The Death—and Rebirth—of a Newspaper


The Christian Science Monitor will celebrate its 100th birthday as a newspaper by ... going out of print. Not out of business, but out of print.

In April 2009, The Christian Science Monitor will become the first daily newspaper with a national circulation to abandon its print edition. Instead, it will deliver a weekly magazine and opt for an enhanced Web site and new daily e-newsletter.

The newspaper's print circulation has been declining for almost 40 years, going from 220,000 in 1970 to about 52,000 currently, according to a New York Times story.

Shuttering the print edition now will allow the Monitor—which is owned by The First Church of Christ, Scientist—to maintain its eight foreign bureaus and continue to provide the international coverage for which it is known.

The Monitor has won seven Pulitzer Prizes—ironic since the paper began in 1908 partly as a response by church founder Mary Baker Eddy to attacks from Joseph Pulitzer's New York World.

"In the Monitor's next century, as with its first century, it is committed to finding answers to the world's most important problems, asking the questions that matter and getting the story behind the news—all of which is staying true to Mrs. Eddy's unselfish, original vision," said John Yemma, the Monitor's editor. "The Monitor's role is right there in its name. It's to monitor the world, to keep an eye on the world from a perspective of hope."

The obstacles faced by the Monitor for staying solvent remain an albatross for others in the newspaper industry.

On the one hand, you have huge costs associated with production and distribution even as print circulation declines. On the other hand, it's the print edition that still brings in about 90 percent of revenue, according to the Newspaper Association of America, as referenced by the Times article.

But as audiences and advertisers migrate to the Web as a multimedia platform capable of delivering traditional media like newspapers, TV shows and motion pictures, the financial future and what constitutes a sustainable model remain uncertain.

Thrown into the mix is an increasing immediacy expectation that electronic, not print, delivery promises. That's what the Monitor is emphasizing it will be able to provide—continual updates throughout the day.

The 50 or so user comments following the Times article about the Monitor comprise a microcosm of diverse opinion on the print-electronic debate.

"There goes the newspaper biz," wrote Pierce in Atlanta. "One day, it'll just be blogs ...."

Bill in Chicago wrote that he would miss the "portability of a paper edition," but he also recognized that there is an electronic portability as well. And as for immediacy, he pointed out that "newspapers after all are already out of date when you first pick them up."

Hugh in Minneapolis simply said, "Horrible news! This is such a great paper."

Jenny in Connecticut wondered how future generations might access what will only be electronic content moving forward, while Jake in Milwaukee hailed the move as "a triumph for the environment!"

Media industry analysts and onlookers will be paying close attention to the Monitor over the next several years as it seeks to increase its Web-edition readership and therefore its online sources of revenue.

The Monitor, however, has stood as an exception in the universe of national newspapers because its umbrella is a church, not a large media corporation like the Dow Jones & Co. (which owns The Wall Street Journal, Barron's and Smart Money), the Gannett Co. (which owns USA Today and 84 other U.S. dailies) or the New York Times Co. (which owns The New York Times, Boston Globe and 16 more dailies).

Those corporations have more assets to leverage and news-gathering entities to converge, as they have already done and continue to do in an effort to cut costs amid an ever-shifting media landscape.

The Monitor, meanwhile, has looked to its founding church for subsidies. The Los Angeles Times reported that in the fiscal year ending in April 2009, the church will spend more than $13 million to cover the gap created by the Monitor's $25 million in operating expenses versus about $12 million in revenue.

Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the church and pioneer in matters of spirituality and health, had been thinking about starting a newspaper long before 1908. In 1883, she wrote:

"Looking over the newspapers of the day, one naturally reflects that it is dangerous to live, so loaded with disease seems the very air. These descriptions carry fears to many minds, to be depicted in some future time upon the body. A periodical of our own will counteract to some extent this public nuisance; for through our paper we shall be able to reach many homes with healing, purifying thought."

Now, that healing, purifying thought will reach homes not through paper, but in many cases through the very air—loaded not with disease, but with wireless transmissions.

Cliff Vaughn is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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