Changing “habits of thought”: An examination of eight years of digital evolution at the Christian Science Monitor

By Jonathan Groves and Carrie Brown

This longitudinal study combines data from ethnographic observation and more than 100 in-depth interviews to analyze the changing “habits of thoughts” over an eight-year period at the Christian Science Monitor. The research identifies four primary changes: embracing experimentation and rapid change, breaking down the firewall between the business and editorial departments, changing conceptions of audience, and redefining the newsroom’s identity in the current news environment.

 

Years of industry upheaval have forced the 110-year-old Christian Science Monitor—like so many other daily newspapers—to adjust its practices, goals, and relationship with its audience. Since announcing in 2008 that it was going to drop its daily print edition, the national news organization has had to confront numerous challenges that have changed the way the newsroom’s journalists think of their role as agenda-setters and as arbiters of the organizational mission.

Through its digital evolution, the Monitor has become more conscious of its audience’s needs while struggling to move beyond chasing page views into meaningful engagement with its readers (Groves & Brown, 2011, 2013). It has learned to work more nimbly, despite stumbles along the way as ingrained routines and attitudes about the pre-eminence of journalistic judgment remain powerful. It has changed its routines in ways that helped grow its online audience, only to suffer as tech behemoths like Google and Facebook changed algorithms, rendering these techniques less effective. It has refined and tweaked its fundamental value proposition over the years, ultimately settling on one closer to its original religious mission than its previous push for broader appeal.

Most fundamentally, the existential threat to the newsroom has broken down one of the once-sacred tenets of journalism: the strict separation between the newspaper’s business and editorial operations. Since 2008, that firewall has fallen, allowing for closer communication and cooperation between the two departments to achieve shared goals. Although no evidence was found that the Monitor newsroom compromised its editorial independence, its journalists have become more aware of revenue and cost implications of their decisions, and are more willing to consider audience interests and needs.

This longitudinal study, drawn from ethnographic observation and in-depth interviews gathered over eight years of visits to the organization’s Boston headquarters, reveals how some of the Monitor’s “habits of thought” have evolved while other aspects of its organizational culture remained steadfast.

Literature review

American journalists have historically viewed one of their primary roles as that of gatekeeper: deciding what news is important enough to publish and keeping false or misleading information out of the public sphere (White, 1950). With this view, paying too much attention to audience desires leads to sensationalism and pandering. Because of the limited selection of news organizations in individual markets, journalists played a key role in determining what issues the public thought were important, as years of agenda-setting research confirmed (McCombs, 2005).

To ensure a predictable flow of content on tight deadlines, reporters gathered information through a routinized series of regular check-ins with prominent institutions and their sources, such as police departments and government officials at various levels (Fishman, 1980; Gans, 2004). Although journalists may have often talked about writing for an average citizen or “Joe six-pack,” for the most part interactions with citizens were often limited to brief “person-on-the-street” interviews about issues that prominent official sources had raised. Although these routines were practical concessions to the demands of the job, over time they took on a life of their own, becoming ingrained in how journalists viewed their jobs (Shoemaker & Reese, 2013). In the days before the World Wide Web, when it was difficult to gauge audience reactions to specific stories, journalists were primarily motivated to write for their bosses and peers (Breed, 1955).

Although American journalists see themselves as watchdogs who help preserve freedom and democracy by holding public officials accountable, many routines and “habits of thought” are also defensive in nature, designed to counter claims of bias and preserve their authority as arbiters of news (Gans, 2004; Schudson, 2003; Shoemaker & Reese, 2013; Tuchman, 1978). Journalists tend to rely on knowledgeable bureaucratic sources who are in positions of authority and can be easily categorized by partisan identity (Davis, 2009; Fishman, 1980). A somewhat nebulous notion of “regular folks” were privileged over activists who were believed to shade the truth, though at the same time the odds of any average person appearing in the news was idiosyncratic and rare (Gitlin, 2003).

Though the Internet disrupted this paradigm (Anderson, 2013; Boczkowski, 2009; Domingo, Masip, & Costera Meijer, 2015), ingrained routines were nevertheless slow to change, and even today have power over how reality is constructed in the news. Gatekeeping has become more akin to sensemaking as the power to publish became available to anyone with an Internet connection, leaving journalists to spend more time correcting or annotating information that was already “out there” rather than suppressing it entirely (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2014). Audiences are able to respond to journalists directly, and through online metrics, editors now know exactly who is reading what, often revealing that some important subjects garner little time and attention (Singer, Hermida, et al., 2011). With the economics of news also upended by unbundling technology, journalists faced a problem of great urgency: If they were unable to attract the attention and trust of their audiences, their businesses would fail.

