How The Christian Science Monitor rethought its workflows with its readers in mind
Last year, The Christian Science Monitor totally changed its digital operations. It refocused its daily reporting into a subscription-supported daily news digest called The Monitor Daily. The Monitor bills the news digest as a unique look at the news, providing readers coverage of the world that they won’t be able to get elsewhere.
To try and live up to that promise, the Monitor had to revamp its culture and its workflows to produce high-value coverage and emphasize the need to convert readers to subscribers. This week in Solution Set we’re going to look at a few of the processes the Monitor changed to make this possible. Even though the Monitor is a global news organization, any news org that’s going to ask its readers to directly support its journalism can learn from the Monitor’s approach.
Solution Set is a new weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Solutions Journalism Network. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one neat thing in journalism, share some lessons you can take away, and point you toward other excellent resources. (You can catch up on our first four issues here.)
Here’s the TLDR version of what you need to know about the Monitor Daily:
• The Challenge: The Christian Science Monitor had to rethink its operations as it relaunched its digital presence as a paid daily briefing, called the Monitor Daily.
• The Strategy: The Monitor invested in the tools it needed and also took steps to communicate the importance of culture change to its staff.
• The Numbers: The Monitor now has 8,500 paying digital subscribers, with a goal to hit 10,000 by the end of March.
• The Lessons: By putting its mission — serving paying readers with unique journalism — at the core of its decisions, The Monitor has framed its work to support its business model.
• The Future: The Monitor plans to introduce more analytics tools to help staffers better target and convert subscribers.
• Want to know more?: Learn how other organizations, such as The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Dallas Morning News, undertook similar challenges.
Now, let’s dig in a little deeper:
Last May, The Christian Science Monitor revamped its digital strategy. It launched The Monitor Daily, a daily paid news digest. Each issue contains five stories, along with an introduction and comments from a Monitor editor who guides readers through the issue. The Monitor still publishes a weekly news magazine as well.
The Monitor’s previous digital strategy had been built around scale, chasing traffic through Google News and search platforms. As a result, the Monitor tried to produce lots of online stories that would rise to the top of the search rankings.
But with the move to the Monitor Daily, the outlet recalibrated the types of things it covers online. With only five stories per day, it can’t cover everything. Instead, the Monitor tries to offer a one-of-a-kind perspective on the world that readers can’t get anywhere else. “If we don’t deliver on that, then we’re not delivering what we need to attract and keep the kind of membership (we need),” managing editor Amelia Newcomb told me.
A recent issue, for instance, featured stories about:
- President Trump’s approach to trade with China.
- California Gov. Jerry Brown’s legacy
- English-speakers’ rights in Cameroon and how their treatment reflects the larger trend of minority rights in Africa
- The changing role of Jordanian women in that country’s workforce
- How a co-ed hockey team made up of veterans is helping them fight hopelessness
Each issue also includes an editorial from the Monitor’s editorial board, one religious story, and a photo story. The Monitor also produces a daily audio edition as well.
Months of testing and research led to the ultimate decision to move to the digital subscription model, but once that decision was made the Monitor had to work to cultivate a culture and workflow on both the editorial and business sides to support the new model charging for online coverage.
Monitor associate publisher David Grant told me the paper had to address issues of “heart” — its editorial coverage — and “mind” — its approach to the business side in order to maximize its chances for success with the new venture.
On the news side, the Monitor had to think how its coverage could stand out.
“The thing about dealing with a subscriber base is that they pay you money and you’re accountable to them,” he said. “While the industry has long said that we’re accountable to our readers and we care about them, when those people are really directly responsible for the vast majority of your revenue, you better be committed to serving them.”
And on the business side, it needed to get to know its readers better so it could convince them to subscribe:
“Right now when readers show up at most news websites, it’s like if you walked into a bar every week or a restaurant every week and you saw the same waiter and they never remembered your name or remembered everything about you,” Grant said. “You might like the food, you might like the experience, but it’s a little weird that you show up every day and that news organization doesn’t know anything about you ever.”
To maximize the relationship with its readers, the Monitor began thinking about its conversion funnel — how to take readers from being occasional visitors to its site to paid subscribers.As a result, the paper has invested in customer relationship management software, SalesForce, and built pathways within the system to track and target readers.
But beyond new tools, the move has required a change in mindset. Instead of running one-off campaigns, the Monitor is now constantly pitching readers and selling its value to them as they interact with its various products.
“Campaign mentality is that I have a group of newsletter subscribers and now I want them to do something else,” Grant said. “Journey mentality is you show up, I know where you came from, I know what you read on the site, and I know the propensity of people like you to do the next thing that I want you to do, which is subscribe, take a different email newsletter, or take a free trial of our site. I want to put you on a trajectory to that.”
The Monitor similarly redesigned its newsroom to redefine beats and change editorial processes emphasizing a reader-first approach to journalism.
The newsroom was restructured into “pods” with eight different editors — covering areas from Europe to science — overseeing teams of reporters. While it sounds like a traditional desk system, the pods were conceived with the idea that they would have more independence.
“We try to have a certain degree of autonomy so we can keep things moving and they have the ability to move ahead with things without getting stuck on needing approval from the deputy editor or this, that and the other thing,” Newcomb said. “The idea is that each pod has its own little ecosystem, but then we have this larger ecosystem of all the news editors being aware of what each other is doing.”
