Tuesday, October 28, 2008

An International Non-Daily Newspaper

As noted here on July 8 -- noted many other places far earlier -- the Christian Science Monitor will become a weekly in print in April 2009. As noted here on July 8, and noted many other places today, the decision of the Monitor has very little to do with the rest of the newspaper business. The paper was nationally distributed by mail, which meant that it closed at some unheard-of time in the afternoon. (Maybe even the morning.) It had almost no advertising. It existed, and will continue to exist, because it was the will of Mary Baker Eddy that it exist. And it carried proudly the name of a church that has a relatively small (and generally believed to be declining) number of adherents, always leading to confusion about exactly what it was.

Had the Monitor been a for-profit business, or even a break-even business, it would have been closed years ago after the debacles of Monitor Radio and the dismissal of Kay Fanning as editor. The paper's management had no clear idea how (or apparently any desire) to effectively compete in the print newspaper business in the 1980s; it is no wonder they have no wish to do so in 2009. Functioning as essentially an online news service will be a better deal for the Monitor, its readers, and Christian Science.

One must, of course, make a sad bow of nostalgia for what the Monitor was in the 1950s and 1960s -- one of the foremost proponents of true journalism at a time when newspapers were just starting to cease to be organs of bias or tawdry sensation. Of course, it was not the example of the Monitor that drove them to this; it was the collapse of competing newspapers in the mass economy of the 1950s, the end of evening newspapers in the wake of TV, and the fact that TV could always be more sensational than newspapers. But the Monitor showed editors across the country how professional, intelligent journalism could be done.

For someone growing up in Indiana in the 1960s, when the Pulliam papers basically anointed our governor, Roger Branigin, as a "favorite son" for their own purposes, and largely refused to cover Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign, the simple existence of quality newspapers like the Monitor and the Louisville Courier-Journal meant that the world as defined by the Star and the News was not the entire world.

It is not hard in the media environment of 2008 to imagine biased journalism; it is far more prevalent today than it was in 1968, if you take everything purporting to be breaking or commenting upon news as journalism. It is hard to imagine how there simply were so few outlets for political discourse. Robert Kennedy won the Indiana Democratic primary despite the Star and the News ignoring him, so it is not that they had a stranglehold upon the voters. They did try, when they wanted to, to have a stranglehold upon the political movers and shakers, which was far more important locally. Your political career could be derailed by an unfavorable comment from Ed Ziegner or Michael Padev; the City Council could be told to back off in a column by Mickey McCarty. The papers and their owner could have some control over whom the political movers and shakers were and thus control what was put forward for debate. Now you have many, many people attempting to do the same thing, all presenting what they call journalism. At least back then, you could read between the lines and find out what you were supposed to know and supposed to not know. It may have been Pravda, but you could learn how to read Pravda. Now you have no idea how much you have to read. And because the Star and News had to cover everything, they couldn't make everything in the paper biased. The Huffington Post can ignore whatever inconvenient facts it wants.

I am sure the Monitor of its day had myriad faults -- it was delivered by mail then, with later deadlines, meaning, I am sure, that it came to most readers a day late -- but partisanship was not among them. My hope is that the Monitor can be successful online as the sort of force it was founded to be, and for decades was nationally respected as in print -- a clear-eyed antidote to misleading partisanship in reporting news. But while it claims a large online readership -- hell, what paper doesn't claim a large online readership? If I click on one headline in Romenesko and stop reading after the second graf I become one of the Washington Post's online readers. The Monitor was founded in the context of print newspapers. I suspect its true online equivalent will come from that world and not from the past.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While I was not a reader of the CSM, I must admit that I read most newspapers online myself. Sign of the times... Yet, I find it sad that the glory days of the printed newspaper are clearly history - some of the biggest dailies are struggling seriously. Soon we will carry out 'Kindle' to the coffeehouse. Not quite the same...