But this shift to a greater focus on understanding the people they serve did not come easy for journalists, mostly because of the way in which organizational culture inhibits change (Schein, 2017; Sylvie & Witherspoon, 2002). Organizational culture is developed and embedded over time through successes that become transformed into myths and stories, and ultimately, underlying assumptions that form the basis for how organizations accomplish work (Schein, 2017). For lasting change to occur, the organization has to confront new challenges and succeed together to collectively craft new stories and embed different routines. To become a learning organization, it has to incorporate new systems that permit people to challenge the status quo without fear of retribution (Argyris, 2004).

Fast-moving experimentation often clashes with the cautious approach in established cultures, as reward systems typically favor guaranteed profitability over risk, especially in publicly-traded corporations (Christensen, 1997; Christensen & Raynor, 2003). Developing an “emergent strategy,” one that embraces quick experiments, is difficult in well-established companies and organizations (Christensen & Raynor, 2003, p. 215).

The Web’s diminution of the gatekeeping role of journalists also challenged their authority and professional identity in numerous ways, prompting discomfort (Deuze, 2005). Today’s journalist faces far greater accountability and needs to be more responsive to the public than longstanding professional norms prepared them for, leading many to resist change even as it becomes increasingly clear that financial survival depends upon it.

Historically, news organizations have deliberately separated business and editorial operations to avoid the pitfalls of “market-driven journalism” (McManus, 1994; Picard, 2006), and journalistic norms have long dictated a strict separation between those functions, for fear that advertisers and profit pressures would compromise the integrity of the news report (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2014). New initiatives were often rejected because for many journalists they represented kowtowing to the bottom line (Singer, 2004). However, particularly for daily newspapers, the extreme decline in revenues and endless rounds of layoffs and budget cuts forced a reckoning with these norms. While journalistic independence remains a core value, more editorial staffers recognize that at minimum, better communication with the business sides of their organization is important. This kind of “survival anxiety” has helped push journalists into previously resisted cultural changes (Schein, 2017, p. 324).

This research will explore how one storied newsroom that has won seven Pulitzer Prizes in its history has tried to evolve—in its routines, in its view of the business operations, and in its perception of the audience—to remain relevant in the digital age.

The Monitor has long been infused by church founder Mary Baker Eddy’s original mission, “To injure no man, but to bless all mankind.” Interviewees over the course of the study period consistently mentioned that phrase as an animating force in the newsroom. Although the Monitor is not a religious publication and aims for a broad secular audience, the newsroom’s stylebook captures its ethos:

The Monitor’s writing should spring from its purpose. The fundamental operating policy of The Christian Science Monitor is to “injure no man, but to bless all mankind.” This was set forth by Mary Baker Eddy, the Discoverer and Founder of Christian Science, who established the newspaper in 1908. The same policy is followed today in an effort to report and interpret the news accurately and fairly.

To blaze its own path of clean, constructive journalism, broad in appeal, high in character, powerful in helpfulness, the Monitor tries hard to develop stories that are not routine, articles that are original, interesting, and important to human progress…

Our aim is to bring light rather than heat to a subject. The purpose is to heal. (Christian Science Monitor, 1997)

Methodology

This longitudinal case study involved nine visits over eight years to the Monitor’s Boston headquarters: two lasted six days including a weekend day visit (December 2009, July 2010); five were conducted over five workdays (January 2011, May 2012, August 2013, March 2015, May 2016); two involved one-day visits (August 2014, August 2017). During the one-day visits, interviews focused on key informants who had been interviewed previously.

The data include ethnographic observation of meetings and newsroom operations as well as in-depth interviews of key personnel at the Monitor’s Boston offices and phone interviews with Monitor journalists in the organization’s bureaus. In all, more than 100 interviews were conducted over the eight-year period, encompassing a cross-section of staffers from different levels and departments, including both the editorial and business divisions. Interviewees were promised confidentiality to encourage honest, thorough responses, and all open-ended interviews—which ranged in length from 30 minutes to over two hours—were recorded and transcribed. For this study, selected interview transcripts, focusing on individuals who had been interviewed multiple times, were coded to track changing habits of thought over time. Researchers also collected a variety of memos, emails, and internal documents for analysis.

