John Yamma

John Yemma

The Christian Science Monitor marks its 100th anniversary this fall, and the publisher is celebrating by re-emphasizing its commitment to thoughtful journalism. The Monitor has long been a maverick of the American newspaper field. It’s based in Boston, but that’s almost irrelevant to its role as an international observer. In the tradition of The Wall Street Journal and The Economist, the Monitor sees itself as a newspaper of record for citizens of the global community, but without the financial bias. The Monitor provides sober analysis of world events for an educated audience. Its 100 writers and editors emphasize explanation over immediacy. This approach is sometimes at odds with a market that increasingly values form over substance, but it is a badly needed service in a world of decimated reporting staffs and shrinking bureaus.

The nonprofit Monitor enjoys a healthy subsidy from the Church of Christ, Scientist, but the goal is to make it financially self-sustaining by leveraging new-media tools and targeted advertising. In July, the Monitor recruited Boston Globe veteran John Yemma as its new editor. Yemma clearly understands the dynamics of the changing newspaper field. Although a veteran of print, he spent his last three years at the Globe overseeing the newspaper’s multimedia operations and campaigning to pull its ink-stained editors into the online world. A soft-spoken and thoughtful man, he sat down with Newspaper Death Watch to discuss the realities of the new reader-driven world and how he hopes the Monitor can serve as a model for other publishers.

The one-hour interview is available as an audio file by clicking on the link below. The following time-stamped show notes direct you to important points in the conversation. Time stamps appear on the left with corresponding comments on the right.

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Listen to the interview (1:00)

2:00 The challenge of preserving the core value of newspapers as the business model becomes unworkable. The Monitor supports eight international bureaus and several US bureaus. The means of delivery aren’t important and have already gone through several stages of maturation. “There’s a different expectation on the Web. You can’t just do newspaper.com online; you have to learn multimedia story-telling. I want to get our assets directed much more strongly toward the Web. But the idea that the new paradigm is just the Web is also false.”
6:45 “The role of a local newspaper – one with the city in the nameplate – is to emphasize local coverage…Our mandate was to be internationally oriented from the beginning…The old model of getting one to five newspapers a day, the Monitor could fit into that. The phenomenon of consuming a lot of different news sources is amplified on the Web… We see our role as humanizing global events. It’s not just understanding other cultures but understanding what motivates them.
10:00 How cutbacks at national and international bureaus among major dailies is increasing the need for the Monitor‘s perspective.
10:45 The Monitor‘s business model. While the paper is heavily subsidized by the church, the goal is to make it self-sustaining while continuing its tradition of delivering thoughtful coverage.
12:40 The process of figuring out a new business model for the Monitor. “over three to five years we’re hoping to develop a sustainable model.”
14:30 “If you look at the success of Huffington Post or Slate, there is a model that works. While we’re going to do everything we can to grow on the print side, the quickest growth is on the Web. While there will always be a commitment to Monitor journalism on the print side, the idea is to do it more energetically on the Web.”…Search engines like Monitor stories because they explain events.
17:20 The website needs to be more of a destination. “You want people to experience your product as a whole and not just in its pieces as articles. It’s difficult to convert people from a search to actually exploring a website.”
19:00 Stickiness to Web brands is unfortunately low. The allegiance is increasingly to the content. “You read in a promiscuous fashion. You don’t go to a site because you love it. You go because it repays you with content you really care about. The atomization of holistic content is happening at a rapid pace, not just in newspapers but in broadcast…You can’t change user behavior. You have to accommodate it.”
22:00 There is a role for publishers to be portals to the world, to be a jumping-off point…That’s a journalistic function, a broad aggregation, an outbound strategy.
23:45 Four years ago, a lot of journalists were resisting online media. There was a sea change around that time. Some people trace it to Rupert Murdoch’s fire-and-brimstone speech to ASNE. “Around that time, the thinking changed in newsrooms…Around the time I became the multimedia editor of the Globe, there were plenty of veteran journalists who saw the writing on the wall. Journalists are nothing if not tuned in to cultural trends.”
26:30 “I see [newspaper] people clamoring for training in the new tools. There’s a lot more how-do-I-get-in-the-game conversations going on.” The buyouts have meant that the generation that doesn’t want to get in on the game is leaving. But there is a question about whether everyone who is left is going to fit in the lifeboat.
29:30 The startups have the advantage of having no embedded costs, but they don’t have the advantage of brand that we have.
30:30 On the decline of investigative and public-service journalism: “From a public information perspective, the breaking of the business model of old-school print journalism is a disaster…Ultimately, someone has to be out there looking at things dispassionately, trying to understand what happened at a city council meeting…citizen journalists are wonderful, but they’re not dedicated to being out there day to day covering the details…Who’s keeping watch on the county commissioners, keeping them honest? I hope it’s citizen journalists, but I’m not sure I can count on that.”
37:40 The weakness of an outsourced content model: “You need the relationships. You need to be able to call a guy and say not only that we need that story but that you’ve got to do that story…Every newsroom is getting smaller. I just hope that there will be room for more newsrooms to fill in.”
40:15 New services are emerging that outsource traditional newspaper functions. They’re needed but they’re not as accountable as captive staff.
41:20 The Monitor‘s staffing model: Full-time staff, contractors and freelancers. “If you really care about covering the world, seven to nine foreign correspondents is the least you need.”
44:15 Would you advise a young person today to go into journalism? “I would, but I’d say keep your eyes wide open. Learn to tell stories and learn flexibility. Also learn multimedia story-telling skills. Telling a story with video is very different from telling a story in print and it’s not TV either. With Web video, people are ready to hit that button. You have to be able to tell the story the right way. But what a great thing to be able to tell stories in different media.”
45:30 The analogy between the early days of TV journalism and the early days of Web journalism. “It took 10 or 15 years for TV to tell stories as TV should. I think we’re in the infancy of Web story-telling.”
47:30 Two examples of outstanding software news applications that Boston.com developed to make news more interactive. (link to these) “It’s not a reporter telling you that we ran these scenarios. It’s saying you can plunge in yourself and find out.”
50:30 There’ll always be a need for journalists, particularly those who know the tools. “If you just have a passion for the Middle East, that’s a great thing. If you know Arabic, that’s a great thing. If you take those two things and you have a multimedia skill set, there’s probably going to be a place for you in the job market.”
52:15 Why he took the Monitor job: “The nimbleness of the Monitor appealed to me. If it can act in any way as a model to others, then that’s good.”   
56:00 How media consumption habits are changing. “We’re in the broadcast business, it’s just that we’re not doing it over the airwaves or over cable.”
1:00:00 “It’s the end of the captive audience as we’ve known it.”

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008 at 10:20 pm and is filed under BusinessModel, Citizen Journalism, Future of Journalism, Journalism, Local news, NewMedia, Newspapers, OnlineMedia, Solutions. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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