Morning news meetings were also restructured. Held every day at 9:30 a.m., the meetings are open to the entire staff where staffers talk through their approaches to each story. It also helps editors who are writing the intros to the daily briefing better understand the coverage.
“It’s not that we didn’t have a daily news meeting in our previous iteration, but it was just for editors,” Newcomb said. “This is an effort to really get everybody thinking across their interest groups and helping each other to work through ideas.”
The Monitor appears to be having some success with its Monitor Daily subscription offering. It currently has about 8,500 Monitor Daily subscribers.
Its overall goal is to reach 10,000 subscribers by the end of its fiscal year in March. (“It’s going to be very close whether we hit it or not, but we are well within that ballpark,” Grant told me in an email this week.)
And Grant said the Monitor’s ultimate goal is to get to 30,000 subscribers to be truly sustainable.
A subscription to the Monitor Daily costs $11 per month or a one-time payment of $110 for an annual subscription.
“So every 10,000 subscribers is (about) 1 million bucks,” Grant said. “We went from effectively zero, or very low, just a couple hundred thousand in digital subscriptions to 1 million in one full year — we will feel very good about that once we get to the finish line.”
• Make the mission part of your workflow: The Monitor has overhauled its pitch process to make sure reporters are pursuing stories that are aligned with the news org’s mission. The pitches are maintained on a Trello board, and when reporters fill out the cards with potential story ideas they are asked to explain the larger value the story provides readers and why it’s worthy of being considered one of the five stories of the day.
Newcomb shared an example of a recent story about disability rights in Ukraine. Here’s what the Trello card for that story read:
“It’s been an interesting process because it’s hard to get people to write those consistently, but when they do it really communicates that they know exactly where they’re going with the story,” Newcomb said. “The more we can execute relentlessly on that, the better we do in producing … the kind of stories we’re looking for.”
• Be patient: Change is a process. There are going to be bumps in the road, and it can take time to fall into a perfect rhythm.
With the package of five stories at the heart of the Monitor’s digital output, it has to think about how to create a digest that has the right mix of stories and an appropriate length and tone.
Learning to create the perfect voice for the Monitor Daily has required staffers to re-evaluate their news judgment. There’s only so much space in each issue, and they’re thinking about how they can have the most distinct coverage.
“There’s an awareness that this is where we think we can compete in the marketplace,” Newcomb said. “If this is where we think we can compete, let’s really stick to it and be pretty hard on ourselves in terms of asking does the story, does the package meet those standards? There are certain things you keep going back to that are your core touchstones. If it doesn’t meet those standards, then we don’t do it. That’s been the hardest part.”
• It’s a change for your readers too: While big changes like this can require staffers to evolve, they’re also a change for your readership as well. And news organizations must be aware of how their audience is responding and listen to their feedback.
When the Monitor launched the Monitor Daily, it changed its homepage to primarily promote the new offering. But it quickly heard from many of its print subscribers that the new homepage was making it more difficult for them to find the news they wanted to read.
“For all the talk of homepages are dead or homepages are alive, it stopped being theoretical and it started being that our core readers are really concerned about this and we have to fix it,” Grant said.
• Improve tools: As it continues to emphasize its readers at the heart of its business model, the Monitor wants to continue to improve its analytics and tools to help staffers on both the business and the editorial sides of the operation work to retain loyal readers.
An example: Monitor reporters get lots of responses from readers. It’d be helpful for them to know which readers they’re hearing from are subscribers, so they can then prioritize their responses.
To that end, the Monitor wants to equip its reporters with data to show how their work — whether it be a story in the briefing, a podcast, or whatever — helps attract subscribers.
“They can’t look at their dashboard and see, hey my newsletter got 10 more subscribers this week off the story I did. That was really good, maybe I should do more of that. We haven’t been able to show them and give them credit for the good work they do on the acquisition side,” Grant said. “That’s what’s next.”
• More $$$: The Monitor is looking at other ways it can get readers to directly support its journalism, and it is planning on rolling out other offerings later this year.
• Nieman Lab reported last year on the thinking behind the Monitor’s decision to launch the Monitor Daily. It wanted to create a product that was “calm and fact-based and fundamentally constructive.”• The Dallas Morning News totally revamped its newsroom operations in 2016. Poynter took an inside look at that process.
• Earlier this year, The Philadelphia Media Network — made up of The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com — followed in the Morning News’ footsteps by reorganizing its newsroom and launching a pay meter. CJR has a deep dive into PMN’s approach. (The Lenfest Institute, which produces Solution Set, is the parent organization of PMN.)
• The Membership Puzzle Project put together a toolkit to help outlets think about how they can design their work with readers and members in mind.
• Additional resources on how to maximize consumer revenue can be found on Better News, a resource from the American Press Institute that’s part of the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative.
Has your news organization undertaken a similar reorganization? How’d it go? Is there anything you’d like to see us do differently in Solution Set?Send me an email, I’m at [email protected]
I’ll share some of the responses in next week’s edition.
See you next Thursday!
Creative Commons photo of the Monitor’s headquarters by Sarah Nichols