At MinnPost earlier this week, Joel Kramer and his staff were plotting the online news service's formal launch today, hoping - no, expecting - to scoop the rest of the Twin Cities media on at least a few stories.
MinnPost has just 10 salaried employees and operates out of a renovated warehouse in northeast Minneapolis. The news site will rely on nearly 50 freelancers - including many former Pioneer Press and Star Tribune reporters - to produce most of its stories. Many are in or near retirement and can afford to work for much less than they earned at the daily papers.
Kramer, a millionaire and once publisher of the biggest paper in the state, is not above doing a lot of the grunt work that goes with launching this new venture. He even takes responsibility for checking out carrier routes for the print version of MinnPost.
"How about the carriers?" he asks one of the people helping plan distribution of the printed edition. "And the routes worked? They were able to deliver them?"
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Kramer says MinnPost's mission is to feed high-quality stories to Minnesota news junkies. He says that's an audience that has become disenchanted with the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press following ownership changes and staff cuts
The papers are losing millions of dollars in ad money to Internet rivals. And as their profits have eroded, the papers have responded by slashing staff.
Kramer says both papers are clearly not what they once were journalistically.
"Between the two papers, I think they've cut at least 120 or 130 news jobs in the past year,'' he says. "And I think no matter how hard they try to do the best they can, that's a big reduction and it shows up all over the place in news, in business, in arts."
By no means does Kramer expect to replace either paper as a primary news source for Twin Cities readers. But Kramer expects to win a solid core of readers by serving up a steady diet of in-depth enterprise, investigatory and analytical stories, marked by compelling storytelling. "My goal was to create a sustainable model for high-quality journalism," Kramer says. "There is a reduction going on because of the cutbacks. And there is a fear the reductions are going to get worse because of the financial situation of the newspapers."
Kramer's effort is drawing national attention from journalists and media wonks wondering if Kramer may be concocting a formula that could be duplicated in other markets.
"I think it'll be a fascinating experiment," says Ken Doctor, an online media consultant and former managing editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Doctor says what distinguishes MinnPost is the skills and experience of its journalists.
"There's no experiment around the country that has the pedigree of MinnPost," he says. "Joel Kramer as the head of it. And then all of the very recognizable bylines that are coming to the site."
MinnPost's commitment to an old-school news philosophy and respect for the intelligence of readers is being closely watched. Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute says MinnPost's experience could go a long way toward proving if that approach is viable. "It'll be a way of sort testing the waters for the reader interest in serious news online," he says.
MinnPost is also set up as a nonprofit. That's getting attention, too.
Kramer hopes people will eventually see MinnPost as a community asset worthy of support, much like public TV and radio. Long-term, MinnPost hopes to get about two-thirds of its revenue from sponsors and advertisers and one-third from membership donations.
Kramer's baby is starting out with about $1.2 million in funding. Most of the money comes from gifts from four founding families, including Kramer's, and a grant from the Knight Foundation in Miami. The foundation saw MinnPost as an opportunity to perhaps establish a model for sustaining enterprise and investigative reporting.
Eric Newton of the Knight foundation says MinnPost is one of some 100 online journalism experiments getting money from the foundation.
"We don't know what kind of economic model or what sort of digital media is going to emerge to play the role in the community that the daily newspaper played for most of the 20th century," he says. "Since we don't know, we are investing in a variety of new models."
Kramer is confident he's on to a winning formula.
He expects he'll have the money to try his experiment for at least two or three years.
And freed of the traditional publishing pressures to fund everything from printing presses and paper, not to mention profits, Kramer can concentrate his cash on the kind of journalism that he believes will make MinnPost an eventual success.