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Christian Science Monitor changes online publishing model, boosts subscriptions

By: Lisa Manfield | February 14, 2018 | Business solutions and Case study

Words like innovation and digital transformation tend to be sprinkled liberally in discussions about digital publishing and online revenue models these days. But stories about publishers that have actually implemented new digital strategies resulting in positive revenue streams are not nearly as common. One of our clients, The Christian Science Monitor, however, has done just that, reinventing itself online to better resonate with its readers, and generating a critical new stream of subscriber revenue.

The Monitor, an independent news organization that has been publishing thoughtful and solutions-oriented content since 1908, had already moved to a digital-first publishing model, with a well-trafficked website and a lineup of e-newsletters in addition to its weekly print product. But last year, it decided to drastically change its online publishing model, launching a new daily subscription-based product.

“We wanted something readers would see as distinctive; worthy of their time and money,” says David Grant, Associate Publisher at the Christian Science Monitor. “Traditional business models are all very challenged, except for digital subscriptions. There’s an erosion of print ad dollars, which were small for us to begin with. Traffic is a perpetually receding horizon; we can never generate enough clicks. The place that felt like home was pivoting to focus on readers.”

Daily news delivered every evening

For The Monitor, that pivot lead to the creation of a daily news product, delivered by e-mail every evening, and focused on five major stories with an eye to insightful analysis. “We’re not covering super niche topics, we’re writing about the same sorts of things as before,” Grant says. “But this perspective helps people be more thoughtful, more compassionate, more humane.”

To implement the new idea, Grant says the team reorganized its work process to become more agile. “We did sprints to develop what became the Daily,” he says.

An agile development process, also known as scrum, enabled the Monitor to prioritize problem solving and to focus on listening to reader needs. “You can put anything you want into scrum,” Grant says. “The issues you act on first are things where you’re listening to your readers first. We feel better equipped to do that now that we have a way to solve problems.”

Publish what readers love and the subscription revenue will follow

Since its launch in May 2017, The Daily has been a phenomenal success for the Monitor.

“We’ve had an over 40% open rate and 20% click-through rate,” says Grant. “And we’re pretty proud of that. We’ve got over 8,000 subscribers.”

Subscribers can select a monthly subscription for $11, or an annual subscription for $110.

But even better than the success of the new product for the Monitor, has been the success of the new mindset around innovation. “There is a palpable sense of progress inside the organization,” Grant says. “By getting into this focus, we feel that we’ve started a chain of behaviours. The way we solve problems, and working in a more agile way, makes you feel like you know how to make these numbers get better. The process by which we get to improvement has been super powerful as a motivating factor. We feel like we’re learning a better way to learn.”

If at first you don’t succeed

Despite the uptake of its Daily product, it wasn’t instant success for the Monitor, which had to make some adjustments after the initial launch. While The Monitor has continued its regular reporting in additional to its Daily articles, this wasn’t initially reflected on the homepage. “We changed our homepage very precipitously at the launch of the Daily,” Grant says. “We slashed the homepage to make it harder to navigate the site; we wanted people to pay. But a lot of our Weekly [magazine] readers said ‘hey, you took my Monitor away from me.’ We got a tsunami of feedback.”

Grant says they had to take a step back, and put some content and navigation back on the homepage for their regular readers. “Our main focus is having that relationship with people. I want everything we do to impact the bottom line experience that subscribers have with the Monitor. Our target is to be a solid non-profit news organization that is deeply connected to readers.”


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