How The Christian Science Monitor combines values, empathy and digital storytelling innovation

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Since its inception in the early 1900s, The Christian Science Monitor has been a force in journalism, adhering to its values of solutions-based, human-focused and empathetic reporting. Until recently, the editorially independent outlet has been largely print-focused –– and that’s where Samantha Laine Perfas, the Monitor’s story team leader, comes in.

Since January, Perfas has led the Monitor’s innovative storytelling efforts, with a specific focus on the Monitor Daily, an amalgamation of the day’s top stories in both newsletter and audio form. Last year, Perfas launched the Monitor’s first-ever podcast, Perception Gaps. Now, she spends her days working on the Monitor Daily’s audio edition, and creating new and innovative audio and multimedia reporting for the Monitor.

Storybench sat down with Perfas to discuss how the outlet is moving its innovation forward while maintaining their iconic value system in today’s news landscape.

How did Perception Gaps come to be?

When we launched the Monitor Daily, it was part of the original vision that there’d be a daily podcast to go with it. However, producing a daily podcast is a lot of work, so we realized that, based on the size of our newsroom and our resources, all we could commit to doing was a read-version of the print product. Even that takes a lot of time, but it’s basically the audio version of the print product. When my boss at the time approached me and asked if I’d like to change positions, because I originally was our social media editor, into being an audio producer, I said yes, I’m interested in doing that, but only if I can have the opportunity to try and develop an actual produced podcast. That got approved, so my first six months in that role was really making sure the Monitor Daily podcast was up and running, because we still had a lot of learning to do there. After that was done, I began brainstorming ideas for possible podcasts.

That was done alongside my editor at the time. We came up with various ideas, and then we did the design sprint where we got a bunch of people in a room to talk about what would be the purpose of the podcast. Why are we doing the podcast, how do we make sure it is distinct monitor journalism, how would we execute it, what would it look like? Based on that design sprint, we decided on the idea of Perception Gaps, and we decided to do a 10-part series to see how it did, because we knew we wouldn’t be able to start a never-ending podcast as many people do. Then we just did it. 

Each podcast episode has an “Explore this episode” link with a transcript and additional context.

There were definitely growing pains. I vastly underestimated how much production goes into podcasting. The interviewing and what you hear on the podcast is really the smallest amount of time. It’s all the before and after that’s really time consuming. I came up with the outlines for every episode, I reported them, produced them, posted them, edited them. The only thing I didn’t do was the final mixing and music addition, because we had the studio engineers who helped with that. Besides that, it was me. It was a lot of work for one person. On the tech side, we had never supported a podcast on our site, so there was a lot of kinks there as well.

How did you overcome all of those growing pains?

Part of it is to have a lot of patience. You need to be in charge and have a great handle on communication. A lot of it was on me to communicate with all the different departments what my needs were, because they’re not mind readers. art of it was me learning to find my voice in the newsroom and take initiative. I talked to our tech staff about coding, which is something I know nothing about, and I forced myself to have that conversation to try to get the outcome that we need, because it’s all part of the big picture of making this a success.

The other thing was just constantly reminding myself why I was doing it. There were days when I was like, ‘why did I do this to myself?’ I could have just continued to produce the Daily audio every day, but it was reminding myself that I think this is important. I believe this is a podcast that really tells an interesting story and that will change people’s perspectives for the better. I think this is good journalism. I think that it will matter, and that it is important for me to continue, even though it is very difficult.

Could you speak about the Monitor Daily newsletter and audio edition?

I’ve been at the Monitor now for about five years, and when I started, we had a completely different business model. There was no subscription product, it was just CSMonitor.com and our weekly publication, and it was largely based on ad revenue.

Like many publications in the industry, we realized the ad revenue web model was no longer working for us, so we needed to figure out a new way forward that would be more financially stable. Based on the deep commitment of our readers, we decided to build a subscription model. We went through the design sprint process to get from no subscription model to the Monitor Daily. It did not take just one design sprint, it took like 20. 

We produce the Daily podcast, and then occasionally our team will have content that goes into [the newsletter], so on the days where a video or an audio story or some other storytelling content goes in, then I help to make sure that everything is polished and all the components are there, that it follows our template of everything like headline writing and summaries. We always do a 30-second version in addition to the full read. We call that the “mini,” so we have to make sure it’s ready. I’ll do more hands-on work those days.

