Nieman Foundation at Harvard
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Oct. 28, 2008, 5:29 p.m.

Five reasons the Monitor’s path won’t be for everyone

The Christian Science Monitor took some preventive medicine today in planning to close the newspaper’s daily print edition and ramp up its website. Coverage of the announcement has tended toward breathless: MediaPost believes it signals “a fundamental shift in the publishing industry,” while Gawker says the Monitor “will be the first of many.” Certainly, the news is significant because the Monitor is a well respected, national newspaper with a century-long history. And if nothing else, it adds some intrigue to their panel discussion next month on the future of journalism. But before we make any sweeping conclusions about this move, here are some things to keep in mind:

The Monitor is still essentially following a print model. They will sell a weekly print edition for $89, which is way more than most newsweeklies charge. And the daily will still be available, for an undetermined fee, as a PDF delivered to your inbox each morning. It’s hard to imagine either of those formats doing well in this climate. The Monitor is also improving its website, which was naturally the focus of today’s announcement, but so is every other newspaper in the country.

The Monitor is a niche publication. Though international in scope and superlative in quality, the print edition sells only 52,000 copies a day, according to the latest Audit Bureau of Circulation figures. In March, the Monitor’s daily circulation was just less than the Youngstown Vindicator in Ohio and the Rockford Register Star in Illinois. But as a small newspaper with a national audience, the Monitor really has no peers, and it’s not clear that they’re success or failure in this venture will mean much for the rest of the industry.

The Monitor’s readers are old. While the average American newspaper reader is 53, CSM readers average 64.6 years, according to the newspaper. Retirees are less likely to make the shift from print to online, so the Monitor will have to attract an entirely new audience.

The Monitor’s web traffic is good, but not as good as it looks. garnered between 1.1 million and 1.2 million unique visitors in September, according to Compete and Quantcast, which was nearly twice the site’s traffic in July. But most news sites covering the 2008 election have enjoyed a temporary campaign bump since the summer. So the Monitor has a health online readership at the moment, but they probably shouldn’t count on seven figures going forward.

The Monitor still plans to lose lots of money. In an admirably candid news story today, the newspaper revealed that it will lose $18.9 million in its current fiscal year. The goal is to lose just $10.5 million a year by 2013. If they succeed in reducing the paper’s operating deficit, it will be notable. But those losses are only possible thanks to heavy subsidies from its parent, the Church of Christ, Scientist, which has bigger money problems and could grow impatient with the Monitor’s red ink. Indeed, tucked inside today’s announcement was word of a “modest reduction” in the newspaper’s editorial staff.

POSTED     Oct. 28, 2008, 5:29 p.m.
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