Is this the future of newspapers? A veteran publisher abandons print

Mary Baker Eddy's pioneering daily is about to break more new ground, reports Matthew Bell
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The Independent Online

Its readers are a snapshot of a bygone age – retired diplomats, missionaries and maiden aunts – but The Christian Science Monitor has plans that many a forward-looking editor would blanche to think of. In April, the US daily will ditch its paper edition and channel resources into its website, with a daily email bulletin and weekly 44-page magazine for subscribers.

Moving from print to online is hardly a novelty: for many struggling publications it's the elephant in the newsroom as circulation dwindles and print costs soar. But the Monitor will be the first nationally circulated daily paper to surrender its print version altogether and, according to its editor, John Yemma, it will not be the last.

"We've always been burdened by the unwieldy mechanism of publishing and distributing a daily paper simultaneously across America," he says. "It's somewhat easier in Britain. So in a sense, we have had to wait for the internet to be born."

Later this month, The Christian Science Monitor marks its 100th birthday, but you would be forgiven for never having heard of it. Founded in 1908 by Mary Baker Eddy (right), the then 87-year-old founder of the Christian Science Movement, the paper was a high-minded response to the "yellow", or sensationalist journalism of the day. Since the late 1890s, a circulation war had been raging between the New York World and the New York Journal, both being dragged downmarket by rival proprietors Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. Mary Eddy was "aghast" as the quality of journalism, says Yemma, and with the Monitor she tapped into a surge of Puritanism which, with the help of church funds, allowed the paper to flourish. "She wanted really good clear news that was unbiased and impartial. Her mission was not to proselytise, which remains the aim to this day."

The irony that The Monitor should go on to win seven Pulitzer prizes would, one imagines, not have been lost on its founder.

As a news-gathering organ, the paper is blessed with enviable resources, including an astonishing 95 full-time editorial staff, with correspondents all over America and in seven bureaux worldwide. Inevitably, the move online will mean staff cuts, but as yet there are no plans to close any bureaux. "Next year we are anticipating budget cuts of 11 per cent," says Yemma, "so I anticipate a staff reduction of between 10 to 15 per cent."

Although a mainstream national title, the Monitor's circulation of 52,000 is less than many special interest magazines. It owes its existence to the deep pockets of the Christian Science Movement, although the church has no say on editorial policy. "When it was founded, about 90 per cent of our readers were Christian Scientists. Now they make up only 20 per cent," says Yemma. "In all our 100-year history, we've only made money or broken even for one or two of those," he adds cheerfully.

Perhaps changing the name would help? "We pretty much put that question to rest 100 years ago. The argument is that it is better to be transparent about our funding than to hide it. We do not preach and we are not just for Christians: the Monitor is just honest. There have never been plans to alter the name."

The new model planned for the Monitor will rely on subscribers and web advertising. Correspondents will file to the website daily, but the weekly magazine will carry separate original content. Yemma is particularly enthusiastic about the daily email service that will present subscribers with 300-word resumes of the day's major stories. "There is so much out there that I think you need a snapshot of the day. That's what we will be doing. It's what editors are paid for – to edit the news." He claims this news digest will appeal particularly to the Monitor's older readers, who, he believes, may not be familiar with the internet but are able to read emails.

When speaking of the changes, Yemma has the evangelism of a Christian. "It is the future for many papers, but because we are not-for-profit we are not exactly a model for for-profit publications." He also reveals that another major US news magazine is to follow the Monitor's lead, "in the next couple of weeks", but refuses to say which as he is involved in the project.

You don't have to be a Christian to work for the Monitor: Ned Temko, former editor of the Jewish Chronicle, was once the its Middle East correspondent. But you do have to worship the web."It's like the early days of television," says Yemma. "When it first started, people just read their scripts on air. I feel we're at that stage with the internet. We now have to work out how to organise a newsroom where the web comes first."

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