The lengthy longitudinal design of this study allowed for close tracking of how “habits of thought” evolved among different managers and staff members as well as within the organization’s more formal established policies and goals. The external environment continued to change rapidly throughout this study, forcing many individuals to adjust their views but also revealing the areas most resistant to change.

A case study is a useful methodological approach for examining changing habits of thought because it allows for the deep study of phenomena in a real-world context (Yin, 2003). Over time, the researchers became familiar with the organization and could readily spot the changing dynamics.

Results 

A century after its founding, the Christian Science Monitor faced a daunting reality. Its circulation had gradually declined from a high of more than 223,000 in 1970 to less than 56,000. The newsroom had relied on a mix of a subsidy from the Church of Christ, Scientist, revenue from a Monitor endowment, and revenue from subscriptions and advertising. The church had long subsidized the newsroom because of its inability to generate reliable advertising revenue, although the paper’s content was largely secular and recognized for the depth of its international coverage. But by 2008, the church planned to reduce its direct subsidy to force the newsroom to stand on its own financially.

That year, new editor John Yemma took the helm, and working with publisher Jonathan Wells, crafted a plan: The mail-delivered newspaper would no longer be published daily, and it would move its news operations largely online, with a weekly print magazine. At the time, the newsroom had Web traffic of about 3 million page views a month. To generate sufficient advertising revenue to replace the declining church subsidy, top managers projected the news organization would have to hit at least 25 million page views per month, a goal it had hoped to hit within five years (personal communication, December 12, 2009).

Interviews, documents, and observation reveal the primary changes in the Monitor’s thinking among its journalists from this significant moment in its history to the present day, along with a number of new routines. However, these new ways of thinking did not develop without resistance, and remain contested and unevenly adopted among the newsroom’s reporters and editors.

Over the eight-year study period, reporters and editors:

  • Embraced an ethic of experimentation, albeit with reluctance, by adopting new ways of structuring and distributing stories online.
  • Worked more collaboratively on projects with the business division, and became more aware of the revenue implications of their decisions.
  • Began to think differently about the audience and readers’ connection to the Monitor’s content by monitoring analytics and incorporating search-engine optimization strategies.

Most important, those three shifts hinged upon a fourth deeper transformation: redefining the newsroom’s identity in the context of technology and the current news environment.

Embracing Experimentation Amid the Need for Rapid Change

Even before the move to Web-first, the Monitor newsroom was willing to experiment, despite the many cultural challenges involved in questioning established practices that bred past success. During our first visit, some long-timers still recalled the expensive failure of the Monitor’s foray into television in the mid-1980s. More than $200 million was invested in the Monitor Channel, which folded in 1992 (Faison, 1992), and that failure made some nervous about the push into online. Also, some of the biggest competitors for news audiences’ attention like Facebook constantly trumpeted a “fail fast” mentality, ginning up pressure for news organizations to do the same.

Yemma, with the help of online editor Jimmy Orr and outside consultants, pursued a new strategy driven by shorter articles, search-engine optimization, and a much faster filing process that sometimes resulted in multiple posts a day on the same subject from a single writer. But the newsroom was accustomed to a day-after, reflective approach to news coverage, with articles filled with multiple sources and 1,000 words or more. The switch was disruptive, and many interviewees expressed resentment and fear that their core values were being compromised. The looming economic reality did make the change more palatable to some, however. One editor said in December 2009: “It can become a little overwhelming in terms of the number of tasks you do in a day. But I think it’s inevitable” (personal communication, December 11, 2009).

Change, much less rapid iteration, is never easy for award-winning legacy companies in which employees have built their careers on mastery of skills and tasks that may become less valued with new routines. But Orr was a change agent who wasn’t afraid to challenge the status quo, a necessary component for a model of behavior to create a learning organization (Argyris, 2004). Although he sparked defensive reactions among many staffers, he did jump-start new habits that were more likely to accept rapid iteration in response to data.

When Orr began to encourage his newsroom colleagues to blog, he encountered much resistance. But Orr and his young online team decided to blog on their own, and their efforts began to build traffic. Eoin O’Carroll’s environment blog became one of the most popular draws on the site. Orr then began blogging about politics at The Vote, a Monitor-branded WordPress blog outside of the newsroom content management system but still under the csmonitor.com domain banner. The result: The online team’s posts, which used an SEO-philosophy of writing about current topics that people might be searching for on Google, became some of the most popular on the site. This proof of concept helped other staffers to recognize what is possible and helped secure the support of top editors.

