New Journalism — MinnPost Editor Previews Brave Venture

Note: Joel Kramer, the founder of MinnPost, the soon-to-be-launched internet-based daily, is trying something new and brave. We asked him to tell us a little about it, and here’s his guest post. Joel was my former boss at the Star Tribune, and a few of us from the blog have given Joel a little advice, worth every penny he paid for it. Tell us what you think about the new enterprise — and Joel invites comments at his site as well.

-Benidt

Expectations are running high for MinnPost. A lot of people tell us they’re counting on us to fill a gap, prove a point, create a model, buck the trend, save journalism, and so forth. Actually, all we’re aiming to do is publish consistently high-quality journalism – on the web, in print and eventually on other platforms. And we aim to break even financially so MinnPost can become a sustainable not-for-profit enterprise.

MinnPost’s brand will be a thoughtful approach to news, for Minnesotans who care about high-quality journalism. We will emphasize reporting and analysis by experienced professionals. We will encourage these journalists to be innovative, courageous, and engaged with the audience – to take advantage of the tools the Web offers to do quality work in new ways. But we won’t forget the traditional principles that drive great journalism – accuracy, fairness, aggressive reporting and compelling story-telling.

In an era of out-of-town newspaper owners shrinking the resources devoted to news, this is an exciting mission.

That’s why we’re attracting so many outstanding journalists. More than 30 have signed on to work for MinnPost, and if you check out our website, www.minnpost.com, you’ll see new names added. Most of them are veterans of the Star Tribune, Pioneer Press or City Pages, including – just to name a few – Pulitzer Prize winners John Camp and Chris Ison, well-known columnists Doug Grow and Dave Beal, and experienced arts writers Linda Mack and David Hawley. But we’re also attracting young talent, like Christina Capecchi, whose monthly column “Twenty Something” appears in 30 Catholic papers across the country. She will write for MinnPost about culture and technology.

And we’re attracting money. We announced in late August (with the help of Bruce Benidt and a couple of other people who hang around this blog – thank you all) with $850,000 of seed money from four families and a $250,000 grant from the Knight Foundation in Miami. I’m expecting to obtain initial national foundation support. But one of the keys to sustainability is annual support from members, along the lines of public radio and public television. Three weeks after our announcement, we have more than 130 members, who have contributed a combined $56,000. A good start, considering that we haven’t begun publishing yet.

Another key to sustainability will be the revenue from community sponsorships and advertising. We’ve just hired Lynn Benson, former retail advertising manager at the Star Tribune, to be director of community sponsorships, and Sally Waterman, who comes to MinnPost from the role of business manager at CarSoup, to be director of advertising.

Our press coverage has been extremely positive, but I’ve been around long enough to not count on that continuing unabated. Issues are already arising, mainly in the comment section of certain blogs, such as whether we “get the Web” or are just trying to shoehorn a newspaper into a new medium. Our answer: We’re excited about the unique capabilities of the medium and aim to take advantage of them, where we can do so consistent with our mission of high quality. Another issue is whether we’ll pay journalists enough. Our answer: Except for a few editors, MinnPost journalists will be contract contributors, and our rates will be competitive with the local free-lance market, not Star Tribune wages. And a third is whether we’ll be partisan or ideological. Our answer: MinnPost will be nonpartisan. We will run community views from a broad range of perspectives, but there will be no unsigned editorials representing the position of MinnPost itself.

Startups always involve risk, and MinnPost is no exception, and we need all the help we can get. Don’t just root for MinnPost. Go to http://www.minnpost.com and join the more than 900 people who have signed up for email progress reports, and the more than 130 who have become Founding Annual Members. Make MinnPost your home page. Write to me with your suggestions about either the journalism or the business.

We’ll be announcing the launch date soon.

— Joel Kramer

10 thoughts on “New Journalism — MinnPost Editor Previews Brave Venture

  1. I’m sure he thinks he’s kidding skeptics ’round the world.

    Kudos and best of luck to you, Mr. Kramer, and all of your colleagues. I eagerly await your attempt to save the world…err, I mean…your publication. Should be fun.

  2. As I look at the Strib story today (Sept. 19) where its reporters shook loose notes from inspectors who looked at the 35W bridge before its collapse, I’m reminded of the role journalism plays in bringing things out into the daylight. Most of us want to hide our mistakes and cover our butts. When the public interest is harmed by those mistakes, it’s usually reporters who dig out what happened.

    Having another news organization in town, with mostly veteran journalists hungry to do a hell of a good job in a new medium, can only help the public interest, seems to me. Competition on quality spurs good reporters to dig below the surface, go beyond the press releases and news conferences. MinnPost won’t be chasing every daily wrinkle on every story, so I hope its journalists will be able to spend the time digging deeper and explaining more fully.

