Early in 2007 the two newspapers in the Twin Cities made separate announcements that resulted in the buyouts of more than 100 journalists — whose jobs were not being replaced. It was the leading edge of the storm and it caused anxiety in the Twin Cities community. In government, the arts, the nonprofit community and even business, people who did not always like what reporters wrote about them nevertheless feared the consequences for the community of having far fewer reporters keeping tabs.
I had been out of the newspaper business since 1998 when the Cowles family sold the Star Tribune — where I was publisher — to McClatchy. But after consulting with many people in town, I saw the opportunity to experiment with a new model for sustaining high-quality regional public affairs journalism, online-only and nonprofit. My wife, Laurie, shared my enthusiasm, so we co-founded MinnPost, with about $1.1 million of donations from five Minnesota families (including ours) and the Knight Foundation.
MinnPost celebrated its third birthday on Nov. 8. We have more than 200,000 unique visitors a month, but a number that matters more, I think, is Quantcast data showing that we average more than 40,000 people who visit the site at least twice a month. More than 2,100 people have become paying members – donating to us as they would to public radio or public television. And this year, for the first time, we expect to show a modest surplus on expenses of about $1.2 million, with revenues coming mainly from members, sponsors, advertisers and foundations.
We have about a dozen regular professional reporters, working with four editors, to cover state and regional politics, media, Washington from a regional perspective, the arts, science, education, health, business, urban development and a bit of sports; we also offer a daily op-ed known as Community Voices, and we feature the work of one community blogger each day from our stable of about 50. We publish selected national and international stories from the Christian Science Monitor and Global Post.
MinnPost picks its spots, covering stories where we feel we can add to the community’s knowledge and understanding. Our readers are sophisticated and they relish the high quality of analysis our experienced reporters provide. Our journalists, who have the freedom to write with authority rather than “objectivity,” say they are doing some of the best work of their careers.
Thousands of readers comment on our stories, and the quality of the comments, in general, is quite high — thanks, in part, to our policy of requiring commenters to register with and use their real names and our pre-publication screening of all comments by a team of volunteer moderators.
We believe that the key to our success is the intensity of our audience’s engageme
nt. Readers who visit more often are more likely to donate. An engaged audience of civic-minded Minnesotans is attractive to many advertisers and sponsors, who will pay more than commodity-level advertising rates to connect with them. We seek new technological tools to engage audiences, but also take advantage of old-fashioned face-to-face contact.
The biggest challenge an online news enterprise faces is building sustainable revenue streams. Two national and four local foundations have generously supported MinnPost, but I believe there is simply not enough foundation money out there to foot most of the bills for the expensive work of professional journalists covering communities. Accordingly, our focus is on increasing our revenue from membership, events, sponsorship and advertising, and I’m happy to say we’ve been increasing in every one of those categories, every year.
Along the way, I have tried to help the Investigative News Network get off the ground, and I’ve spoken to countless people who were starting – or thinking of starting – enterprises like MinnPost in their towns. Most didn’t have the startup money to make a go of it. The St. Louis Beacon did, and I’m thrilled to see its progress.
Bringing in enough money is hard and not for the faint of heart. But at MinnPost, we never forget to have fun. It’s part of our culture and our brand. Our annual benefit, MinnRoast, attracted more than 700 people this April to a Gridiron-style show of skits and musical numbers making gentle fun of politicians and media people in Minnesota.
We won a national fund-raising contest sponsored by an online philanthropy engine, Razoo — for which we created a video explaining what we would NOT do with the prize money if we won.
Our current awareness-building effort (our first promotional spending since the time we launched) is a political campaign-style guerrilla marketing effort, built around a slogan that acknowledges the importance to our readers of one our competitors, Minnesota Public Radio: “I listen to MPR, but I read MinnPost.com.” As part of the campaign, we dolled up our 10-year-old Subaru Forester into a MinnPostmobile, and my wife and I now spend our spare time (hah!) figuring where we can park it so thousands of people will see it.
I’m confident that we are figuring out how to sustain MinnPost as a small journalism shop. David Carr, writing about MinnPost recently in the New York Times, said our finances resembled those of a successful taco stand. But there are many more stories to tell, many more talented journalists out there eager to help us tell them and many more serious Minnesota news consumers to reach. So our challenge for the next few years is to become, at least, a much bigger taco stand.
Joel Kramer is CEO and Editor, MinnPost.com.