Soon, this search-driven traffic strategy dominated the Monitor’s approach. A consultant trained staffers on using search keywords in headlines and story leads, and newsroom staffers learned how to quickly adjust underperforming headlines. News meetings began to include reviews of page view reports and conversations about what was working to garner traffic and what wasn’t. Some newsroom departments began more closely tracking performance metrics of individual reporters and posts. Even if reporters were unable to offer much additional information by way of multiple interviews with sources, they were encouraged to create aggregated posts about stories rising on Google Trends, or “riding the Google wave,” as one editor put it (personal communication, January 9, 2011). Though metrics do not dictate news judgment, the newsroom still uses analytics to understand what content is engaging the audience online.

Over the study period, the newsroom experimented with many forms of content, including live events, quizzes, podcasts and a subscription daily news briefing delivered as a PDF via email, but leaders were not afraid to halt items that did not gain traction with the audience. It also tried different revenue products, including newsletters, news events, and premium paid content for business subscribers.

Some of these rapid changes caused many staffers to question whether the Monitor was moving away from its core identity and losing its commitment to serious news. Many also complained of burnout as they churned short posts throughout the day, with less time to make phone calls and reflect deeply on complicated issues. At the same time, the success of these new techniques was seductive. The organization felt relevant again, and many said it was rewarding to feel like more people were reading their work.

By July 2010, the site had reached its 25 million-page views goal, well ahead of plan, and within months, the newsroom was consistently hitting 30 million page views a month. Clear, measurable successes help an organization redefine its processes and create new stories that shift the organization’s culture (Schein, 2017). Even if some staffers were not sure that the traffic spike constituted a meaningful win, it was still rewarding to achieve a set goal. Soon, editors for the print weekly began having a hard time finding staffers who wanted to write longer, harder-hitting pieces, typically a plum assignment, because they were caught up in the faster daily pace.

A staffer in July 2010 (personal communication, July 7, 2010) described it this way: “That was instant gratification and a barometer of success was watching the page view numbers jump when we hit something just right.”

By 2011, anxiety had lessened as the Monitor newsroom had proved an ability to learn and adapt in the digital age with tangible metrics of success. One international editor, who had been skeptical of the changes in 2009, had this reaction after the page view goal had been reached: “Maybe it’s possible. Maybe we could actually survive, you know, so I find it very encouraging that we’ve made this kind of progress in traffic” (personal communication, January 11, 2011).

But these traffic gains did not reliably result in advertising revenues large enough to sustain the news organization. The paper had to continue to iterate, and the next push was toward engagement and building loyalty, which required a greater focus on understanding audience needs and engagement, and was far less straightforward in terms of the steps required to achieve targets (Groves & Brown, 2013).

Google posed a risk as well. The search engine regularly refined its algorithms to reduce the ability of organizations to game it, and some changes affected the Monitor’s traffic. Google also penalized organizations like the Monitor that relied on third-party ad products. The newsroom also was confronted with the rise of mobile, as its initial redesign was not responsive.

The newsroom also explored and tracked social-media promotion through Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. Some reporters and editors embraced the new approaches, although much of the social-media component remained the purview of the online team. These efforts met both resistance and grudging acceptance among staff members who increasingly saw it as an “all hands on deck” crisis situation (personal communication, May 26, 2016).

The Monitor’s newsroom and business operations worked together to develop a variety of new verticals—topic-based portals focused on niches—in an effort to secure new audiences and advertisers willing to pay a premium to reach them. Over the study period, Global Monitor Outlook, a business intelligence and research service, and Passcode, a cybersecurity vertical, were among the products launched with significant investment in an effort to tap lucrative audiences.

In September 2015, the Monitor brought in a consultant to lead it through a design sprint, an innovation framework that pushes for concentrated bursts of well-coordinated work from an interdepartmental team to develop specific new product prototypes. The original team focused on how to make the Monitor distinction more obvious, and developed new modes of storytelling (personal communication, May 27, 2016). The latest experiment in 2017—known as The Monitor Daily—involved an editor-written news summary that was turned into a daily podcast each evening for subscribers.

Although both Passcode and Monitor Global Outlook generated revenue, the Monitor was willing to pivot and kill both products when leaders decided those initiatives didn’t match the paper’s renewed focus on its core identity and mission (personal communication, August 16, 2017).

