Circulation for the Christian Science Monitor has plummeted in recent decades, and costly broadcast ventures by the organization haven’t helped. Recently, the Monitor named a new top editor, who, incidentally, is not a practicing journalist but rather a longtime church member. Is the paper in the midst of its most serious crisis ever? CSM managing editor Marshall Ingwerson gives Bob the view from within.
BOB GARFIELD: With a circulation that has plummeted in recent decades and costly broadcast ventures that broke the bank to the tune of 300 million dollars, the Christian Science Monitor is at a turning point in its almost century-long history. Founded in Boston as an outreach of the First Church of Christ Scientist, the paper is more public service than house organ, still subsidized largely by the church, which has fallen on hard times. Recently, the paper announced editorial staff cuts, a renewed marketing push, and a new top editor, a longtime church member who is not a practicing journalist. Marshall Ingwerson, on the other hand, is a journalist; a veteran at the Monitor for 25 years and current managing editor. Marshall, welcome to OTM.
MARSHALL INGWERSON: Thanks.
BOB GARFIELD: The Monitor has always been sort of a strange beast - a paper with an absolutely sterling journalistic reputation, and yet has this connection with a church. Tell me about the relationship with the Christian Science Church and how it plays out editorially.
MARSHALL INGWERSON: The paper was started by the founder of the church-
BOB GARFIELD: Mary Baker Eddy?
MARSHALL INGWERSON: Mary Baker Eddy. Right. And it was the heyday of the Hearst and Pulitzer empires, and what we now call yellow journalism, which was very sensational. And Mrs. Eddy founded the paper with the fairly simply purpose - it's still written by our flag today - our masthead of, of the paper - To Bless All Mankind - translated, to provide good, sound quality information with a reader in mind who wants to be a good citizen of the world.
BOB GARFIELD: So, the paper is explicitly a church outreach, but if it were called, for example, the, the Boston Monitor, would there be any way for a reader to divine that it was published by a church organization?
MARSHALL INGWERSON: Probably the biggest difference is that the reader will wonder how on earth can some publisher afford to do this? Because we do all the things that are, that are most cost-inefficient to do in journalism - foreign bureaus, national bureaus, a readership that's spread all over the country, and our staff is made up of a mix of church members and non-church members. I don't necessarily know who is and who isn't affiliated with the church. Everybody who works for the Monitor has in some way or another signed on to the mission of it, and generally that's just doing what I think most journalists regard as good journalism.
BOB GARFIELD: Is there any kind of prior review of the contents of the paper from anyone in the church outside of the, the newspaper itself before publication?
MARSHALL INGWERSON: The only prior review is on the editorial page itself. The staff editorials and the editorial cartoon. Those are seen as the voice of the paper, the opinion of the institution in some degree.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you have a new editor - Richard Bergenheim.
MARSHALL INGWERSON: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: I understand he has done away with the prior review policy.
MARSHALL INGWERSON: I don't know that he's done away with it, or that the directors have told him that they're going to suspend that for the time being, and he's got the only prior review of the editorials and the, the cartoon. That's been true for maybe a week now.
BOB GARFIELD: Richard Bergenheim is a longtime church member, but never has been a journalist - at least not one who has worked within the newsroom environment, so one way of looking at this is that the church is actually putting an extra layer of distance between it and the product. The other is that it has a mole inside the organization. What is the staff thinking at the moment?
MARSHALL INGWERSON: The staff reception, I have to say, has been pretty good. From the beginning he came into the newsroom and was deferential, you might say, about the news professionals on the staff, and he's very sophisticated about news. But, hey, don't believe me. I work for the man. [LAUGHTER]
BOB GARFIELD: Well - noted. I am curious, though, whether there is any sentiment that the church, frustrated by losing millions of dollars a year, is getting impatient that it's not getting, I don't know, more bang for its buck.
MARSHALL INGWERSON: They want to see some assurance that we're not just talking to ourselves, that we're providing enough value here that people are willing to pay for it. So I do think philosophically, there is that the desire that the paper be much closer to self-sufficiency.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's talk about that. In the, in the category of a tree falls in the forest, your circulation at one point was something like 200,000, and now has substantially dwindled. What are the numbers at the moment?
MARSHALL INGWERSON: Around 60,000.
BOB GARFIELD: So if, if that beautiful little Bonsai tree of yours falls in the forest, and there's only 60,000 people there to notice it, does it make sufficient noise for the church to keep spending good money after bad?
MARSHALL INGWERSON: One of the ironies of the time is that in many ways, the impact of the Monitor is greater than it's ever been. We generally have at least 1.8 million visitors per month to our web site, but the print is the part that brings in the money. And that's our problem. In a sense, we've got the same problem the whole newspaper industry has right now. It's just that it's got us at sort of a more critical spot, because we aren't coming off decades of very fat profit margins.
BOB GARFIELD: The Monitor has, in fact, had to close down its cable channel, had to close down Monitor Radio, and now once again, the newspaper itself is in a retrenchment. Do you have the sense that the staff is losing morale?
MARSHALL INGWERSON: No, I don't think so. We've started an interesting conversation on the staff - what's the kind of journalism we want to do - what makes the most impact. You know, sitting in these meetings, it's very inspiring to me. But I don't want to be putting lipstick on a pig, here. It, it is a retrenchment, and that's never fun.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well, Marshall, thank you very much.
MARSHALL INGWERSON: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Marshall Ingwerson is managing editor of the Christian Science Monitor.