    Heck, a little more competition in town might even mean someone would notice a United States senator getting arrested in a public bathroom sooner than two months after the fact.

  3. ghornseth says:

    Gracious, Benidt. Competition is in the public interest? How capitalist of you.

    Oh, I kid. But I agree completely. And if one ends up finding MinnPost’s political stance out of alignment with one’s own, that same free market will allow one to attempt to raise one’s own 1.1 million smacks to compete with it. Just like in the early days of newspapering when starting a new one was actually something someone could reasonably try to do. If the model works, it’s nothing but a boost for the ol’ marketplace of ideas.

  4. John Reinan says:

    I wish MinnPost the best. I wonder how difficult it will be for them to build significant traffic — the early arrivals in the Web world consistently have done the best, and they may be too late to the party.

    OTOH, their cost structure is low, so maybe that will allow them to be self-supporting without massive eyeballs.

    Their low costs are another issue entirely, however — we are rapidly approaching a point where it’s getting tough for a journalist to earn a middle-class salary.

    It’s all very well to pay Sharon Schmickle, Linda Mack and other ex-Stribbers a few hundred bucks for a story a week. Many of the Minn Posters left the Strib after 20+ years and have a union pension plan. They’re not going to be eating cat food in any event and they can afford to take what amounts to a part-time, pre-retirement job.

    But what happens when those veterans hang it up? Maybe by then the site will be a big success and will be able to pay its younger journalists wages comparable to what they might get at a newspaper. But I fear that journalism is heading toward low-paying piecework.

    We’ll see just how interested the serious readers in the Twin Cities really are. I’ve been amazed in the last year or two at how many educated, middle-aged professionals have blithely mentioned to me that they don’t read the Star Tribune any more, and don’t miss it all that much. Often this is accompanied by a proud declaration that they read the Sunday New York Times.

    “But isn’t it a question of democracy?” I said to one such person just recently. Don’t we need to be informed of what’s happening with our government and in our communities?”

    Her reply: “Oh, if something big happens, I’m sure I’ll hear about it.” This was from a woman with a Ph.D. in psychology.

    Excuse me, now — I have to go wash Pierach’s truck.

  5. Hornseth says:

    Great comment, John. Your point about veterans hanging it up is one of the things that intrigues me about MinnPost and it’s going to be something to watch.

    But to your point about staying informed about government and communities: Are you suggesting that widespread citizen readership of the Star Tribune is the only way to accomplish that? Or just the best way?

    For me, it’s ONE way, but it sits within a mix of lots of others, including local online forums and my favorite local-level democracy enabler for my neighborhood, the Highland Villager.

    I’m not sure I’d equate someone’s discontinuation of their major-metro daily with an abdication of interest in civic matters. 20 years ago and earlier, sure, but local coverage in the dailies was a deeper, different animal then and a lot of today’s other outlets weren’t around.

  6. John Reinan says:

    I would argue that it doesn’t mayter if they read the Strib, but that it matters very much if the Strib is healthy and viable.

    Why? Because at this point in the development of the Web and the blogosphere, newspapers are the carcass that every other creature feeds off.

    I read a dozen or more blogs every day. And there are a few that do original reporting. But the vast majority digest what’s reported in the mainstream media. They may have interesting, insightful, even brilliant observations to offer. But they’re basing all those insights on what the old-fashioned newspaper reporters dug up and put out.

    Ten years from now, there may be many viable online news organizations that do original reporting. But at this point, newspapers provide all the raw material. And if people don’t read the paper, and advertisers don’t think it’s the best way to reach consumers, then that original reporting goes away.

    In the future, there may be a replacement for it. But right now, there isn’t.

  7. Hornseth says:

    Thanks, John. Agreed on all counts. The “raw material” question is the central one and it comes up from time to time here in different contexts.

    You’re right — it’s one thing to sit around musing about stuff, it’s another to expend the shoe leather, sweat and salaries to produce the original stuff upon which others may muse. Indeed, a good portion of this blog consists of reactions to something that someone had to cover, write up and file. Maybe we won’t know what we’ve got ’til it’s gone.

  8. John Reinan says:

    It’s also going to be a lot harder for PR people in an age of atomized media. I’m sure you’re all seeing it already.

    In the good old days, you knew that if you got a story in the Strib or a piece on KARE you were doing your job.

    Now you have to figure out which of 70 million blogs really matters, how you can reach people in non-traditional ways, how you can get a viral e-mail rolling.

    It’s stimulating and it’s a good prod for us all to re-think our well-trodden paths. But it’s a hell of a challenge, particularly for those who grew up in a traditional-media universe (as basically everyone under age 20did), and I don’t think too many people have really, truly figured it out yet.

    I’m by far the old man at this agency, at age 49. Yet even my colleagues in their late 20s and early 30s are most comfortable with the old ways and not always sure how to approach the new media world. It’s changed that quickly.

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