Inside the Monitor, a culture of camaraderie – and a shared mission

Staff parties, shibboleths, and a dedication to being a 'real newspaper.'

the Christian science monitor/archive
Lineup: Staff from the Monitor's newsroom and composing room formed a baseball team soon after the paper's founding (shown: 1931).

Way back, long before there were Google-driven page views to be concerned about, there was the legend of the "passed-on mules."

For decades you could get a laugh in the newsroom by mentioning the World War I battlefield littered with them. The phrase often appeared in articles about The Christian Science Monitor and its preference for saying that people "passed on" as more precise than "died."

The mules were traced to a piece from behind German lines about a battlefield littered with "passed-on horses." This was sent from one delighted staffer to another – but never considered for publication.

What was being considered was how to be a "real newspaper," as intended, while being published by a church. By the time Franklin Roosevelt passed on in 1945, quotations were published about his "death." Soon the paper carried stories about others who had "died."

This is just one way in which the Monitor – enigmatic to the mass market, often subject to what publishing types call "brand resistance" – has tried to look like a real paper as well as be one. It has always reported the bitter and the sweet of human existence. It has always stressed efforts, great and small, to make things better for humanity and its planet. Those who put it together try to express its founding religion by publishing an excellent paper, reserving space for just one article on Christian Science each day. The goal is genuine accuracy.

"We believe that the balancing fact should be attached directly to the misleading assertion," said Erwin D. Canham when he was editor 50 years ago. "News interpretation, with all its hazards, is often safer and wiser than printing the bare news alone. Nothing can be more misleading than the unrelated fact, just because it is a fact and hence impressive."

To help everyone get the point, there were the sandwich sessions where thoughts on the paper could be shared. In 1968 came the in-house publication called The Editing Corner: A periodic commentary on Monitor content. One included a "Tip to makeup editors: Boxes placed down among the ads are lost. If placed higher on the page, they break up gray type and enliven the page."

Beyond such professional minutiae, Monitor workers sought to keep the paper in line with statements its founder, Mary Baker Eddy, had given earlier in answer to questions from other newspapers: "To my sense, the most imminent dangers confronting the coming century are: the robbing of people of life and liberty under the warrant of the Scriptures; the claims of politics and of human power, industrial slavery, and insufficient freedom of honest competition; and ritual, creed, and trusts in place of the golden rule, 'Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.'" And: "I am asked, 'What are your politics?' I have none, in reality, other than to help support a righteous government; to love God supremely, and my neighbor as myself."

To its first editor, Archibald McLellan, the Monitor was to be "a paper which goes into the highways and byways of humanity and by its very character proclaims the potency of good to meet the seeming aggression of evil with a tangible proof of supremacy." This underlies not only the news but also the features – home, business, environment, sports, natural science, education, the arts, cartoons.

Occasionally, a variation of this high calling was put to use in relation to Christian Science shibboleths such as no smoking. Col. Evans Carlson, a World War II hero, said to the editor he was visiting, "I suppose it's all right to smoke here." "Oh, quite all right," said the editor. "Of course, nobody ever has."

That doesn't mean the whole staff was made up of Christian Scientists. As Mr. Canham wrote in "Commitment to Freedom," his 50th-anniversary book, "Nobody has given the paper more able, loyal, and effective service than the non-Christian Scientists who have worked for it down through the years." I still run into a minister, who recalls being a Monitor newsboy in days when a pool table was provided in a recreation room.

What hasn't changed – besides a proclivity for innovation – is the easy interaction among staffers of all stripes, the kind of camaraderie born of working with a clear mission. Employees used to walk downtown for lunch at a Greek restaurant. In recent years, another eatery option has been added – Quotes, in the Mary Baker Eddy Library building. Writers and editors made music together for parties in the newsroom or the composing room. The Monitor baseball team began almost as soon as the paper itself and flourished for decades. (Today it might be bowling at Kings in the Back Bay.)

It may not be because Paul S. Deland said never throw anything away, but I didn't throw away a mock front page from Dec. 16, 1958, with the two-inch-high headline: DELAND'S FIFTIETH. A photo shows President Eisenhower presenting an anniversary award to Mr. Deland, associate editor of The Christian Science Monitor, on board since the beginning.

Russia's Sputnik had come along in 1957. So a bit of doggerel on the apportionment of columns was entitled "Paul S(pace) Deland": "For even when space was tight as a drum/ He tried to see that we all had some./ He knew, you see, that fair is fair./ (A little hard on us who wanted more than our share.)"

That's one of the ways we had fun while making a point. One current Monitor editor, reading this, said "It's funny, the newsroom just recently wrote some lyrics and crooned for a departing editor. And we still issue those introspective internal memos, only now they're about exactly what a Monitor blog should be."

Roderick Nordell joined the Monitor in 1948 and retired in 1993 as executive editor of World Monitor: The Christian Science Monitor Monthly. In between, he was a staff correspondent in New York, books editor, arts editor, assistant chief editorial writer, Home Forum editor, and features editor.

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