In April 2007, as turmoil engulfed the Minneapolis newspaper scene, Joel Kramer got an idea. He would create a Web site that would appeal to "news-intense readers," the kind of people who didn't want to read celebrity updates or movie or concert reviews. It would be clean and simply designed, a venue for those interested in world and national news, with a focus on Minnesota.
"Seventy-five journalists had left [Minneapolis'] Star Tribune and 23 or so had left the [St. Paul] Pioneer Press," Kramer says. "That meant that about 100 journalists had been removed from their roles... I got a lot of calls from people asking, 'What's going to happen to journalism?'"
By July, Kramer, 59, had an answer to that question. The former editor and publisher of the Star Tribune, who left after the daily was acquired by McClatchy in 1998, was confident he would be able to secure the necessary start-up capital for the site he envisioned. Four months, several hundred donors and $250,000 of his own money later, MinnPost.com was born on November 8.
By week three, the fledgling site with the khaki-and-maroon banner was already exceeding the expectations of its founder and CEO. He had projected that the site would get 400,000 page views a month, and by the end of the third week it was clear the total would be closer to 480,000. "So we're 20 percent ahead, but these are still modest numbers compared to major newspaper Web sites," says Kramer, who has raised over $1 million for the venture. Kramer says he hopes donations and advertising revenue will enable the nonprofit site to break even within three or four years.
In addition to its Web presence, MinnPost.com also distributes 1,500 copies each weekday of a "newspaper," an eight-page stapled packet of news and commentary highlights from the site. These are given away at lunchtime in high-traffic areas like coffee shops, cafeterias and the University of Minnesota campus. Kramer is currently at work on Partners in Print, a project in which organizations and companies print out at least 10 copies of the MinnPost newspaper and put them in their waiting rooms for customers to read.
"We're getting people to read our print edition, and that extends our reach," Kramer says.
Despite its ambitions, MinnPost.com which promises readers "A Thoughtful Approach to News" does not aim to compete with 200-reporter news outlets. "We have high expectations and limited resources," Kramer says. The employee lineup at MinnPost.com includes six salaried editors, the unpaid Kramer and dozens of freelancers.
Kramer was adamant about launching the site this year so he could secure those freelancers. "We felt the longer we waited, the more likely they'd be to go off and do something else," Kramer says of the departing Star Tribune and Pioneer Press reporters.
Kramer's speed paid off. Among the site's contributors are former Star Tribune sportswriter Jay Weiner, who now writes sports-themed posts for the site, former Star Tribune metro columnist Doug Grow and former Pioneer Press and Tribune writer and editor Judy Arginteanu, whose MinnPost.com posts are largely arts-related (without actually being reviews).
Cub reporters should look elsewhere for part-time writing employment, as Kramer looks only for writers "with a lot of experience and talent." And there is no plan to change the current setup, in which the company shells out $10,000 a week to freelancers. "If we hired staff writers, we wouldn't have the range of talent and sources that we get," Kramer says.
Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, likes the limited-overhead model the site embraces. MinnPost.com is an "online product that will escape all the costs of a traditional paper. I think the timing's pretty good, plus the turmoil of the two print papers in the Twin Cities seems to offer an opening," Edmonds says, alluding to the two papers' ownership changes, staff reductions and the legal battle over the services of Par Ridder, now the former publisher of both papers (see "Star Tribulations,"August/ September).
Edmonds, who was in the Harvard class of 1969 with Kramer and worked with him at the Harvard Crimson, says MinnPost.com reminds him of the online commentary and politics site Slate.com. "And Slate is a good model," Edmonds adds. MinnPost.com "does not strike me as highly interactive, but that's not what was promised. It's mostly a news and commentary page."
While Edmonds may see a similarity between MinnPost.com and Slate, former Star Tribune reporter Deborah Rybak isn't buying it. "They [at MinnPost.com] keep comparing themselves to Slate and Salon.com, but they're nowhere near Slate and Salon," she says. Those sites "have attitude. They cover the arts, they review the arts. MinnPost.com will not do arts. There is no fun on this site."
But there is a sort of modernist chic all over it. The homepage features Lichtenstein-style headshot drawings of the authors of the day's menu of posts. The ads are few, unobtrusive and Flash-free. MinnPost looks, quite simply, like an intellectual's Web site.
The top stories are displayed in the center of the page. One day in mid-December the offerings included "City Hall gadfly's First Amendment case reveals complexities of race in Minneapolis," "Would an independent Kosovo ignite the Balkans?" and the latest in a series in which immigrants explain what brought them to Minnesota.
Rybak, currently managing editor of Northwest Airlines' NWA WorldTraveler magazine, takes issue with the lack of bells and whistles on the site. "By virtue of the way the Internet is set up, you have to present [material] differently" if you want to succeed, she says. Those at MinnPost.com "weren't even addressing video at the time of launch, and they only have scant video now. I don't think they have any commitment to the Net when they're handing out stapled copies on the street."
To find that video, Web users must click on the Multimedia tab under the banner to be taken to a list of story-and-video combos. All are locally flavored, with typical fare including stories on an organization that aims to mark the numbered graves of late, unknown Minnesotans and on the Cold War-era, Minnesota-based singing and dancing troupe the Hormel Girls.
Rybak cited dailymole.com as a successful model of a different kind of news Web site. Started in September by Steve Perry, former editor of Minneapolis-based news and arts Web site citypages.com, dailymole.com used a motto to gently needle MinnPost.com. "A thinky approach to news! We dig it up for you," read the site's banner. Next to it, an angry-looking cartoon mole now lies across a cartoon globe.
"Steve...understands the Internet," Rybak says. "He's got all this really good political news that has podcasts. If you look at [the site], the colors are vibrant. I learn things from that Web site that I'm not going to get somewhere else. I wish Steve Perry were Joel Kramer's editor."
Dailymole.com isn't the only site that seems to be poking fun at Kramer's venture. MinnToast.com (motto: "A Thoughtfully Buttered Approach to News") launched the same day as MinnPost.com and features the same color scheme and font. The similarities, however, appear to end there. Many of the links to different parts of the site Arts, Politics don't contain anything, and those that do Health/Science, Business essentially contain nonsense.
But the parody site doesn't bother the editors at MinnPost.com. "It seemed funny and we put it up on our site the first day," says Roger Buoen, managing editor of MinnPost.com and a former deputy managing editor at the Star Tribune. "It was some clever writing."
As for MinnPost.com's next step, it's early days yet and Kramer isn't worrying. "It's very hard to predict the future in this digital era," he says. "There's no one model. We're just hoping ours is one of the successes."
Hartmann (email@example.com) wrote about the Center for Public Integrity in AJR's December/January issue.