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April 20, 2011, noon

Chasing pageviews with values: How the Christian Science Monitor has adjusted to a web-first, SEO’d world

Editor’s note: At the International Symposium on Online Journalism earlier this month, one of my favorite papers presented was by Drury’s Jonathan Groves and Carrie Brown-Smith of the University of Memphis. They’ve been spending a lot of time in the newsroom of the Christian Science Monitor to observe its transition from a daily print newspaper to a web-first newsroom with a weekly print edition. That transition required shifts in operations, in culture, and in the kind of journalism the Monitor produces.

Their full paper (pdf) is worth a read for its analysis of how those changes were made and what was gained and lost. But I’ve asked them to write a summary of their findings for the Lab. As they write, it’s up to you to judge how much this counts as a tragedy or a success for journalism.

We’ve seen a flood of innovations over the past few years in journalism on the web: from technology and the delivery of news to new forms of storytelling and reporting. But making those innovations happen has been neither fast nor easy. How do you manage meaningful change that sticks? That question drives our research.

Since October 2009, we have immersed ourselves in the Christian Science Monitor as it took the “web-first” mantra beyond platitudes and abandoned its daily print edition.

It was a difficult, wrenching process for many journalists used to the rhythm of the daily newspaper and concerned about the fate of the Monitor’s serious take on the news of the day. But the lessons learned along the way are valuable for any legacy news organization.

Like many newspapers, the Monitor faced a critical moment in 2008. Its national circulation had plummeted from 220,000 in 1970 to 52,000. Revenue was dwindling. And its owner, the First Church of Christ, Scientist, told newsroom managers the paper’s $12 million annual subsidy would be slashed to $4 million in five years. Such moments are fear-inducing and disruptive. They are also opportunities for meaningful change.

Monitor editor John Yemma and publisher Jonathan Wells developed a plan: Remove the shackles of the daily print edition, increase pageviews, and aggressively pursue online advertising. The paper also maintained a weekly print edition that allowed it to continue doing some longer-form journalism.

They set a clear five-year newsroom target: Drive pageviews from 3 million per month to 25 million. And they reached it.

Key to the Monitor’s transformation was having strong change agents who were able to challenge deeply embedded cultural assumptions and push the newsroom toward thinking about things differently — even if it sometimes meant ruffling some feathers. Leading the way were Yemma, managing editor Marshall Ingwerson, and particularly online editor Jimmy Orr, whose non-traditional background in the worlds of politics and blogging gave him a fresh perspective on the news ecosystem.

In news organizations we and others have examined, journalists are often skeptical of change efforts, especially when it alters the way news is gathered and disseminated. As one staffer we interviewed in December 2009 said of the web: “Hopefully, we can be in it, but not of it.” Monitor employees had strong ideas about the paper’s values. Here are excerpts from our interviews with three staffers:

The Monitor story before was a very particular kind of story. You always looked for a larger analytical story on any given news point. You just didn’t do the news story, you know. You always did something larger than that, and you always looked for, to be, you know, to be more analytical about it…

We talk about being solution-based journalism. We don’t go into the fray; we try to push the discussion in a new way that is productive…

…seeking solutions to problems, staying away from sensationalism, analysis and thoughtful kind of assessment of what’s going on rather than jumping to snap conclusions and going for, not so much a focus on breaking news, but more on understanding the reasons, the causes behind the news of the day — I mean, that’s what we aspire to…

Over the course of our study, Orr challenged staffers’ ideas about Monitor journalism, and many recoiled. He pushed for more blogs on the site. He encouraged pursuing items about Tiger Woods and other topics that many staffers felt didn’t fit with the original Monitor mission: “To injure no man, but to bless all mankind.”

The newsroom incorporated a four-pronged strategy:

  1. Increase the frequency of updating, writing several posts on a subject rather than one long story.
  2. Use search engine optimization to find key phrases that would improve a post’s ranking in Google.
  3. Monitor Google Trends for hot topics and sometimes assign stories on that basis, allowing the paper to “ride the Google wave,” as one editor put it.
  4. Use social media including Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr to reach new audiences.

In this process, the organization embraced emergent strategy, an idea some referred to at the recent International Conference on Online Journalism as “failing fast.” The Monitor took an iterative approach to innovation, trying new ideas, and dropping those that didn’t work. Over the course of the study period, the newsroom tried many forms of web content, including blogs, live webcasts, and podcasts. And managers weren’t afraid to halt those items that weren’t garnering traffic. Podcasts, a weekly Yemma webcast, and video didn’t generate the return they’d hoped for, so each was stopped or scaled back.

The strategy helped push web numbers to new heights. By July 2010, the site had reached its 25 million pageview goal. And though many staffers expressed concerns about the changes, success reduced tension. Several noted the greater traffic infused the newsroom with a new sense of relevance. “This revival has been a real morale booster for yours truly,” said one staffer who had been with the paper for more than 20 years. “For a long time, I felt like I was on a losing team. Not losing in the sense of — we had a strong product. But it didn’t have much reach.”

A key factor in the success was a new content management system designed for web publishing. It democratized the process of web production and made it easier for anyone to develop and post new content.

But work remains to be done. Though pageviews have climbed, ad revenues have not grown in corresponding fashion, and the church subsidy will continue to diminish. And the hard work continues, as one editor noted in January:

So I have to do it six, seven times (a day), you know — to think of stories that bring what I would consider our Monitor values to a topic that is not where we normally would have been, and we’re doing it because the public is interested in this topic. So, what do we have to say about it that’s interesting, or clearer, or sheds some new perspective on what’s going on here? And it’s hard. You know, we weren’t accustomed to having to be that instantaneously responsive, and we don’t have the luxury of saying, “Well, you know that story is really not for us.” And when we’ve got pageview targets that we’re all assessed to hit every month, you’ve gotta come up with something on what people want to read about.

Whether the Monitor’s transition can be categorized as a tragedy or a success for journalism remains difficult to gauge. “Riding the Google wave” is difficult for the serious, in-depth international news the Monitor has long been known for. But even the greatest journalism has little impact on the world when its readership is small and diminishing. And today, the Monitor is increasingly injecting itself into the national conversation.

POSTED     April 20, 2011, noon
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