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So What Do You Do, John Yemma, Editor of The Christian Science Monitor?

'We've taken a culture that had been a traditional news culture, and we've transitioned them to a Web-first one'

By David Hirschman - March 31, 2010
When advertising bottomed out in 2009 and the future of media was anything but certain, the venerable Christian Science Monitor was faced with a difficult decision: either change the publication's business model or continue to watch its revenue erode. Betting that they could better use scarce resources to build up the paper's online presence, the Monitor decided to kill its century-old daily print edition in favor of a weekly magazine that focused more on features and analysis than news.

Today, with the one-year anniversary of that strategy (and lessons learned) in his rearview, editor John Yemma says the brand is better for it. "People have already read stories about the 'who, what, when, where,' and they want to get to the 'why,'" he says. "For print it really works because we have a unique news position. And on the Web it seems to resonate as well -- we've more than doubled our traffic." Checkmate.


Name: John Yemma
Position: Editor of The Christian Science Monitor
Birthdate: November 18, 1952
Hometown: Austin, Texas
Education: B.A., University of Texas
Resume: Worked for several newspapers in Texas before becoming city hall reporter for the San Antonio Express-News. Went on to work at United Press International's Dallas bureau in 1974 and then joined the Dallas Morning News in 1976. Moved to Washington in 1979 and got a job with the Christian Science Monitor's D.C. bureau. Became a foreign correspondent for the Monitor in the Middle East from 1980-1983 (working out of Beirut and then Cyprus). Returned to the U.S. in 1984 to briefly serve as the Monitor's New York bureau chief, and then moved to Boston to become the paper's business editor. Moved up through several of the paper's editorial positions until 1989, when he jumped to The Boston Globe. Spent 20 years at the Globe in various top positions as a writer and editor. Became editor of the Monitor in 2008.
Marital status: Married
First section of the Sunday New York Times: "The A-section. I'm a news guy."
Favorite TV show: The Office, SNL, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report.
Last book read: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Guilty pleasure: Mexican food. "I will travel miles for good Mexican food."

The Monitor's decision to go online-only last year was seen by many as a major step in the evolution of newspapers. What was the genesis of that decision?
For about two years before they hired me, [the paper] had been involved in a fairly deep-dive [analysis] into the future of print. They looked at their financials, they looked at the future of print, they did prototyping of a weekly in two different forms -- a slick weekly and a tabloid weekly -- and they'd already made a lot of progress along the lines of moving from daily print to weekly print. It seemed like where they weren't making much progress, and where they were still caught in the old paradigm was "What do we do with print? How do we make it most effective?" -- when what we really needed to do was go Web-first. Print should be there, but it shouldn't be the lead dog on the dogsled.

Even though print still makes the bulk of the money?
In fact, that's true of the moment. And it's certainly true with most newspapers. But it's clear that the future is digital. That doesn't mean that you won't have print. It just means that you either lower the frequency of print -- which is what we did -- or you do what the Globe and the Houston Chronicle and others have done, which is to decrease your print footprint... down into your core readership areas, so that your supply chain and distribution chain is much cheaper. And then you raise your subscription rates -- which all of the big companies have done. So that's an attempt to keep print viable.

But you're talking about a generational transition. Anybody who's under 30 is a digital native and they don't have the print habit. They might like an occasional New Yorker or Wired that they buy at Barnes and Noble, but subscriptions -- not so much. So it's clear where the future is going, and that's to some sort of a digital model. And so you have to have a multi-platform strategy, which every news organization to some extent has. But the question is where you put the emphasis in that multi-platform strategy. Our emphasis is on Web-first, because we think we're building for the future in doing that -- but we're still producing a very strong print product, and it's doubled in circulation since we launched last April.

"Print should be there, but it shouldn't be the lead dog on the dogsled."

When you say "Web first," obviously you mean that breaking news goes up online first, but do you also mean generally that the Web is your main product?
I look at it from a product point of view, with the weekly and the Web as two distinct products. The Web has some subsets, like email and Kindle applications, while the weekly tends to be a pure-play as a weekly news magazine. I think you need to optimize both of those so that they're as attractive as possible for the audience they're geared toward. So, most of the content that we do for print is print-first, and then migrates to the Web after it's expended its shelf-life in print. But that's a once-a-week operation. And so with our news staff, which feeds both print and Web, we do probably 70 percent or more of the work we do for online.

