The first lead story on MinnPost.com, a new daily news site, is a 1,400-word report on the Minnesota Democratic Party's finances.
It's not the kind of flashy tidbit guaranteed to goose online traffic. But flash isn't the idea at MinnPost, a nonprofit venture staffed mostly by recent casualties of newspaper downsizing.
MinnPost, led by a former Minneapolis Star Tribune publisher and editor, Joel Kramer, is aiming at the small audience he and his staff believe is thirsting for substantive local journalism. The site's staffers say that kind of work is on the decline, and they blame it on cost-cutting as the industry faces dwindling circulation and ad revenue.
"The important thing that's happening there is that people are stepping up to create new journalism ventures in a time when traditional news organizations are stepping back" as they trim staff, said Dan Gillmor, a former technology columnist and founder of the Center for Citizen Media, a joint venture of the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism and Harvard Law School.
Kramer said there's no exact model for MinnPost. The site's aspirations call to mind Salon, an online general-interest magazine started by newspaper journalists who had left the San Francisco Examiner in 1995. But Salon, after a bright start, has steadily pruned back its ambitions after a series of financial setbacks and now features less work by its own staff.
Newspapers have struggled mightily to adapt to new technology, and offering readers more words on serious subjects might not seem like a winning formula. But Kramer thinks there's enough of an audience among people who believe that serious journalism is a civic good and an end in itself.
Targeting 'news intense' readers
MinnPost's creators say they are not trying to replace traditional newspapers but to cultivate about 15 to 20 percent of the population: "news intense" readers who seek multiple sources of news every day and are willing to make yearly donations to the site, as people do for public radio.
Other regional news sites have popped up, including Voices on San Diego, Missoula, Mont.-based New West and Crosscut Seattle. But Kramer said none of those sites boasts a similar number of experienced writers, or pitches its work so explicitly to a relatively narrow group of highbrow news consumers. Kramer said his target audience in the Twin Cities is regular readers of the New York Times or Wall Street Journal.
"There's so much out there about newspapers losing money, and will they survive, and in what form," said Kay Harvey, a MinnPost writer who accepted a buyout last year after 26 years with the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "I think with this Web site, we're trying to answer that question."
MinnPost will be a nonprofit and offer all its content free. It will rely on advertising for revenue after an initial infusion of about $1 million from the Knight Foundation, members of prominent newspaper families the Cowles and the Coxes, and Kramer's own pocket. Kramer said the site has signed up about 340 individual donors.
A paper version of MinnPost is being distributed free in select areas of Minneapolis and St. Paul, as Kramer said focus groups showed some older readers were more likely to read it on a printed page.
Kramer hopes the site will be self-sufficient by its fourth year, once it has secured advertisers, corporate sponsors and a roster of regular donors.
A lab for 'new ideas'
"We're testing new ideas, and if those ideas work, people are going to borrow them," said Kramer, who left the newspaper business about a decade ago when the Star Tribune's family ownership sold to The McClatchy Co. "The technology has so much variety and potential and is so dynamic, and there isn't going to be one model — but we could be contributing to one new model."
Kramer — who spent the decade since he quit the Star Tribune founding and running the Center for Growth and Justice, a think that that advocates economic justice and progressive tax rates — got the idea for MinnPost last spring, after a particularly brutal year for Twin Cities media. New owners had taken over both the Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press and quickly moved to downsize the number of journalists at both.
After several rounds of buyouts, close to 100 local journalists were looking for new jobs, joining many hundreds of others across the country who have been laid off in just the past three years.
The buyouts "really shook up a lot of people," Kramer said. Not just those who felt little choice but to leave their jobs, he said, but community leaders and readers who worried that comprehensive coverage of local and state politics, serious writing about the arts and other traditional roles of the local newspapers would surely suffer.
Kramer said the Twin Cities have a tradition of civic engagement and a highly educated population that will be attracted to writing under bylines recognizable to many Minnesotans. Those journalists saw an opportunity, too.
"Up until a few years ago, I never thought online would be the way that people would get their news," said Doug Grow, a 29-year Star Tribune veteran who will write about government and politics for MinnPost.
Grow penned the exploration of the debt plaguing the state Democratic Party and its consequences for the next election that led the first edition of MinnPost. It's the kind of political reporting and analysis that used to be found frequently in the two local dailies.
Emphasis on public affairs coverage
MinnPost won't feature "a lot of emphasis on celebrities and entertainment, or those kinds of light stories," said Managing Editor Roger Buoen, a former deputy managing editor at the Star Tribune who retired 18 months ago.
"The biggest emphasis of this site is to really cover public affairs seriously," Buoen said.
Other possible areas of emphasis include health, education and science reporting and arts criticism. There'll be few stories about crime, and sports coverage won't be of games or trades but the business or psychology of sports.
For now, the upstart doesn't appear to be concerning its more traditional competitors.
"I hope it succeeds," said Pioneer Press editor Thom Fladung. "Anything that adds to the number of people interested in local news, that's a good thing."
MinnPost's original journalists consist of five editors. The writers are working freelance or on contracts bolstered by their severance packages. They earn about $600 for a longer story and $100 for short posts, though Bouen said the pay could rise.
"It's difficult to predict this world six months or a year in advance," Kramer said. "What I can say is we're in this to succeed and for the long term, and my vision is that we'll be here 10 years from now and we'll still be doing great journalism."