Breaking Down the Firewall Between Business and Editorial

Over the course of the study period, interviews and observations revealed the steady crumbling of the traditional wall between business (or “publishing,” as it was called in-house) and editorial, in part because of the economic realities facing the organization. While the paper was still careful to avoid slanting the news report in favor of a particular advertiser, by 2017, these two parts of the organization were more closely integrated, with several key staffers bridging both worlds. Instead of seeing business as a separate entity and even fleeting contact as a threat to journalistic integrity, several on the editorial side saw it as a critical partner in sustaining the paper’s ability to carry out its Fourth Estate mission.

During the initial Web-first strategy shift in 2008, at least one newsroom staffer with reporting expertise switched to the business side. A major wake-up call for the newsroom came with reaching the goal of 25 million page views: Though the newsroom had met its metrics milestone, the advertising and revenue had not followed as projected. This shortfall led to some frustration and skepticism in the newsroom, and sparked a redoubled, broader effort to focus on ways to boost revenue across the organization.

One editor said in 2011:

I’ve embraced the challenge of trying to make it work on the business side. … I’m talking a lot more with different people on the publishing side ad hoc about what we can do together to sort of break down the wall between publishing and editorial. And, you know, I feel good about that. (personal communication, January 11, 2011)

By 2011, the business side was communicating with the newsroom about ad campaigns that depended upon certain levels of Web traffic. One editor noted in 2011:

We’re all still wrestling with these issues that we’ve had from the beginning, you know. How much are we doing this to get traffic? And, you know, traffic also equates to jobs. So, fundamentally, we’re all sitting here saying, if we don’t do this, who’s going to be left in the newsroom? (personal communication, January 11, 2011)

At that point, talking about page views—and the reality of their tie to revenue—had become a part of the morning news meeting. Another editor noting the focus on page views also talked about the financial pressures:

We all know the financial situation is page views drive the ads. And if we don’t get them, we won’t get the ads. If we don’t get the ads, we won’t have ad revenue. And if we don’t have the ad revenue, our jobs are gonna be cut. That’s just the way it is. So some people, I think, are still coming to grips with that’s how it is. But I’m fully there. That’s how it is. (personal communication, January 12, 2011)

By 2012, a few more staffers from the newsroom had moved over to the business side, and they had begun working on joint news/business projects. The research and development team, which included two former newsroom staffers, conducted a page view analysis that found the audience liked explainers, especially about politics. The discovery led to taking DC Decoder—originally a column by Washington reporter Peter Grier—and turning it into an online product to build advertising around.

Of course, a change this significant from standard journalistic practice did not come without resistance and ongoing concern. “I think there are a lot of fans of the Chinese wall,” one staffer told us in 2015. “I’m not one of them because I don’t know how you can meet the needs of the customer if you don’t have product managers who are talking with marketing and tech and sales and you know, all of the different editors” (personal communication, March 17, 2015).

That more open attitude led to the verticals being launched, with editorial products targeting audiences likely to inspire large sponsorships. During the study period, the Monitor also experimented with a premium content product, Monitor Global Outlook, that provided enhanced coverage of international topics for business clients. The subscription-based product required close coordination with the business side but was ultimately abandoned after it failed to achieve revenue goals.

One of the most integrated ventures involved Passcode, a Monitor-branded site launched in February 2016 that focused on cybersecurity. The editors and reporters worked closely with the business side as they developed sponsorship-driven events, newsletters, and podcasts in addition to traditional Web content delivered on a mobile-friendly platform. Planning meetings included individuals from both departments and focused on content as well as thinking about the revenue implications (personal communication, May 26, 2016).

Said one editor in 2016:

I think publishing has had a lot more clout. We’ve all been pushed to be partners and everything, lower the walls. And I’m all for that. I used to think everybody took the walls a little too seriously, but I think we went a little too far. There just started to be a feeling that we were a little bit in danger—not all that much, but a little bit in danger—of saying what’s the coverage you want, we’ll provide it for you. (personal communication, May 26, 2016)

Changing the Conception of Readers

Journalists feel strongly about their public service mission (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2014), but many journalists believe they know better than the average reader what stories are most important. Several Monitor newsroom personnel acknowledged the newsroom had an “ivory tower” approach to its audience, engendered by years of reflective, day-after journalism, driven by the print cycle’s slow mail delivery.

