Old Media Meets New In Minnesota

MinnPost.com, a million-dollar baby announced Aug. 27 and starting daily later this fall, marks a significant break with the norm for local online sites. It will not be citizen journalism, heavy with multimedia bells and whistles, founder Joel Kramer said in a phone interview, but rather “a once-a-day ordering of the world in the old-fashioned way by a group of professional writers and editors.”

If this sounds like what metro newspapers did more of in better times, that is no coincidence. Kramer was editor of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis from 1983 to 1992 and publisher from 1992 to 1998. He said he was pried away from comfortable early retirement by a wave of calls this spring from journalists and civilians alike, distressed at the deep cuts of staff and space at the two Twin Cities dailies.

With his own money, support from his former bosses at Cowles Media and a retired ad agency executive, together with a grant from the Knight Foundation, Kramer had his $1.1 million start-up kitty. He quickly assembled two full-time and three part-time editors and 25 contract “contributors” from the buyout and layoff ranks of the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press of St. Paul, Minn. He figures that is a critical mass to produce “an important secondary source of quality news” for the Twin Cities.

Full disclosure: Kramer and I go back to college days when we alternated reading page proofs printed off lead type at 2 in the morning in the basement of the Harvard Crimson. We and our wives have remained friends in the nearly 40 years since.

So I am not unbiased in saying Kramer’s venture bears watching. But I’ll argue that it has some characteristically thought-through wrinkles of note on both the editorial and business side.

The editorial part begins with decisions about what to include and exclude. “The Star Tribune has more than a million readers on Sunday,” Kramer said. “That is a huge range of interests to try to satisfy. We will be aiming for 15 to 20 percent of that number.”

The daily report will be issued late morning. It will have little or no crime news except to address law enforcement or criminal justice developments. No celebrity fluff, not much sports. The aim, Kramer said, is to offer a Minnesota mix resembling The New York Times front page — politics, government, science, health, culture — and the occasional other topic.

At first, he had intended to be all local, but conversations with target readers convinced him otherwise — that seemed too provincial. So there will be edited roundups of national and international news with links to off-the-beaten track sources.

Reporting-based blogging

MinnPost.com does not aspire to be a 24/7 operation with breaking news updates. It will offer “posts” during the course of the day (available by RSS feed) — blog-like short items and online conversation starters. But Kramer said he doesn’t think his readers want aggregation blogs or “pontification in pajamas”; the rule will be that posts are based on reporting.

Kramer conceded that this design will earn him criticism from many digital enthusiasts as a stick-in-the-mud traditionalist. “I’ve heard some of that already.” He is open to audio, video and crowd-sourcing as tools but intends to go light on multi-media experimentation as an end in itself.

Indeed, it is probably fair to say that MinnPost.com will be a word-driven enterprise and that the attraction of online is principally as a business strategy. (An 8 1/2″ x 11″ print version will be distributed in downtown Minneapolis during lunch hour).

Since his days as newspaper publisher, Kramer has had an interest in the possibilities of a non-profit alternative without the huge fixed production infrastructure of a print paper. Knock out profits (and MinnPost.com has been incorporated as a not-for-profit) and you free up 25 percent, as used to be standard in the industry, or 15 percent now. An online operation, of course, does without paper, presses, pressmen, delivery trucks and the better part of circulation/distribution staff.

Kramer figures that if the enterprise reaches “sustainability” as planned in its third or fourth year, it will still be directing around 60 percent of spending to editorial. By contrast, the Inland Press Association’s Cost-and-Revenue study says the typical metro newspaper devotes 10 to 12 percent of revenue or 14 to 15 percent of expenses to the newsroom.

Nobody Getting Rich

That is not to say MinnPost.com will be a bonanza for its editorial contributors. They will receive $100 for a publishable post and $500 to $600 for a front-page quality story. Most, Kramer expects, will have other paying gigs on the side.

MinnPost.com has some breathing room financially. Kramer walked away with $8 million after McClatchy acquired the Star Tribune. John Cowles, who ran the parent Cowles Media company most of his adult life, and former President and CEO David Cox pitched in donations. So did colorful adman Lee Lynch, who once fired an agency employee in the Vietnam era for being too clean cut.

Knight brings credibility and $250,000 to the venture, and more foundation support may be in the wings.

Generating revenue looks like the stickiest part. MinnPost.com does not expect the traffic or some Midas-touch concept to generate a high volume of advertising. “That part is still a work in progress,” said Kramer, who is seeking to hire a business-side manager and an ad director. “We are hoping that there will be appeal in association with a quality venture and its audience,” he said, “but it is more likely to be promoting the image of companies rather than selling underwear.”

He is also pinning hope on the public radio/ public television model of corporate sponsorship and individual “memberships.”

Three Competitive Dimensions

I see three interesting competitive dimensions to what Kramer is trying. Minnesotans famously have a self image of progressive civic involvement. If there is a place to find a pool of good citizens who might contribute to back a quality news source, this is it. But the Twin Cities are already rich in media options — a very strong public radio presence, several alternative weeklies and a well-regard citizen journalism site, Twin Cities Daily Planet.

MinnPost.com isn’t taking on the bubbling citizen journalism movement but will effectively compete as an alternative model, zigging to professionalism when so many think they can organize the collective force of volunteered content into something significant. There is room enough for both, but success for Kramer’s venture might get the pendulum swinging back to news for people who care about news as the hyperlocal chatter and photo post sites continue to struggle economically.

Finally, I see MinnPost.com taking on the two dailies at a point of vulnerability of their own making. Kramer has shrewdly made no claims that MinnPost.com will replace the local newspapers, and on a big news event like the I-35 bridge collapse (covered very well by both papers, I am told), MinnPost.com’s modest heft will be evident.

But day in, day out, solid, timely pieces by well-known and experienced writers who were shown the door in downsizing may peel at the audience the newspapers value most. Those readers probably won’t cancel their newspaper subscriptions, but they may at least reallocate time and attention they used to give to the newspaper and its advertisers.

“There is probably no one right way to do online news,” Kramer said, “but it is good for people to try.”Fully understanding that metro newspapers must make cuts to remain even slightly profitable as ad revenues fall sharply, I see a lot of danger in the waves of staff reductions and more that may be coming. Putting readers on too meager a ration of news isn’t good business, and building back newsroom capacity assembled over decades won’t be easy.

Kramer is a smart, self-confident guy but with an appealing streak of modesty. He is not about to claim success before the first edition hits the screen. “There is probably no one right way to do online news,” he said, “but it is good for people to try.”

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