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April 27, 2010, 10 a.m.

What advocacy nonprofits can learn from The Christian Science Monitor

When the nonprofit Christian Science Monitor announced in October 2008 that it would convert its daily printed report to a weekly edition and move its breaking news online, some people wondered whether the venerable newspaper would survive.

A year after the conversion was completed, John Yemma, the Monitor’s editor, says the new model is working pretty well. The Monitor has succeeded in moving 93 percent of its daily subscribers to the weekly, and its new web-and-print format is attracting new subscribers, Yemma told me. More importantly, the Monitor is on a path to financial sustainability, he said. The paper retains the full support of its publisher, the Church of Christ Scientist in Boston. But it is working to wean itself from church subsidies over five years — a time frame that would be unacceptably long in the for-profit sector. And although it is owned by a church, it retains its stature as a respected, mainstream news organization.

While the Monitor has a unique history that would be difficult, if not impossible, for new nonprofit news organizations to emulate, Yemma said he thinks the Monitor’s positive experience can speak to the role that nonprofits can play in the rapidly evolving news ecosystem — particularly nonprofits that were founded to pursue missions other than objective journalism.

Below is a summary Q&A of my conversation with Yemma, paraphrased and edited to provide clarity and to compensate for my poor typing skills.

Barnett: How does an advocacy organization — in this case, a church — create and preserve a newsroom that has true editorial independence?

Yemma: The church’s founder, Mary Baker Eddy, saw the journalistic mission as central to the work of the church. It was seen as a direct thing that should be done. It wasn’t just, ‘let’s support journalism.’ She wanted clear, non-sensational journalism to counter the yellow journalism of the day. That might not be as clear to other nonprofits. There are ways a newspaper could run at cross purposes to the interests of its sponsoring organization. You have to negotiate that relationship.

Over the years, the Monitor has won seven Pulitzer Prizes. But do you ever get questions about whether the paper adheres to the principles of editorial independence and objectivity?

We’ve been in the mainstream of journalism for so long, our practices align with those of almost every other journalistic organization of repute. We’ve reported on difficult issues that the Church of Christ Scientist has gone through, including lawsuits in different eras. It’s no different than what a newspaper such as The Boston Globe would do if it was named in a lawsuit.

How does the Monitor deal with issues of transparency? Do you disclose your finances?

We make public all of the finances of the church. When it comes to the Monitor, it’s always been made public because the church would like to spend less on the paper. Each May, the church publishes a full report. It’s not online only because the church in some cases is a little slow about adopting technology. But they’re certainly transparent about what the finances are.

Do the directors and trustees of the church and the Monitor still see journalism as critical to the mission of the church?

Yes, because it was founded by Mary Baker Eddy. She wrote the deed of trust that created the church’s publishing society, which puts out the Monitor. Today, the questions are about what form its content should take. There are legitimate questions as to whether a daily, print newspaper sent by mail made any sense. When we made the jump to the web, we expected that there might be some concerns on the part of the members.

What about the members? How do they view the change?

The church members I think have always supported the idea of the Monitor and understood the centrality to the mission of the church. Even if they had questions about the direction, they understood that we had to make a move in some direction. The current way was untenable. I don’t think anybody asked whether the mission should go on.

Do you think that to succeed as a news provider, an advocacy group has to link its case for philanthropy to objective reporting, no matter where it takes you?

I think you have to. For nonprofits now getting into the business, it may be that you need a very clear articulation of that role within the overall organization. If you’re a foundation and you decide that not enough information is being provided about the area you care about, then it might make sense. But you’ve got to think fairly deeply about why it’s important that you do this and what the purpose is. You’re not just keeping journalists employed or keep something going. It has to be part of your mission.

In terms of editorial independence within an advocacy organization, what does the Monitor’s experience show?

There are two paths. You can build it in constitutionally, as the church did, and it becomes enshrined. Or you have to have a sustainable business model so that you’re not a long term burden to the organization.

Do you think it’s okay for independent newsrooms to rely on subsidies from advocacy organizations?

As a journalist, it’s not good to have to go to with the begging bowl to your parent organization all the time. It’s a bad dynamic. For journalistic operations within nonprofit, the first order of business has to be to move toward sustainability. Whatever you do, you have to figure a way to justify your journalistic mission because someday there’s going to be somebody on the board who’s going to say, why do we have this? It’s clear then that your news operation is in jeopardy.

What is the Monitor’s current subsidy?

The subsidy was $12.6 million in the fiscal year we are now completing [FY10, which ends April 30, 2010]. We project a subsidy of $10.7 million in the upcoming fiscal year [FY11, beginning May 1, 2010]…Besides the subsidy, our revenue comes from subscriptions to the weekly and the email-delivered Daily News Briefing, advertising in the weekly and on, syndicated sales, and an endowment that provides an annual $6.8 million.

What is the plan for the Monitor to reduce its subsidy from the church?

Each year we are planning to reduce the direct subsidy from the church so that by the end of FY13 [April 30, 2013], it should stand at around $3.8 million. Beyond that, we intend further reductions, but those out years are notoriously hard to predict with any accuracy. We’ll undoubtedly be re-forecasting along the way, perhaps as soon as this summer, to reflect the real world we are in.

POSTED     April 27, 2010, 10 a.m.
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