For many journalists at the Monitor, the focus on increasing page views at the beginning of its Web-only transition was an important gateway to becoming more conscious of how their work was received by their audience, a necessary step on the path toward the deeper understanding needed to make the news more relevant and inclusive.

As one editor put it 2½ years into the digital-first push:

So, like, you were in daily print, then you go to Web first. The newsroom learns how to build an audience. They did a great job. Your reach increases significantly. Third-party ad network revenue increases significantly, you know, goes from $100,000 to over $3 million … the model becomes more mature, and you start to go, ‘All right, this will take you so far. … So where do you go next?’ And that’s what we’re figuring out. (personal communication, May 21, 2012)

Where to go next for sustainable revenues was, newsroom leaders realized, a focus not just on drive-by clicks but on engaging the audience in new ways that could build greater loyalty and commitment—and thus, the likelihood of repeat visits and subscriptions. One manager summarized the shift in perspective:

. . . page views drive revenue, so that’s first and foremost, but the visitors—so the visits—is who the people are. So when we’re looking to understand the customer, we look at the visit level. And then we look at, you know, what each of those segments or profiles—kinda how they perform and what the typical behavior is and see if there are any differential behaviors in them. So that’s where the loyalty thing comes into play. (personal communication, August 7, 2013)

Later in the study period, the Monitor sought to define its target audience more clearly and developed the personas “Greg and Miranda,” a couple in their 50s, middle or upper class, who are engaged in the world. The paper’s top editor during the 2015 visit described them as the kind of people who might belong to a community organization, give money to charitable causes, and travel internationally. This ideal audience segment reflected about half of current visitors to the website at the time. This was one of the clearest conceptions of the audience expressed during the study period.

Redefining the Organization’s Identity in the Current News Environment

From the beginning of the Web-first decision, the Monitor’s newsroom staff wrestled often with the issue of mission. Throughout the study period, staffers we interviewed were consistently engaged in moments of self-reflection as they sought to clarify the organization’s identity in the digital environment.

In a 2008 YouTube video celebrating the paper’s centennial, Editor John Yemma affirmed church founder Mary Baker Eddy’s idea that the power of the press should be “used for good.”

The organization crafted a unique value proposition early in its Web-first transition to think more deliberately about the audience, and the Monitor’s ability to satisfy needs. The “UVP,” as it was dubbed, was an attempt to operationalize Eddy’s historic “injure no man” motto for the Monitor. Specifically, it put the words into an audience-specific context: “Explaining world news to thoughtful people who care about solutions” (personal communication, December 12, 2009).

During the study period, the news organization often wrestled with audience and advertiser confusion over “Christian Science” in the Monitor’s name: Is it a religious publication? Is it only for Christian Scientists? On the About page of the Monitor’s website, however, the editors made clear that the Monitor had a broader mission that stretched beyond the church, a point the newspaper’s editors had affirmed since its founding in 1908. In 2009, about 20% of the Monitor’s readership was Christian Scientist (personal communication, December 12, 2009).

An editor at the time said:

The main thing is people subscribe to Monitor values, which is [a] humane approach to world news. But, that said, I do think that, you know, the Christian Science underpinnings of the Christian Science Monitor is one thing that makes it different … I mean, when you have a synonym for God in Christian Science, one of those synonyms is ‘truth’. (personal communication, December 12, 2009)

In many ways, the early-transition, search-focused strategy seemed to many staffers to be the antithesis of the mission, as the strategy sought to capitalize on “heat,” or popularity. One way staffers tried to reconcile with this conflict was by trying to offer a more measured, less-sensational “Monitor-esque” take on the trending topics of the day. One editor said in 2011:

What we now can do in our best stories is we can combine that DNA that we have imprinted on ourselves for analysis and infuse it into articles that are much more urgent because we are following point by point what’s going on. People want to know about something that’s happening. News is news for a reason. They want to find out what’s new. So we can now serve that, and hopefully when we do it well, we can serve a way that elevates, that educates, that provides context, that provides a … calming kind of steady voice when other people might be, you know, tearing their hair out and saying that the sky is falling. (personal communication, January 12, 2011)

But with its push to garner page views, Monitor posts often didn’t seem vastly different from other commodity content on these trending stories. Editors soon recognized that some newsroom strategies for building content such as quizzes and posts driven by trending topics was not developing a dedicated community of readers, and the metric of return visits, or loyalty, was becoming as important as number of page views.

