John Yemma arrived as editor of The Christian Science Monitor in 2008, at one of the lowest moments of the modern newspaper industry. Within a few months, the century-old newspaper had decided radical change was needed: abandoning daily printing and diving headfirst into the web. Although the Monitor was always an unusual newspaper — distributed by mail, global in scope, subsidized by the Church of Christ, Scientist — it was a harbinger for some of the print-reductions we’ve seen in places like New Orleans, Portland, Cleveland, and Toronto since. The Monitor has indeed built traffic to csmonitor.com to many multiples of its previous level, as well as expanded into speciality paid-products like the Frontiers Market Monitor.
This month, Yemma steps down after five years as editor. Before his editorship, he also spent 20 years working for news organizations including The Boston Globe, The Dallas Morning News, and United Press International. “I think the Monitor is in amazingly good hands and we’re on a pretty good glide-path too. It seemed like a good time to step down,” Yemma told me.
I recently spoke with Yemma about the early days of the print-to-digital transition of the Monitor, the role of quizzes and games in serious journalism, and how the Monitor has diversified its revenue stream and decreased its subsidy from the church. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
We were known for moderately longform journalism — I’d say the 1,000- to 1,500-word analytical article about some international news. The articles shortened, but the trick was to figure out how to make the same value in 500–700 words, or even shorter sometimes. Or multiple posts during the day of 200 or 300 words that accumulated and ended up telling the story.
I’d say the biggest shift was the acculturation in the newsroom. We didn’t go into it with a full idea of what the best practices were. This was 2008 — there were of course many web-oriented journalistic operations, from Slate to Huffington Post, but we had to adapt it to our values and our culture, and that was this humane, thoughtful, analytical, globally-oriented coverage.
Basically, understand your talent pool and understand that you’re gonna have to do some sorting of that over time. There’s gonna be new hires, those hires are probably going to be younger people, and if they’re younger they’re probably a little more web-oriented. That mix changes over time. We didn’t try to force that mix. We didn’t say goodbye to a lot of older people and just hire younger people.
Trending stories, for us, they act as the top of a very wide funnel that attracts people to our journalism through aggregators and social media and other places. Then the trick is to build in enticements and referrals so that they get interested in our longer-form journalism. So those journalists that are good at the longer-form journalism, that’s their opportunity to develop.
There are intermediate steps. There are multipliers along the way, like quizzes and lists, and so forth. And we do those. But if you take a look at our site, you see that our quizzes and lists aren’t the “20 things your cat did this summer,” it’s the “5 things you need to know about the Affordable Care Act,” or “How much do you know about the Middle East?” That’s the intermediate step.
The top of the funnel, the wide part, is trending news, the intermediate step is those multipliers. What we’re trying to do is bring people into a deeper relationship with our in-depth stories. Those are the ones we would typically do for the weekly magazine, which we’ll post online after the due date of the magazine. That’s the kind of piece, if we can get people to really read it — those cover stories, the deeper pieces, researched out of Baghdad or Afghanistan — those are the ones that are really our signature pieces we’re trying to bring people into a relationship with.
So I think it’s just a matter of the type of list or the type of multiplier you’re doing. If you can teach with it, if you can help educate people about parts of the world that it would be good for them to know about, or policies, or social issues they need to know about, I think that’s a form of journalism. It’s just a different form of storytelling. It’s a more interactive form, and just because it’s fun doesn’t mean it’s not useful.
I don’t think I was averse to that. I went through the same evolution that everyone did in the middle of the ’90s on as the Internet came in: staring in awe at Netscape and wondering how this works; going through the whole process of thinking the Internet was interesting but not necessarily seriousg and finding out it’s this huge disruptor that was going to change our industry completely.
We get revenue from advertising in print. We get revenue from advertising on the web. We have syndication. We still have some traditional syndication, which is other newspapers taking our news service. That’s been re-sorted over the last few years and a lot of our syndication growth is in B2B sales to databases like EBSCO and ProQuest.
We pioneered the development of a ProQuest daily summary drawn from our website. They’re the ones who sell microfiches to libraries all over the country, of newspapers. So if you were doing archival research, or academic research, you would access the newspapers that way. It seems like an old-fashioned business, but not all newspaper content from more than 20 years ago is digitized. When we announced we were going web-first, we worked with ProQuest to develop a replica edition of our website every day, which we generate as an XML feed that goes to ProQuest. That was turned into a microfiche.
