly free tabloids, a news-oriented product that comes out on Wednesdays and an arts-and-entertainment paper on Thursdays. At the same time, the online edition is being pumped up. This is a promising model likely to be emulated. A mostly online paper saves considerable printing and distribution costs without abandoning the print advertising market entirely.

I’ve tended to think of the Monitor as mainly a Web publication for some time now. I mean, where would you grab a print copy? At a Christian Science Reading Room? As long as the church remains committed to high-quality journalism, a shift to a mostly online paper might ensure the paper’s survival.

The Monitor also enjoys an ideal ownership model. These days, papers as diverse as the St. Petersburg Times, the New Hampshire Union Leader and the U.K.’s Guardian are often held up as examples of possible salvation for the news business, as they are all owned by non-profit organizations. (Disclosure: I write a weekly online column for the Guardian.)

So, too, with the Monitor. Unfortunately, as Aucoin notes, the church blew an inordinate amount of money on failed ventures in television and radio about 15 years ago, and has never really recovered. Church ownership may be benign, but in this case it doesn’t come with very deep pockets.

More than anything, the Monitor needs to carve out a new mission. In its heyday many decades ago, the Monitor thrived because it was the quality alternative — usually the only quality alternative — to the local rag. At a time when you can access any news source you want through the Internet, the Monitor must make a case for why you would want to read it instead of, or in addition to, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, et al.

In recent years, the folks running the Monitor have been pretty forward-looking in terms of moving past print. It’s encouraging that they’re still pushing in that direction.