Creative minds can help newspapers evolve and survive

The Star Tribune
A file photo of the Star Tribune newspaper of Minneapolis.
MPR file photo

The way newspapers have gathered an audience and sold it to advertisers -- which is how the newspaper business works -- is kaput; and so are many newspapers.

Newspapers are scrambling to find a new way to survive -- but they're thinking in old patterns. They're now trying to figure out how to get people to pay for what the papers have been giving away free on the Internet -- journalism.

But it was never just the journalism that got people to buy papers -- and as a former reporter and current journalism teacher, I hate to admit this.

Sure, lots of readers wanted to know what was happening in their community and state. But lots of people also bought the paper for the comics, the TV listings, the crossword and Sudoku, the car ads and the grocery coupons -- and the sports, which is really entertainment, not news.

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Now, if a newspaper like the Star Tribune is going to survive -- in some form, not necessarily on newsprint -- the people who are trying to save the "paper" have to get over the narrow focus on journalism. They need to come up with new ways to gather and serve a variety of consumers of information.

That's where creativity has to come in, and that's where I believe Minnesota can develop a model that can save an evolved form of the Star Tribune.

I've been listening to a lot of people with good ideas -- and not just newspaper people. Civic groups, digital marketers, academics, entrepreneurs, all have some very cool approaches:

Pull together an audience by doing a local version of Craig's list -- access to local services and professionals.

Pull together a music community by not just covering local music, but selling it song by song through the Internet, and giving people the opportunity to talk with and about local bands and hear them live online.

Pull together an audience by capturing all the speeches and presentations that go on in Minnesota every week -- present them in digest form, and also let people listen to them whole.

Cover local news by connecting professional journalists with the local people who are already running clearinghouses online for community information.

These are baby-step ideas. Put together enough creative thinkers, and we'll gather a number of small audiences that will add up to a large enough audience to support a major news organization. Some of these audiences will be attractive to advertisers. Some of these audiences will pay fees -- for music, for access to good service people.

And yes, each of these small audiences will also be exposed to the journalism that the whole enterprise supports -- and maybe they'll pay for it by the story, or pay a subscription, or get the journalism free if they pay for other sorts of information the "newspaper" offers.

The solution is to become a clearinghouse for all kinds of useful and entertaining information -- including strong journalism.

Don't get me wrong -- our community needs the kind of strong journalism the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press have provided. To keep us informed and keep democracy working, we need lots of professional journalists who know how to dig and investigate and question and analyze and tell us our stories.

We need those dogged reporters who sit through the meetings, and sift through the documents, and show us what government and courts and cops and educators and businesspeople are doing well that should be celebrated, or doing poorly that should be improved.

MPR does a good job. The TV stations do some journalism. A few radio stations have a reporter or two. But nobody has more feet on the ground and more eyes on Minnesota than the Star Tribune.

Yes, there are bloggers working too, and some do a good job of presenting smart thinking. But few bloggers do the tedious work of uncovering the news. It takes a lot of motivated, trained, pesky professional journalists to keep us informed about our community.

I have this perhaps naive idea that we can pull together a group of thinkers who value journalism but don't think like traditional newspaper people, and they'll come up with a way to keep something like the Star Tribune viable.

There's a guy in the Warehouse District who runs a digital marketing company and knows how to make a computer screen talk, sing and dance. There's a creative spirit inside the Star Tribune daydreaming about how the paper can out-Craig's-List Craig's List.

There's an entrepreneur in Eden Prairie who thinks the newspaper's fleet of trucks could deliver groceries along with papers. There's a businesswoman who knows publishing and how to tailor services to customers, and she's dying to try a new business model on her morning newspaper.

There's a journalism prof at the U who's got some wild ideas about blending professional journalists with neighborhood watchdogs to shed light on their community.

I believe Minnesotans -- who have come up with new models for health care and farming and generating green energy and sticking things together -- can come up with an innovative way to run a major news organization in a constantly evolving information world.

Maybe it's community ownership. A nonprofit. A local investor group partnering with an entrepreneur and a young journalist to create a new approach nobody's thought of. Maybe there will be print versions of the paper, maybe not -- maybe smaller, more tailored, less frequent print versions. Maybe there will be only one "newspaper" -- not two -- in the Twin Cities.

Maybe, the brave experiment some top journalists have been conducting for more than a year online, will be part of the mix, along with some existing broadcast news and bloggers. Maybe the creative thinkers at MPR will lead the way.

Perhaps we'll be paying for reading and watching our news differently, and perhaps the reporters will be paid for gathering and presenting it differently. Everything is open for being re-invented, rethought, reborn. That's what a crisis calls forth.

This is a national and international problem. Advertising has migrated online, readers are increasingly online. All over the country and the world, experts and observers are talking about the death of newspapers. Death? Not so fast. Rebirth in a new form? Yes.

In Michigan, the Ann Arbor News just stopped printing a paper version and went to an online news operation. CEO and president Matt Kraner said the online news operation wants to be "the hub of connection" for the community.

If you start thinking about an evolved "newspaper" as a hub of connection, providing information and services that connect people to their community using old and new technologies, you open up a new way of looking at a news organization that can support the professional journalism we all need.

Let's create a new "newspaper" in the Twin Cities. All we need are ideas, hope, some entrepreneurs willing to take new risks, and a dedication to keeping our community informed and engaged.


Bruce Benidt is a former journalist who now works as a communications consultant and teaches journalism at the University of St. Thomas.