Consider today's modest press release announcing MinnPost a broadside. Broadside, as in a shot across the bow. Broadside, as in a rough, early shout of journalism. Some broadsides fall harmlessly, leaving barely a nick. Others start revolutions.
It would be foolhardy to say MinnPost will be revolutionary, but I'm betting that Joel Kramer's broadside -- today's announcement of a new Twin Cities-based news website to be launched before year's end -- will make an impression. It already stands out from the current crowd of sprouts emerging from the scorched earth of traditional journalism. What makes it stand out:
- The funding names behind the new non-profit: Cowles, Cox, Lynch and Kramer. Those are old journalism (or in the case of Lynch, advertising) names. Old journalism money funding new journalism, in part out of hope, in part out of desperation. And of course, this hallowed name: Knight. As in Knight Foundation.
- The journalist names behind the company: "People want to experiment with us," Kramer told me today. From Doug Grow and John Camp and Dave Beal to Kay Harvey, Steve Scott and Greg Patterson, the couple of dozen names who have volunteered to commit journalism on the site is an impressive one. These are not names that echo nationally. But regionally, these are names that readers have grown comfortable with over decades.
- The money put up to give the new site some breathing room: It's $1.1 million to start, with $850,000 coming from the four families and $250,000 coming from Knight. That money is intended to provide sustenance over a couple-of-year period, as the site finds advertising revenue legs. With those names, though, you know more money would be available if need be. And the site offers an answer to the question of readers who notice the decline of journalism around them, but don't know what they can do about it. MinnPost offers them the chance to join the non-profit, from Cub Reporter to Media Mogul status. Three Media Moguls have already signed up at the $5000 a year level.
- The guy who is CEO and Editor: Joel Kramer was my competition when I worked at the Pioneer Press (1986-1997), and it was a great journalism war. The way journalism ought to be committed, with competing resources and an eye to doing a better job for the readers than the other guy. Kramer ( a young 59) is old journalism, and that's a departure from some of the sproutlings we've seen. He's been both the top editor and the publisher of the Star Tribune. He's got the gravitas and the credibility with readers and advertisers -- if MinnPost can quickly and smartly leverage those.
- The site is news-based, not opinion-based: Though MinnPost tortures the Internet lingua by maintaining its writers are doing posts, not blogs, its point is a straightforward one. It draws on journalistic tradition -- breaking and reporting news -- rather than on opining about the news. The blogosphere has liberated opinion from the decaying confines of editorial pages, but too often it's just an endlessly peelable onion of opinion, with no core of news itself. MinnPost declares itself a news site, breaking and reporting news -- to start -- days a week with at least two stories worthy of a metro Page One and a half-dozen news-based posts.
- The Twin Cities environment: Minneapolis, Saint Paul and the metro area generally are receptive places for journalism. I recall stats indicating that of all metro areas, Sunday readership was highest in the Twin Cities (and not just in the five-month-long winters). It's a literate place, a goo-goo good government place and one in which public policy is still part of public life. Though it can learn from models as diverse as New Haven's Independent, San Diego's Voice of San Diego and the Pacific Northwest's Crosscut, its strength will be building inside out with deep knowledge of its local readers and local businesses.
So all that helps make this a great test of what emerges in the next wave of journalism.
There's one other factor that makes it compellingly watch-able. While metro papers are reeling across the country, the carnage has been particularly visible in the Twin Cities. By Kramer's count, something more than 100 journalists have departed the Star Tribune, the Pioneer Press and alternative weekly City Pages in last year or so. The Par Ridder Fiasco, in which the Pioneer Press publisher alighted to the Star Tribune, has resulted in a messy lawsuit. That combined with staff and newshole cuts have sent a clear message to readers of both daily papers that neither is what they used to be.
So those papers -- like many others across the country -- have unknowingly opened a market for competition. Certainly, most don't think of it that way, and can easily dismiss a million-dollar start-up. But look at it this way. What does it take to do journalism going forward?
First and easiest answer: It takes journalists.
We used to white board the core competencies of newspaper companies back in the '90s. Sure, they had printing presses, trucks, finance departments, ad sales people and journalists. But we figured out that the competencies hardest to duplicate were two: sales relationships with key advertisers and ability to produce reams of content every day. The others could be matched, or bypassed by the emerging Internet competition.
Flash forward, and we see that the ad relationships are worth less than we thought. Complex ad matching systems owned by others -- chiefly Google and Yahoo -- are rapidly replacing those relationships.
It is the ability to produce readable content quickly and in sufficient volume that's key.
And against this backdrop, the stage is set in the Twin Cities.
Two huge newspapers, with more than 400 journalists among them, but two companies in emotional despair and financial turndown (see the AJR story on the Strib, here). One modest emerging company, paying the equivalent of 4 people full-time and about $600 for a "front-page" story and a couple hundred dollars week for a couple of fact-based posts. But one company has some mojo -- and no legacy costs to consume its attention.
What may seem like two Goliaths and a David may signal a reversal of fortune in modern news publishing.
That reversal won't come easy. All publishers like the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press have done is create a small opening. Yes, they are reeling, but they are still taking in hundreds of million of dollars in ad and circulation revenue and trying to transform themselves for the new Internet age. Still any siphoning off of a high-demographics news audience (one Internet advertisers covet) is bad news for the already-declining online growth rates of the dailies.
To be successful, Joel Kramer's modest experiment has got to move and grow quickly. While Kramer gets kudos from many for seeing through this vision to start-up, even his admirers will tell you he can study things to a fault. Study's good, but on the web, instinct and testing are better. In that testing, I'd suggest that if the site is to gain momentum, it must:
- Get beyond text: Joel Kramer says the site is open to audio and video, but that's clearly seen as an add-on. In the Internet age, it should be there at launch. The tools are there, and there are great young storytellers who know how to use them. Partnerships with Minnesota Public Radio and commercial broadcasters are a natural.
- Create a strong commercial presence early on: The angel funding is great to provide some time, but the site must knit together active commerce relationships quickly. Readers expect them -- just as they do in newspapers. The good news is that these can be partnered. From classifieds (craigslist, eBay's Kijiji, Monster+++) to keyword, behavioral targeting and graphical ad networks, there's a host of connections to make. And on the Internet, no one knows you are the little guy when you have lots of big brothers and sisters on your site.
- Re-connect the community to the news: I've had good conversations with Joel about user-gen. I think his "news-first" vision is right -- if he then connects useful commenting, ranking and reader posting to the site. Yes, he doesn't need to let the tail wag the news dog, but the tail is important. Reader interaction is a wonderful thing, done well.
- Make the site a planning must-visit: Much of what papers do is tell you what's happening. Both the Strib and Pioneer Press have struggled with event -- think entertainment and community calendar -- products. If you are MinnPost, why not leapfrog them by partnering with Yelp, which already has a robust Twin Cities presence?