What does your process of coming up with new and innovative ideas look like?

There’s two different types of brainstorming. There’s brainstorming to do something we’ve never done before, and then there’s brainstorming a new story idea within a format that we’re comfortable in or already using. For example, with Perception Gaps, we had never done a podcast before. That was starting from square one; that kind of falls into the original brainstorming category. And the process that we did there was following the design sprint process. Design sprint and scrum process are something that are kind of new to the journalism industry, but in a nutshell, it works in a super intense, set period of time, where you put together a cross-functional team –– like one person from marketing, one person from tech, one person from design, one person from editorial –– to brainstorm how to make the new thing.

The idea is that if you can get all those different departments in one room and just hash it out, you’re going to be much more successful than doing it on your own in a silo. Part of that process also includes user testing, so you come up with an idea that you think is, all things considered, the best path forward, then you create a mini version of it. hen you test that idea with actual people. 

Brainstorming other ideas is like, alright, we’ve done a story on this this and this with audio, so how can we try something new? Or, what would be a way to utilize that platform in a way that we haven’t that’s about a certain topic that we feel the Monitor should be writing about? Sometimes it’s collaborative in that I’ll reach out to a political reporter and say, ‘hey, I have an idea, what do you think about that?’ and then it becomes a conversation that goes back and forth.

Managing all of those projects seems like it would be a lot for a team of three people to handle. Is it?

Yeah, it is. I think every newsroom feels this way, but in some ways there’s no shortage of ideas –– it’s really a shortage of resources in order to execute those ideas. Right now, the longer our team exists and the more content we produce, that gets more people being like, ‘wow, that was so cool. I want to do that too.’ We now get more and more requests, but we have the same amount of time. 

In today’s news landscape, how do you and your team maintain the Monitor’s tone, feel, and values in your reporting?

The transition to the Monitor Daily and a subscriber model definitely was a good one for that reason. Before, when you’re pursuing clicks and ad revenue, you’re just trying to get as many people as possible to look at a story. People, in their rush, don’t always dig for deeper values and meaning. They just want the news of the day, a drive by, not a lot of engagement. Now, our value proposition to subscribers and potential subscribers is ‘we are different than the news you’re going to find on Google. We care deeply about journalism that is solutions-oriented, unbiased, constructive to the global conversation. And we are committed to providing news that will do that. If you are a fan of this, please support us and subscribe so we can do that.’ And they do. That gives us permission from our readers and our specific audience to take our time to be more thoughtful and focus on distinction.

Is there anything your subscribers or potential readers should know?

One thing I think about a lot, and that I have a lot of conversations with the news consumers in general, is this frustration with the news industry. The feeling that things are hyper partisan, with fake news and all of that, and to some degree, I think it’s good for the news industry to be reflective of how we’ve contributed to that distrust. At the same time, I think it’s also important for news consumers to understand that the type of content they read, and the type of content they are paying for, is really a vote in that direction. As a consumer, if you’re reading content that is super partisan and super aggressive and angry, that’s going to be the kind of content that is going to continue to be produced. Focusing on, and paying for, news that you truly believe is making a difference ultimately will help the industry as a whole. You are voting with your dollars, and I think that’s good for people to understand. That’s kind of a relationship that we are trying to build with our readers. If you can commit to us, we will commit to you. 

Is it hard for you all to break away from the echo chamber of today’s media cycle by turning down those stories that won’t add to the conversation, even though they might be what people are talking about?

It’s a challenge because you want to be news responsive. You want to report on things that are happening and what people are talking about. But at the same time, as journalists, I think we sometimes have a skewed perception of what people are talking about because it’s on Twitter or because it’s in the mainstream media. It can be very easy to fall prey to even your own echo chamber as a journalist. Who are you following on Twitter? Are they all on the same side of the conversation? What may feel to you like [something] everyone is talking about may actually be a very small percentage of people, because most people don’t care. Most people aren’t livestreaming the president’s Twitter feed, but in newsrooms, we are. Reminding ourselves that the world is a really big place and there are a lot of human experiences that are ongoing at all times can help discern is this a story that I feel like we should report on because it feels like everyone is talking about it, or is this a story that needs to be reported on because it really, truly matters on a deep human level?

Photo credit: Ann Hermes, staff photographer of The Christian Science Monitor.

Jordan is a graduate student at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.

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