By deciding this week to end its daily print edition and publish only online, the distinguished but struggling—The Christian Science Monitor has simultaneously become the newspaper industry's worst fear and its model for salvation. Beginning next April, the Monitor will become the first national newspaper to switch from daily print to online—though, perhaps to hedge its bets, it will launch a weekly print edition.
Even in the face of Wednesday's announcement, which followed a jarring report earlier in the week that newspaper circulation is declining more quickly than anticipated, several top newspaper executives and analysts were quick to rebuff the prediction that print is dead. "Daily newspapers are rooted in an economic model dependent on the print side of the business," says John Morton, the veteran newspaper analyst. "So far, the advertising revenue that [the Internet editions] pull in isn't nearly enough to replace what they get from the print side." The sentiment is echoed by the Newspaper Association of America, one of the $55-billion industry's main trade groups. "The print newspaper product will be around for a long time," says Randy Bennett, senior vice president, business development. "The focus may change. It may be a tighter product, and it may not be delivered seven days a week. But print still has a strong audience that likes it." Robert Thompson, editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal, says the fate of The Christian Science Monitor, "is not indicative at all of all newspapers and certainly not of the opportunity that awaits The Wall Street Journal."
Celebrating its centennial next month, The Christian Science Monitor was launched by Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Church of Christ, Scientist, which continues to be the newspaper's benefactor. Covering national and international affairs, the paper, based in Boston, isn't a tool for evangelizing and has won seven Pulitzer Prizes. For the past four decades, however, it has endured steadily declining circulation—dropping to 52,000 from 220,000 in 1970. The Monitor expects to post a loss of almost $19 million in the current fiscal year ending next April, with the church kicking in a subsidy of $12 million, and other sources the rest, to cover the deficit.
The Monitor's financial woes mirror those of the industry. On Monday, the Audit Bureau of Circulation reported an accelerating shrinkage of sales for much of this year. For the six months ending Sept. 30, the bureau measured a nearly 5 percent decline in weekly and Sunday circulation among the more than 500 newspapers that report their numbers to the bureau (until last year, circulation overall was declining at a rate of around 2 percent). The nation's largest metropolitan newspapers suffered declines ranging from almost 2 percent for The Washington Post (whose parent company also owns NEWSWEEK), to 13.6 percent for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Compounding the industry' problems, print advertising has been dropping as more companies chose to hawk their wares on the Web. The sputtering economy will probably only compound matters.
Over the past several years, the industry has aggressively embraced the Internet as a survival strategy, though so far, not as the panacea the Monitor hopes it will be. The shrinking print business still accounts for some 90 percent of industry revenues, and the rate of growth in online revenues is dramatically slowing from the double-digit annual gains of the past several years. One bright spot, notes analyst Morton, is that "you get the same amount of profit from 50-cents of online ads as you do from a dollar of print ads. You don't have to replace print ads dollar-for-dollar to stay even."
For now, most of the industry continues to pursue a hybrid strategy, in part because print still has a strong appeal with readers 35 and older. "The endgame for the print product," says Bennett of the Newspaper Association, "is to create niche publications." Similarly, many local papers are launching online products designed to appeal to different segments of local markets. For example, he notes, the Minneapolis Star Tribune launched vita.mn, an entertainment-focused site, aimed at a younger audience, that includes social networking features. It also has a print version.
In some quarters of the Internet, the Monitor is winning kudos for its decision. "I think it is a very courageous move," says Chris Tolles, chief executive of Topix.com, a Website that is a forum for what is popularly known as "citizen journalism." While Tolles says most publishers have stopped at merely studying the idea of abandoning print, Topix represents a dipping-of-the-toe in the digital waters for several print newspaper giants. It's largely owned by Gannett, McClatchy and Tribune Co., the nation's three largest owners of local newspapers. You can be certain they will be monitoring the Monitor.