Does some of the Web stuff get repurposed in print?
We only repurpose a little bit. Generally speaking, we try to keep the content as fresh and unique as possible, because people are paying $3.50 an issue for this.

In a time when foreign bureaus are being severely cut back, the Monitor still has a pretty impressive breadth in overseas coverage. Is that an ongoing part of the company's philosophy?
Yes. That's our real competitive advantage. We have a longstanding foreign operation, and that means we have eight staffed bureaus around the world, but we also have a very extensive database of correspondents who are either on contract or who are just regulars with us. You have to have a foreign desk that really has cultivated those people over the years and has given them work. And we've done that. We think our particular value is in global news coverage -- with a kind of humane interest. We're looking at the human dimension. So, not to knock the FT or The Economist or any other news organization -- but we're trying to look as much as possible at the impact of things on people, and what people at NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and diplomats and other people are trying to do to solve problems as the problems are developing. And you have to have correspondents who are living in the country, or who are really understanding that country, to do that well.

When something happens like the Chilean earthquake, we are on that story right away. And in the first one or two news stories we may not have people as the focus, we very quickly try to move to the "why it matters and what's behind this" part. We did that with Haiti, too. Immediately we look at the problem, but then we try to look at the status of rescue, relief and recovery as much as possible.

The value in that I think is that... if you look on Google News, you're going to find plenty of good stories about the Haiti earthquake. But if we have one story that makes a difference, or that tries to get at the story behind the story and the human dimension, that's differentiated from all of those other stories. When you're looking at the Google News cluster, our stories often stand out because they are geared to some other dimension of the story.

"We've been able to unharness the manpower that used to be devoted to daily print, and free them to work on Web-first content. That's been the big revelation."

How has your revenue model worked since the move away from daily print, and how has that affected your workflow generally?
Our revenue streams now are print circulation, print advertising, syndication sales and Web ad revenue. We have a daily subscription email with about 2,000 subscribers at $84 a year, that has an abridged version of the daily news stories. I think we've got the mix right for us.

It works because we've been able to unharness the manpower that used to be devoted to daily print, and free them to work on Web-first content. That's been the big revelation. When you have print on a daily basis, then everything funnels into those print deadlines. Everything backs up from that, and everything that you're doing is oriented toward that one deadline, so you're not really optimizing your posts for the Web, you're not thinking about trending stories, you're not thinking about when the best time to post something is, and you're not living Web-first. And that's what we've done in the past year. We've taken a culture that had been a traditional news culture, and we've transitioned them to a Web-first one where they understand the rhythms of the Web better. That's probably been a big factor in contributing to our increase in Web traffic.

Could that have been accomplished had you not killed the print daily?
No. From my experience at the Globe -- and talking to my counterparts at other news organizations... Until two or three years ago, news organizations were relatively static on the Web; you would just do an upload of your content from the first or second editions. And then they began at Boston.com and elsewhere doing what is called "continuous news," where they get these guys with a good wire service metabolism who would be posting continuous news during the day to keep the Web site updated. But that was just a tiny fraction of the manpower in the news organization devoted to that.

Over time that has evolved so that more people are doing more things for Web sites during the day, so that the Web sites have evolved to be updated more often. But, still, the bulk of resources are devoted to daily print production. And I don't think until you change the frequency of print -- or do away with print -- in those cases you've got the manpower that you can devote to the Web so that you can start to increase your traffic numbers, so that you can reach the scale that may one day be able to pay off in terms of making the Web pay for itself.

We have a five-year plan, and we're about a year and a half into it -- and so far we're meeting all of our goals. If all three legs of our revenue streams kick in, then the key is really going to be Web ad revenue -- and for that you need sufficient scale so that you can subdivide that overall traffic into segments that advertisers really want to hit.


David Hirschman is managing editor at BigThink.com.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2010. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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