Moving with the times

2008-11-20 00:00

Articles from The Christian Science Monitor have been a feature of The Witness for several years. Varying from anecdotal columns to feature articles their common denominator is that they are always well written.

n their first appearance there was criticism from some readers along the lines that The Witness was publishing religious propaganda. True, the Monitor is the brainchild of Mary Baker Eddy, who founded the Church of Christ, Scientist in the 19th century, but the daily print edition of the Monitor contains only one religious article. The Monitor, which celebrates its centenary on

November 25, has built a reputation for quality independent journalism that sees it ranked as one of the world’s great newspapers.

So on hearing that the Monitor was to cease publishing its daily print edition and to go online I thought that this signalled the beginning of the end for news-papers generally. Newspapers are a mature industry; business-speak for “it’s all downhill from here”. New technologies and changing reading habits have seen circulations falling worldwide, news-papers downsizing and journalists being retrenched. But my initial pessimistic reaction turned to optimism when I discovered what the Monitor was really doing: not falling on its sword but reinventing itself and possibly showing us all a way forward.

From April next year the Monitor will become the first internationally circulated newspaper to cease publishing its daily subscriber edition (they are not sold on the street) replacing it with a continuously updated online edition, while offering daily e-mail editions to subscribers and a weekend news-paper-cum-magazine print edition.

The Christian Science board of directors is visiting South Africa and they explained some of the thinking behind the innovative move. “Figures showed us that our online readership is growing and the other sinking,” said Mary Tramell, also editor-in-chief of The Christian Science Publishing Society. The figures are stark: 52 000 subscribers versus 1,5 million unique visitors to the website per month.

The question was how to best serve that changing readership while remaining faithful to Eddy’s vision of a newspaper that is “ably edited and abreast of the times”. Online was the obvious answer. Although it took two-and-a-half years of thought and preparation before the decision was finally made. “It was some time before we felt we were ready to take the step,” says Tramell. “There was lots of research, thinking and, frankly, praying, before taking this step.”

The Monitor is funded by revenue drawn from subscriptions, advertising and a subsidy from the church. It is hoped that the new venture will allow the newspaper to reduce and eventually eliminate the need for the subsidy.

“In five years we hope to see advertising and circulation revenue balance our costs,” says Walter Jones. “The move will lower our production costs. Currently, our printing and postal delivery costs are growing out of sight.”

Thomas Black sees the move to an online edition mirroring the reason Eddy created the Monitor in the first place to elevate the level of public discourse. “It was started in response to the ‘yellow journalism’ of the period,” he says. “Now it’s a similar situation out on the Internet. Monitor journalism can make a significant contribution.”

Given that the Monitor is ably edited and topical, what exactly is Monitor journalism? It is writing informed by Eddy’s injunction “to injure no man but to bless all mankind”.

This means approaching a story in a way that leans towards a perspective of hope, that empowers the reader.

“The Monitor is very much concerned about looking for hope and solutions,” says Jones. “The Monitor doesn’t preach but lifts thought to an ideal that blesses all.”

Most newspapers have a basic ethic that guides decision making. An oft-cited one is “tell the truth, act independently and minimise harm”. But this can easily be a passive, reactive ethic as opposed to one that guides and propels the way journalists go about their work. Does the fact that the

Monitor possesses a clear ethical vision give it an edge over its competitors?

There certainly can’t be many newspapers that have editorial meetings like the one Tramell describes: “We challenge the writer and the editor: ‘where is the blessing? I don’t see it. Is it injuring somebody?’ We constantly ask how can we give the reader hope without being Pollyanna-ish.”

Tramell says that she thinks of the Monitor as an idea, one that has found expression in different forms.

“Over the years the Monitor has had lots of different forms in the print edition. We tried radio, we had a fling with television — now comes this treeless edition which shows there is still space for this idea in the world today.”

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