“If the Monitor were to vanish, what would the world lose, really?”
That’s the first line of a column will appear in next week’s print issue of The Christian Science Monitor Weekly, the 109-year-old print magazine. The question is what has driven the team at the Monitor to think over the last 18 months about how to replace its website with a different kind of core digital product that would (a) make clearer the publication’s focus on “a completely different way of seeing the news,” (b) get readers to pay for that news, and (c) abandon outmoded ways of arranging content.
“We had felt like we were trying to do three different things at the same time,” said Mark Sappenfield, the Christian Science Monitor’s editor, who just replaced Marshall Ingwerson in March. “We were trying to keep our core product going, build our verticals, and play the pageview game.”
“We’d been marching through these business lines and not really feeling that successful in any one of them,” said David Grant, associate publisher. “The long-term sustainability wasn’t there. What we landed on was trying to build a much deeper relationship with our readers. That’s landed us on this journey of going all in on digital subscription. The Daily is really in the service of this mission of making people more thoughtful, less neurotic, more calm, and seeing the world through the lens of progress.”
On Monday, the Monitor launched Monitor Daily, a daily news digest of five pieces of content (stories, videos, graphics), plus one editorial and “one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight often related to the news,” that will be emailed to subscribers each weekday at 6 p.m. Boston time. Each article can either be read in “30 Sec. Read” form — a summary that still has a clear beginning, middle, and end — or expanded to a full edition that is estimated to take about 50 minutes to read. The Daily is also on the Monitor’s website and available as audio (read by Monitor staff) to stream or download.
“We’re bringing the whole organization into focus around this task,” said Sappenfield.
The Monitor Daily, which has no ads, is free for a month. After that, it will cost $11 per month or $110 a year, or $9 a month/$90 a year for subscribers to the print weekly. That price, the team believes, is competitive. While the Monitor’s website will still run some free content — namely evergreen Monitor stories that are one or two months old — “our mission is really to get you to sample this thing, and eventually get you to become one of our subscribers,” said Grant. The homepage has been completely redesigned around the daily. In general, Sappenfield said, when it comes to the Daily coverage, users will get to see the package for free one time before they’re required to subscribe.
In months of “constant sprints,” the Monitor’s team tested beta editions of editorial products. “The key question is always, ‘How disappointed would you be if this didn’t exist, on a scale of 1 to 10?’” said Dave Scott, chief product manager. “If we weren’t getting 8 and above, we’d go back in and do some more work. We got to the point where we were getting 8 and above and decided to go forward.”
In the last two weeks, of the 4,000-plus unique readers who looked at a version of the package, 74 percent read past its fourth item and 44 percent made it to the bottom of the package. Twenty-six percent of beta readers expanded an article while they were reading.
“The fact that we’re not sending readers someplace else to read the content, and letting them read only what matters to them, is paying dividends in letting them read more,” Grant said.
The team’s goal is to reach 10,000 paying Daily subscribers by a year from now, which seems extremely ambitious. Slate Plus, which is $5 a month or $49 a year, was able to draw 9,000 paying subscribers in its first year, but Slate is bigger than the Monitor. “It’s not an easy goal,” Grant acknowledged. “But when we show up to work every day, that’s what we folks on the business team are thinking about: How do we get to 10,000 subscribers?”