If somebody goes 40 or 50 pages deep on a quiz, which is typical, that is engagement, and that’s a good thing, but … it’s not quite what we need. I mean, it’s not quite what we want when we say “engagement.” … We want to convert people to people who want to come back. We want people who have a good experience, get what they want, and … come back. (personal communication, May 21, 2012)

In 2014, Yemma retired after five years as editor, passing the helm to Managing Editor Marshall Ingwerson (Ellis, 2014). Ingwerson, a longtime Monitor journalist and a Christian Scientist, sought to reaffirm the organization’s commitment to core Monitor values, and crafted a statement of aims that served as a guiding document for coverage moving forward.

A draft stated:

Here is a starting point for framing a consistent Monitor difference in the form of three core tasks. These are not new. They have been part of the Monitor’s figurative DNA for over a century, but we need to amplify them further into a distinction we deliver with relentless consistency. They are to:

  1. Register progress

  2. Surface models of thought

  3. Promote understanding of others. (Christian Science Monitor, 2014)

The shorthand in the newsroom became known as “UMP,” a mnemonic for understanding, models of thought, and progress. Like the business-oriented UVP from 2009, this document sought to bring Eddy’s historic motto to life in a different way. It strove to provide a way to define the Monitor lens clearly and concretely for the digital age.

The document pitched a series of questions for each story idea. For example, for registering progress, it suggested asking: “Have we solved problems like this before? Who’s working on it? Is there progress to report?” For surfacing models of thought: “What was the shift in thought that led to a particular achievement or development? How did this development itself change thinking or alter the field of possibilities?” And for promoting understanding, it suggested to “narrow rather than amplify differences.” Several in the newsroom lauded the document as a return to core values. The purpose was to connect identity, mission, and audience as completely as possible.

The conversation’s come full circle for us, too, because prior to going Web-first, the print organization—we understood what Monitor values were. Then, as we moved into the Web-first world and we produced lots more content with fewer writers, the distinction factor disappeared as we targeted—maybe didn’t disappear, but became diluted, perhaps—as we produced more content and targeted news clusters. Now, we’re back to focusing on what makes us distinct, and pushing hard on it. (personal communication, March 17, 2015)

The UMP perspective still privileged the role of journalists to serve as a gatekeeper to help the readers understand the world. Some in the newsroom, however, struggled making sense of the redefined perspective. One editor who was not a Christian Scientist noted a personal connection to the religion might have helped incorporate the ideas into his work process more effectively.

Any issue that we write about in the news, obviously people have different perspectives on it. People see reality through different lenses, and consequently, they think differently about the—even if the facts are not in dispute, which of course is another issue that we deal with all the time—but even given, say, a set of undisputed facts, they’re going to be perceived differently by people with different experiential prisms. So when we write about it, it would be instructive and enlightening to our readers to expand their consciousness so that they can appreciate how other people, other, you know, different people, view this event through their particular prism. So what hopefully what we would offer then in our stories is not going to be for the narrow view of, well, we’re writing for Americans or writing for liberal Westerners. We’re writing—we’re hopefully, maybe, if those are our readers—we’re explaining to Americans, liberal Westerners, how other people understand what’s happening. (personal communication, March 16, 2015)

In 2016, the UMP philosophy was still being used to guide story construction. One editor talking a reporter through a story about a 2016 political debate said: “Make sure you hit the UMP. … It’s not just a black-and-white issue. Who’s mischaracterizing? Is it a story about the debate? Or is it a story about [how] the media is covering the debate?”

The church’s overseeing board pushed the newsroom to refocus on its original core mission, one not driven by page views or revenue, further driving the focus on UMP.

Thus, the newsroom abandoned Passcode—which was seen as too far off the organizational mission—and began to pour its energy into the Monitor Daily, a refocused version of the subscription-based daily news briefing and the website with specific content generated through the Monitor lens, one driven by the values articulated in Ingwerson’s memo. Though the traffic is down, the newsroom now hopes to move toward a subscription model with the goal of focusing on the core, passionate community, instead of trying to please everyone.

Conclusion

After eight years, this study reflects on an organization that has come through the crucible of change, with far fewer journalists on its staff following multiple rounds of layoffs, but a refined sense of self. With mixed success, the organization took a reasoned, experimental approach to transforming its news product to deal with the economic realities of the marketplace. It embraced a mode of consistent experimentation, even in the face of typical newsroom resistance to change. It was the first major national newspaper to abandon its daily print product to focus on becoming Web-first, and tried different forms of stories over the study period ahead of its peers. And it adopted scrum approaches from the technology world to design new products to reach its audience.

