In 1908, Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy directed her church to start a newspaper, one that would stand in contrast to the yellow journalism of scrappy tabloids. Instead of offering screaming headlines and lurid copy, its uplifting mission would be "to injure no man, but to bless all mankind."
Over the course of its nearly 90 years, the Christian Science Monitor has set a high standard in its national and international reporting. But the past decade has been tumultuous for both the Monitor and the church.
Church leaders in the 1980s became alarmed at a decline in Christian Science membership, which dropped from a high of about 270,000 in the 1930s to about 150,000. And they decided that expanding into radio and television was the best way to spread the church's message and attract more people.
Their ventures diverted resources from the newspaper and nearly bankrupted the Boston-based First Church of Christ, Scientist.
Since 1986, when it bought a Boston television station, the church has spent more than $470 million on its news media empire, with most of the money going for a cable station -- the Monitor Channel -- which was shut down in 1992 after 11 months of operation.
In June, the church also pulled the plug on Monitor Radio after 13 years on the air, conceding that it could not continue to support the radio program's $8 million-a-year deficit and compete with National Public Radio.
"It's very hard being Avis in public radio land, because when the public radio stations have paid their dues, there's not much left for a No. 2," says Christian Science Monitor editor David T. Cook, who also oversaw Monitor Radio.
The Monitor, too, has suffered. A 1988 redesign that introduced a slimmer Monitor with color graphics was not well received: In March 1987, the Monitor had 186,000 subscribers, but that has dropped to 78,000. At least twice in the past 10 years, plans were made to stop publication.
Now, the church is refocusing its attention on the newspaper, hoping that it can again reach the pre-eminent position it once held in journalism.
"In the 1950s and earlier, it was on everyone's list of the 10 best newspapers in the country. It's been a very long time since that was true," says Reese Cleghorn, dean of the College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park. "I don't see it very often, and I would bet that a lot of journalists would say the same thing."
What set the Monitor apart from other publications is what staff members call "Monitor Journalism."
"The Monitor seeks to report on events in the United States and internationally in sort of a constructive point of view," says editor Cook. "We're not into sensationalism, and we're not into attack. We're into providing a cleareyed view of what's happening now and making sure our report includes, where possible, steps that people can take to improve conditions wherever they might be."
Mary Baker Eddy founded Christian Science after she experienced a healing in 1866, while she was reading about one of Jesus' healings in the New Testament. She believed that the experience enabled her to understand the full practical meaning of biblical revelation, which she called the Science of Christianity. The tenets of the church that she established in 1879 are summarized in Science and Health and the Church Manual, and focus on the practice of spiritual healing.
Stephen Gottschalk, a historian and church member, says Eddy founded the newspaper to provide an example of the constructive effects of her teachings.
"It doesn't advance those teachings as such, but the intent was to prove the constructive, purposeful and humane character of Christian Science," Gottschalk says. "And to a large extent over the course of its history, I think it has done that. It has been the church's face to the world."
The nature of the Monitor's religious mission affects some of its coverage. This is especially the case in its coverage of medical stories, where the church's belief in spiritual healing and its rejection of doctors and conventional medical treatment come into play.
"There's no subject we don't cover, but clearly our coverage of medical news is different from what you'd get most places," Cook says. "It's probably the most visible difference you'd find at the Monitor, because Christian Scientists believe that talking about disease tends to induce fear in people that leads to disease. Our reporting about medical news is quite restrained, although we clearly have covered health care both in the past and currently."
Cook points to the Monitor's coverage of AIDS. "It's not that we don't cover it, but I would say our coverage is more restrained. Less coverage of symptoms, more coverage of public policy."