Pursuit of Pageviews: The Christian Science Monitor

Posted on March 15, 2012

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I ran across a great article from the Niemann Journalism Lab about a newspaper that willfully and successfully adopted a “web-first mantra” that ultimately saved the newspaper’s operations during a nervous time of uncertainty and innovation.

Facing serious budget cuts and plummeting circulation in 2008, the Christian Science Monitor was fortunate enough to have forward-thinking leaders who understood that in order to stay afloat, the paper would have to turn heavily to the Internet. So the paper”s editors developed an online approach that ditched the daily print edition for a weekly one, sought to increase pageviews and aggressive pursued online advertising.

In order to increase hits on the website, the paper turned to a four-prong strategy that should be adopted by all online news sites to remain as relevant as possible on the Internet:

  • Increase the frequency of updating, writing several posts on a subject rather than one long story.
  • Use search engine optimization to find key phrases that would improve a post’s ranking in Google.
  • Monitor Google Trends for hot topics and sometimes assign stories on that basis, allowing the paper to “ride the Google wave,” as one editor put it.
  • Use social media including Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr to reach new audiences.

The article also discussed two major ideas in the transition of becoming a bigger presence online.

First, there was the mindset of “failing fast” or is also referred to within organizational change as an “emergent or realized strategy.” The Christian Science Monitor pushed innovation, trying out new ideas and methods — while having no hesitation to pull the plug if the items weren’t generating the intended pageviews. The paper experimented with blogs, podcasts, webcasts and videos, and the experimentation eventually led to a more consolidated approach that made the pageviews total spike.

Secondly, the editors encouraged the exploration of topics that usually wouldn’t have been covered by the paper but would be popular among readers. For example, online editor Jimmy Orr encouraged the coverage of the Tiger Woods sex-scandal, which many employees felt did not fit into the mission of the Christian Science Monitor.

Ultimately, the Christian Science Monitor watched as its monthly viewers jumped from 3 million to 25 million. But at what cost? Optimizing a site with the strategic placement of keywords is one thing, but possibly compromising a paper’s mission and integrity is another. Did the Christian Science Monitor extend too far in its mission to create a bigger online presence to save its operations? As the Niemann Lab article states, “Even the greatest journalism has little impact on the world when its readership is small and diminishing.”

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