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Can Joel Kramer’s Caring Spirit Save Quality Journalism?

Okay, I lived in Minnesota for 18 years and I am used to Minnesota generosity, the caring spirit, but what Joel Kramer, former editor and publisher of the Star Tribune, is doing is quite extraordinary. He is donating his time, talent and money in the hopes of ensuring that quality journalism thrives in Minnesota via MinnPost, an Internet based news site. But the question is: Will his traditional attitude about news spell success in this digital, interactive, everyone’s-a-publisher age? Here is my Leonard Witt IM Interview with him.

 Leonard Witt: Hi Joel. Thanks for agreeing to do this. I read somewhere you made up to $8 million when the Star Tribune was sold to McClatchy for $1.2 billion. You have a place in  Montana, you have grandkids, correct? You could be retired leading the good life…why this? Have you lost your mind?

Kramer: My wife says retirement doesn’t suit me. Yet.

I care deeply about the future of serious journalism. This spring, when the Star Tribune announced its second round of buyouts (bringing the total for the year to nearly 75 journalists), a lot of people asked me if there was something I could do about the shrinkage of commitment to serious news. I thought about, explored it, decided there was an opportunity here, and that I was the best person to pursue it.

Witt: Why are you the best person?

Kramer: Because with my background as both editor and publisher of the Star Tribune, and my connections in the community, I could attract the financial support and the journalists to do it, and consequently foundation support to help get it started. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I felt that this background gave me perhaps the best chance.

Witt: Sounds like you are the right person. One thing troubles me. When I think of the Internet, disruptive technology, I think young, vibrant, innovative, but when I look at the editorial names on your roster I see many long established Twin Cities names. What’s going to prevent the same old, same old traditional ways of doing journalism that is steadily losing market share?
Kramer: Our target audience is news-intensive Minnesotans.That’s perhaps 15 to 20% of the adults in the state. Some of what they want is the “same old,” i.e. hard-hitting, serious journalism that they feel they’re getting less of as the business model of newspapers deteriorates. They also want new things the internet makes possible, but only the new things that are high-quality. Our challenge will be to deliver both. To do that, we need a mix of experienced journalists AND people who understand the new medium’s potential and how people are using it. We intend to have both.

Witt: Sounds serious. Where will the fun reads be? What role will Britney Spears, Paris Hilton have in all of this? The garden, travel, celebrity mainstays? Or will serious news be enough?
Kramer: We’ll have fun. Even the New York Times found a way to get one Paris Hilton story on its front page — by focusing on the angle of celebrity justice in Hollywood. Seeing Paris Hilton on the front page of the New York Times is my idea of fun.

Witt: Speaking of the front page, when folks log on to MinnPost what will they see. Something like the New York Times or something very different? 
Kramer: The look will be more like a newsmagazine than a newspaper website. Fewer stories, better displayed. Quality over quantity. We want to create the feel that trusted editors are helping busy people focus on what matters.

Witt: I want to go back a second to your 15 to 20 % news intense adults. Tell us about those demographics. Are they geezers? Urban, rural? Rich, poor? Who are they?
Kramer: All ages, generally well educated, engaged in their communities.  They rely on multiple sources of news, and they care about quality and depth. Perhaps more likely to live in cities and first-ring suburbs, but news-intense people can live anywhere.

Witt: Yeah, they can live anywhere, but the Star Tribune and other large metros have said, “If you live outside the advertising hubs, sorry, no rural news for you.” How do you help the news starved folks in more remote areas?
Kramer: MinnPost is eager to serve people who care about the Twin Cities and Minnesota news, wherever they live. One of the charms of the Internet is that we don’t have to pay extra distribution costs to get another reader in Ely. On the other hand, we won’t provide news coverage that is of interest only in Ely.

