On March 27 the worldwide journalism community observed yet another death in the daily newspaper family as the Christian Science Monitor published its last daily print edition.
Established in 1908 by religious leader Mary Baker Eddy to be a voice of reason amid a sea of rumor-mongering and sensationalistic yellow journalism, the Monitor soon developed a reputation for family-friendly features, solid news analysis and respected international coverage. Rather than being a religious rag, as its name might suggest, the Boston-based daily has lived up to its motto, “To injure no man, but to bless all mankind,” and in the process garnered journalism’s highest accolades, including Pulitzer Prizes.
Declining readership, dwindling advertising, increasing interest in the Internet and a deep economic recession have recently shuttered the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and are threatening the survival of daily newspapers in Minneapolis, Chicago, Cleveland and many other cities across the United States. While the Monitor has not been immune to this “perfect storm” washing across the bows of so many dailies, it could have ridden out this tempest and even emerged from the economic riptides stronger than ever had its owner been more fiscally responsible.
Owned by the Christian Science Church, the Monitor is in effect published by the church’s board of directors. Although Eddy saw the need for her church to have and maintain a fair-minded newspaper with an unwavering commitment to high journalistic standards and ethics, a series of boards of directors have for more than 25 years overseen the slow death of her newspaper. In the past few decades the former broadsheet was reduced to a tabloid and its circulation dropped from daily numbers of more than 200,000 to about 50,000.
Many urged growing an endowment
During this time many church members and financial experts were unsuccessful in urging recent boards of directors to enthusiastically grow an endowment to safeguard the daily newspaper, reasoning that the church, which outsiders sometimes mistakenly view as a religious cult, gained credibility by having a newspaper that was the gold standard for journalistic ethics, fairness and balance.
Even though the church’s membership had been steadily dwindling since the 1930s, various boards of directors decided that instead of adequately protecting the Monitor, they would spend members’ contributions on other ventures, including:
• A multimillion-dollar construction project begun in the 1960s including three new buildings, an expansive reflecting pool, an underground parking garage, a monumental entrance to its Mother Church Extension and a large brick-paved public park at the church’s Boston headquarters.
• The launching in the 1980s of a short-lived television station over the objections at the time of journalists and MBAs alike.
• Recently converting the church’s archives into a multimillion-dollar Mary Baker Eddy exhibit and library.
Little to show for its investment
Today the new buildings stand empty or have been rented out, the failed TV venture has become “how not to” case-studies fodder for media-ethics and business classes, and the Mary Baker Library has few visitors. Estimates indicate such ill-conceived projects drained church coffers of close to $1 billion.
I’m hard pressed to think of any other owners of daily newspapers who invested so much so poorly during the past few decades. Thus, as the current church board of directors plans to launch a new weekly edition of the print newspaper and beef up the Monitor’s online presence, it’s difficult to be optimistic.
After a century of publication, the Monitor could have been a beacon — the sort of illuminating presence America’s Founding Fathers envisioned in our nation’s marketplace of ideas. It is sad, if not tragic, that a church allowed this journalistic light to be extinguished.
William A. Babcock is senior ethics professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He directed the University of Minnesota’s Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law during the 1990s, and before that was the Monitor’s senior international news editor.