Then we’re developing these new products, like Frontiers Market Monitor and World Business Monitor, which are using our database of international correspondents that we’re working with all the time for our mainstream publications, to do more specialized reporting for business and NGOs and other audiences that really care about international news in a more granular way.
And we do get a subsidy from the Christian Science church. It depends on how you calculate it — I guess you could say it’s about $2.5 million of direct subsidy, and about $5 million that comes from an endowment fund, not unlike an endowment fund a university would have, that throws off that much per year.
The two of them together have really been in charge of developing those products. It takes a lot of knowledge of your audience. You have to understand where the audience is, and you have to think about how you’re going to deliver to them. These are just pure feeds. They aren’t print magazines or print newsletters or anything like that. You can either subscribe to them directly, or a company might buy a certain number.
It’s not unlike what Bloomberg does, where 500 people at IBM, maybe you buy 60 [terminals], and they get the feed every day. But these are very new. It took us a year-and-a-half to develop them and get everything lined up. We went live with content in the late summer, early fall of this year. So we’re just out on the market with them. It’ll probably take several years before they gain a lot of traction.
I think that social media everywhere is becoming more significant, but it’s doing it very slowly. It’s important to be out there. But you have to be really genuine about how you show people social media content. You can’t just throw things up there or spam people. Even if it’s good content, it’s got to be relevant to their lives somehow. It’s a much less direct way. The old model is one-to-many publishing. We’ve learned how to segment the markets now so that we understand what the demographic of our key reader is, and we’re trying to look at them and serve them more. We’re slicing that up into these finer slices, feeds to B2B areas, and even in sponsor plays that we have.
I think the change over the past few years has been that we have reduced the number of full-fledged bureaus. But there are certain places in the world where you’ve gotta have a full-fledged bureau. China, for instance. You can’t really operate there using a contractor or freelancer. You have to really have a person fully paid up, all the expenses, the translators, all of that. Same in a war zone. Happily, that’s decreasing now, but during the height of the Iraq war we had fully-paid correspondents there.
We have a correspondent in the Middle East and Jerusalem. We think it’s good to have our person there right now. In other places, Moscow, we have a great correspondent. For all intents and purposes, he’s on staff, but he’s on contract. Several places in Africa we’ve done that too.
You’re always changing what your emphasis is. In the mid-part of the last decade, definitely. We were in Iraq and we were going to stay in Iraq. But everybody has shifted now because the news cycle has changed. We’re committed to international news. We’re trying to keep the expenses down — it’s very expensive. The New York Times is able to do these fully-funded bureaus everywhere, and that’s great. But even they have contractors and stringers. We just have a different proportion of those. We’re a smaller operation.
These are things an editor always says, but it’s no less true because of it: It’s a global economy. And things like the war on terror and environmental issues, these are all global issues that affect us. The pollution coming out of northern China, or Fukushima, is not insignificant to American readers. But you don’t just want to be American-centric. You want to try to understand those issues because they’re of concern to local people too.
We also are doing a little bit more interactive content with our readers, in a section we call DC Decoder, where we ask readers if they’re interested in telling us what kind of story we should do now. I think we just feel as though we need to get closer to our audience. I think everybody does. I think in the first generation of web-first journalism, we, like everybody else, experimented with comments after articles. And we found that just to be not very useful or enlightening type of process.
Our default setting is comments are off. We can turn them on, and we do allow people to turn them on when they want. But it just feels as though that’s not a productive form of interactivity. So we’re trying to develop other forms of interactivity where we have a little bit higher level of engagement with readers. We think that taking action, or inviting them to tell us what stories we should pursue, those are vehicles that might deepen engagement. That’s why we’re moving in that direction.
I’ve done this for five-and-a-half years, I’ve really enjoyed it. I really respect Marshall Ingwerson, who’s our managing editor, who’s gonna step up to be editor. I think it’s just time for me to pass the torch. I would like to deepen the writing I’m doing, both for the Monitor and other places. There’s some practical considerations too: I wouldn’t mind ending my commute. I wouldn’t say I’m retiring, per se, but I’m trying to shift to do more creative work. And I think the Monitor is in amazingly good hands and we’re on a pretty good glide-path too. It seemed like a good time to step down.
Photo of Christian Science Monitor newspaper box in 2009 by AP/Lisa Poole.