The reality of declining economic fortunes drove this experimentation. That threat to existence also sparked another profound effect: the falling of the historic firewall between business and editorial. Early on, certain members of the newsroom recognized that survival depended on an awareness of traffic and revenue, and some from the news side, acknowledging the need of revenue for journalistic survival, actually emigrated to the business department with the hopes of preserving the Monitor brand. Interdisciplinary teams that included members of the business and editorial departments developed several new products over the years, and that bridging of worlds continues today. Now, some personnel with business ties are located in the newsroom itself. David Clark Scott, a top editor who has won numerous journalism awards in his career, now has the title “Chief Product Director” and does not hesitate to talk about the advantages of having a foot in both worlds: business and editorial.

Experimental successes are key for cultural change to occur (Schein, 2017), and failures can lead to fear and doubt. Initial collaborations, in the form of “verticals” that would focus on particular topics, did not achieve hoped-for revenue goals, and though the newsroom produced content for those ventures, some felt frustrated by the lack of return. Still, the cooperation continued with the development of several other projects, including Global Monitor Outlook and Passcode, which incorporated newsletters, podcasts, and events, much like business models developed by other online news sites such as the Texas Tribune and the Voice of San Diego.

The newsroom was forced to confront its traditional gatekeeper role as well. The online media marketplace—especially after the rise of smartphones—fundamentally shifted the power to audiences, a reality that was felt keenly by the Monitor staff. Traffic reports revealed that its international news content—revered by its staff—was not popular among its readers, and the Web-first approach pushed a shift toward content with broader audience appeal. Though it moved from the “ivory tower” stance engendered by its mail-delivery print cycle, the Monitor did little to engage its audience through conversation in comments or participation in terms of user-generated content. Instead, the newsroom focused on audience-growth metrics to understand audience behavior and guide its decision-making, and efforts by the online team to have reporters engage on social media and through comments were not widely embraced

The economically-driven push to Web-first also forced a deep inward gaze as staffers redefined the organization’s identity in the context of the current news environment. All of these changes and iterations in the organization’s newswork forced conversations about the ultimate mission and purpose of the Monitor. At first, many struggled with an audience-centric approach, worried that appealing to a broad base of readers would diminish the intellectual and spiritual mission set forth by church founder Mary Baker Eddy. But over time, the organization evolved its goals to reaching a smaller but more engaged niche in a way that merges an audience-aware view with a journalistically valuable approach that better matches the newsroom’s conception of itself.

The Monitor, with financial support from the Church of Christ, Scientist, is a special case of organizational change; most news organizations will not have the luxury of an endowment to subsidize experiments to connect with audiences. But the changes it experienced, spurred by the reality of a hypercompetitive news environment, represent what many legacy news organizations have faced over the past decade.

Journalists cling to their news values, their gatekeeping roles, and changing those habits is a years-long process that requires a threat to existence, an injection of experimentation, and staffers who will challenge the status quo. In this new era of journalism, many organizations including the Monitor have been willing to experiment, to innovate, forced by the financial realities of the changing media environment. But unless the organizational values are clearly defined and embraced, it will be difficult for transformation to take hold over the long term.

Indeed, the Monitor’s elimination of its daily print product freed it to create new routines and new models for its journalism, but its deeply embedded culture affected its change efforts over the years. Experimentation spurred by success proved to be infectious, but the Monitor’s example reveals that unless change is tied to mission and purpose, especially in a storied, award-winning organization with deeply ingrained values, change is not likely to persist.

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Jonathan Groves is department chair and associate professor of communication at Drury University in Springfield, MO. He spent 14 years as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Arkansas and Missouri before earning his Ph.D in journalism as the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s first doctoral fellow at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He has numerous conference presentations and publications focused on media organizations and organizational change, and has served as a consultant for several organizations over the past decade. He is also president of the Missouri Sunshine Coalition, a volunteer group dedicated to government transparency in the state.

Carrie Brown heads the social journalism program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Previously, she was an associate professor of journalism at the University of Memphis, where she was recognized in 2014 as the national Educator of the Year by the Association of Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s Newspaper and Online Division. She has worked as a daily newspaper reporter and editor as well as the traveling curriculum program manager for the Committee of Concerned Journalists. She received her Ph.D in journalism at the University of Missouri in 2008, and has published research in the Electronic News Journal, #ISOJ, and Nieman Lab.