Witt: You said you were interested in people “engaged in their communities.” Are you just going to serve them up the news and be done with them, as traditional newspapers do, or are you going to try to form communities, make them a part of the conversation, help them find solutions to common problems?
Kramer: We’d like to form communities and engage people in important conversations, but there is a challenge. In focus groups with people in our target audience, we hear a lot of respect for what professional journalists do, and a certain resistance to being forced to read the “opinions of amateurs.” We need to figure out how to deal with that dilemma. Our priority is quality, not maximum reader participation.

Witt: Interesting, that seems to be going against the news as a conversation mantra.
Kramer: There is no one definition of news. I think it’s a mistake to assume that because newspaper are struggling financially that people have stopped respecting what the good ones do on their good days.

Witt: Yeah, but how do you get the youth, the next generation of readers on board, if you follow the tried and true, but now faltering, path?

Kramer: Among young people, we find there is also a news-intense subset. It may be somewhat smaller than the news-intense subset of older people, but it’s still a significant target audience.  We intend to explore new forms of news, but always respecting the interests of this news-intensive group, whatever their age.

Witt: I would like to talk about the financial model, if we can. $1.1 million used to sound like a lot of money. It sounds like a lot less these days, how long can it sustain a viable operation?

Kramer: Most of the $1.1 million we’ve raised is intended to serve as a reserve, to cover early annual losses. Our annual operating plan will be funded by a combination of sponsorship/advertising revenue, donations from members (the public radio and public TV model) and foundation support. But we’ve told the foundations that by the fourth year — maybe even the third — we’ll be break-even just on the first two revenue categories, not relying on soft money from foundations for our basic operations.

Witt: I know lots of people are wondering how you can pull off a public TV model? How can you?
Kramer: We are confident that a lot of Minnesotans will be willing to pay to support quality journalism. We received three $5,000 annual membership commitments before we even announced our plans.

Witt: Ah, yes, the good old Minnesota community spirit. Speaking of which, I noticed you and your wife Laurie, Sage and John Cowles, Vicki and David Cox, and Terry Saario and Lee Lynch and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation all invested money in this nonprofit. Does that mean it’s just a donation, do you all get your money back, how does that work?
Kramer: All tax-deductible donations; we get nothing back. In addition, I am working without pay through at least the end of 2008, as is my wife, who is membership director.

Witt: A true Minnesotan — who happens to also lives in Montana. One final question, what effect will this have on the established papers: the Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, City Pages? Do you care?
Kramer: I want the newspapers to succeed, and I don’t think our little startup will have a major effect on their revenue streams.
  But at the same time, I’m watching their business model deteriorate, and I want to make sure the community doesn’t suffer because of their shrinking commitment of resources to quality journalism.

Witt: You mention Laurie as the membership director. Awhile back I mentioned my Representative Journalism idea, where groups of people can fund a reporter who covers issues important to them. Did that resonate at all? I wonder because I am getting ready to write more about that topic in the days to come.

Kramer: I find it intriguing, but others mentioned risks associated with “strings”.  We’ll see. Gotta go to a late dinner, Len. Thanks. 

Update: Ken Doctor has an excellent analysis of MinnPost at Content Bridges.  

4 Responses to “Can Joel Kramer’s Caring Spirit Save Quality Journalism?”

  1. Representative Journalism - Blog - Could Representative Journalism Work for Minnesota? Says:

    [...] my IM Interview with Joel Kramer, the brains and part of the money behind MinnPost, he said: One of the charms of the Internet is [...]

  2. Noah Kunin Says:

    Great interview –

    I think Kramer’s mentioning of “strings” is important but could be easily overcome by transparency in any practical Rep. Journalism model.

    That being said, there are already thousands of hidden strings in the MSM – might as well expose them so they can be critiqued.

  3. Representative Journalism - Blog - Representative Journalism: Ethical Concerns Says:

    [...] yesterday about strings attached to Representative Journalism. Commenter Noah Kunin, concerning my Joel Kramer interview, wrote: : I think Kramer’s mentioning of “strings” is important but could be easily overcome [...]

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