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June 1, 2010, noon

MinnPost’s Joel Kramer on the pull between big audience and big impact

The New York Times’ David Carr took a look recently at the nonprofit news site MinnPost, which he called “one of the more promising experiments in the next version of regional news.” Here’s an excerpt:

“We want MinnPost to be able to stand on its own by 2012, and I have a very aggressive definition of sustainability, which is that we have enough revenues to survive without foundation money,” [MinnPost founder Joel Kramer] said. “A lot of the foundation money for journalism goes to large, investigative-oriented sites, and I don’t know that there will always be money for sites like ours where the emphasis is on regional coverage.”

That means that some ambitions have been deferred. The staff is small, some of the work comes from freelancers and, journalistically, MinnPost is a careful, really smart site, but it is built on high-quality analysis rather than deep reporting and investigative work. Mr. Kramer was hard-pressed to come up with a single large story the site broke that changed the course of events.

Kramer’s right that much of the attention nonprofit news outlets receive focuses on the big investigative operations, most prominently ProPublica. And if your goal is to replace what newspapers no longer do as much of, investigative reporting is an obvious focus for nonprofits and foundations. ProPublica’s Paul Steiger has said he measures his success by “impact” — a.k.a. stories that “changed the course of events” — more than audience.

I was interested in that tension between impact and audience, so I gave Kramer a call. “Having a loyal audience is central to our success and our survival, and, therefore, when we decide how to allocate resources, we have to focus on which things will build this loyal audience,” he told me. Here’s an edited version of the conversation I had with Kramer about the evolution of MinnPost.

I’m remembering when MinnPost launched back in 2007, that it was launched in response to newsroom cuts in Minnesota. Do you still see your site as serving that fill-in function of trying to produce additional news in the state? Or has your vision for what the site is doing changed?

The goal was never fill in. I would say that the goal is to serve a community of people who care about Minnesota, people who are engaged in creating the state’s future, opinion leaders, office holders, activists. It’s an important segment of the people who read newspapers. It’s not everybody. Our goal has always been to serve that audience with news, information, analysis, commentary, forum for discussion, for people who are actively involved in the community of the state. That has always been our goal. It’s never been to replace what mainstream media do, but to supplement it, aimed at the people who read the most and act on what they read the most. And that has not changed.

David Carr referred to journalism that “changed the course of events.” Do you see that sort of journalism as your responsibility as a news outlet?

I don’t think that is our principal responsibility. We take our principal responsibility as informing this community with what they want and need to know to play the roles they want to play in creating our community and creating its future.

We do ask our audience what it is that makes them read MinnPost and why they like it and why they keep coming back to it, and the most important thing is reporting and analysis from writers they trust and being on top of stories they really care about and explaining what the stories really mean. In other words, getting beyond the superficial reporting. For example, reporting on the motives of lawmakers — assessing the quality of their proposals and of their actions. Comparing what happens here to comparable situations elsewhere. Predicting what might happen next, based on the authority of the reporter. And introducing these readers to new ideas they didn’t know about, trends and people they should know about. These are the main things, the most important things we do.

Does the site look the way you would have predicted two years ago? Has it evolved based on feedback from your readers?

It has evolved. We learned both from examining the data about traffic and talking to readers that frequency of appearance on the site by trusted writers is a critical element of success. I’m not going to say that is necessarily true for everybody — I’m just talking to our experience. But for us, we learned that. Whereas before I started I might have thought that writers would take a longer period of time on a story and then write less frequently and maybe at greater length, that does not produce the kind of loyal following that we were after. That critical element is appearing frequently on the site, in a way that it is clear who the writer is.

I went back and looked at the clips from when MinnPost launched and at the time it seemed that the site was going to be more like a traditional newspaper translated online than what it is now, which I think is more like a blog that has taken reporting elements. I think if you were to read your description from when it launched and looked now, I think it looks different.

When we launched, some skeptics said that, you know, ‘Joel and his people don’t really understand new media, they don’t really understand the internet.’ And I would plead guilty to that. At the time I even said, I’m a journalist, I come out of a print background, although we did have a couple of editors with more of an Internet background than I did, and I agreed that I was trying to make something happen here that related to a value system I had built in previous media. But I said we were going to learn. So there’s no question: I’d be shocked if our site looked today like I was talking about 2.5 years ago. That’s a long time ago in the Internet world. So, yes, it’s clearly different — no question about it.

But the differences, in my opinion — and this is important to me — they’re not differences in what constitutes quality. Because you can have quality in short term, [quality] that’s in long form. You can have quality in pieces that took six months and pieces that were turned in four hours. And from day one, we were committed to the idea that our writers did not have to be bound by some false definition of objectivity, in which the writer pretends that he or she has no views about anything. So those thing were there from the beginning. But there has been a significant evolution about what works in the medium and what works to build and audience.

What about other models, like nonprofits that focus more on investigative reporting?

As is mentioned in the Times piece, we have the goal of becoming sustainable without foundations. It’s a very ambitious goal and I’m hoping we’ll achieve it by 2012, our fifth year. It’s certainly not a goal shared by all nonprofit journalism enterprises. A key to succeeding at that goal is you have to have an audience that you can figure out a variety of ways to monetize. That could be advertising, it could be sponsorships, it could be donations. It could be the support of people of wealthy means in the community who love the idea and the audience that’s been created. Having a loyal audience is central to our success and our survival, and, therefore, when we decide how to allocate resources, we have to focus on which things will build this loyal audience. And it’s that that we’re talking about changes over time because you get tremendous feedback, traffic feedback, anecdotal feedback, and you learn what it is that is attracting your audience to you.

I think the differing goals of these nonprofits are interesting; some nonprofits are just not particularly concerned with the traffic levels on their website. What do you think of the differences?

There are all kinds of different missions, and I think it’s a great time in the ecosystem where all different things are being tried. If you’re not concerned with traffic, you need to have a set of supporters who are going to be there, not because of your audience, but because of some other factor — such as your impact through investigations on the quality of government in your community, or something like that. So there are ways you could sustain with that without a focus on a regular audience. Another thing you can do, and some of my peer sites are doing this, is give your content away to other places. Now if you do that, then visits to your site are not important, and then you might be able to build a model based on syndication where publishing less frequently but giving it to prominent places could work for you. But our model is based on building a loyal audience to our site.

POSTED     June 1, 2010, noon
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