8.27.2007

Interview: MinnPost.com Creator Joel Kramer

"Your loss, our gain" might be an apt tagline for the daily online news site former Star Tribune publisher Joel Kramer is planning. As a press release Monday reported, the site has agreements from 25 journalists and editors, many who left jobs during tumult at City Pages, the Pioneer Press, and the Star Tribune. While Kramer insists he's not sending a message to the paper he once ran, he's clearly glad to pick up its discarded talent. In his first interview following the announcement on Minnesota Public Radio, he tells Minnesota Monitor about the MinnPost.com, the ideas that guide it, and the learning curve in going from dead-tree media to an internet-based newsroom.

Paul Schmelzer: You're launching the site in an interesting media climate. Do you expect there'll be a lot of good will for what you’re doing because of all the bad feelings over what’s happened at the local papers -- all the buyouts, layoffs and firings?

Joel Kramer: I think so. A lot of the dailies are struggling. Their business model is very difficult right now with declining advertising. They still have a lot of readers, but they have a situation where the high costs are not in line with shrinking revenues. In addition, I do run across a lot of people who lament or complain that coverage is not as serious or ambitious as it used to be. I think the opportunity there is good. Of course, the other part of that opportunity is that more than 100 journalists left those papers, and a lot of good people left City Pages... I think there’s goodwill for what we’re doing, but of course, we’ll have to deliver.

PS: You have 25 journalists listed, from former Strib D.C. intern Brady Averill to former Strib political reporter Bob Whereatt. Are they all staffers or freelancers?

JK: Contract contributors. Many of these people will be on regular contracts. Some want to just write front-page stories for us, but many of the people on the list will be posters – reporter/bloggers – and those people will also be on regular contracts. They can also write front-page stories and get paid additional.

PS: How long will front-page stories be?

JK: There’s no specific length, but the front-page stories are meant to be in-depth, serious stories. Many of them might be 1000 words or more. The real difference is how thoroughly they’re reported out. Reporter/blogger types – what we’re calling "posts" -- will write something based on one good source and some thoughts about it, and maybe another phone call, but it’s not at the length and depth and time invested as an enterprise news story.

PS: How will these posts be different from what I see occasionally at Buzz.mn or The Big Question, which feel like entries in a reporter’s notebook?

JK: We’ll spend the next couple of months experimenting with what the form will actually be like, and a lot of it will depend on how the writers react to it and how they innovate out of the form. It may resemble some of what’s being done in some places already. The guidance is that it’s reporters having more of an informal discussion with the readers. But one difference is these are not going to be discussions by reporters who are also writing in the newspaper. We expect their reporting to come through in these discussions. They’re not going to be talking about stories they’ve already written, for example, because in most cases this will be their way of talking to the readers. The guidance is that it’s more informal and more immediate than the longer stories. For example they could be posted at any time of the day. They could ask readers for feedback. There are examples out there that may resemble it.

PS: A line in the press release struck me as odd:
MinnPost.com will offer exclusive front-page news stories as well as “posts,” a new format in which professional journalists engage in an informal conversation with readers about what they're learning and what to make of it. Posts will be a bit like blogs, but unlike many blogs, they will be built around original reporting – not just opinions or links to other people’s work.
It suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of blogs, because a blog is merely an application where you can publish scrolling, time-stamped, authored stories that allow comments. It seems you’re confusing posts, an item within a blog, with an entire blog. Also, a blog is simply an application, so it can be used for reporting or opinion alike.

JK: OK. Not all blogs are like that but many blogs are. We’ve actually done focus groups with the news-intense readers we’re interested in, and many of them have a negative view of blogs because they think of them as primarily just commentary. Not all blogs are, but many are. We’re saying the posts – I’m not saying they’re unique, but they’ll be limited to the kind of blogging that’s based on real reporting.

PS: Are there models you’ve looked to? On the left there’s Talking Points Memo…

JK: What you and Brian [Lambert] do are good examples of what we’re talking about. You do real reporting. I’ve looked around to find those kinds of blogs in town and there really aren't that many who really start their day by trying to report. That’s our model – people who start their day saying, "What can I find out that’s new, and then how can I engage with the readers about it?"

PS: Why a nonprofit?

JK:We started out looking at a for-profit model, because a big goal of mine was to create something sustainable that would not be dependent on foundation soft money for the long term, and therefore we thought a for-profit model would be great. There are two reasons why it didn’t work out. One of them was we found that the model -- to be successful -- really needs money from advertisers or sponsors. And the subscription model, of getting money from readers to buy exclusive content is not working on the web for general news. So the conclusion from that is if we want a significant component of the revenue to come from readers, it needs to be a voluntary membership model that’s basically a nonprofit model. The other thing is as we talked to investors most of them told us that the mission we were describing was a public-service mission and they felt very comfortable donating the money, not investing it.

PS: Considering the sale of the Strib last winter and how it demonstrated that the needs of corporate stakeholders and the needs of a community are sometimes at cross-purposes, could you talk about the philosophy behind this? You're contracting with arts writers, an architecture critic, political reporters -- all areas that are seeing lower levels of coverage in the dailies. Is MinnPost a critique of the way your old paper is running things?

JK: It's not a critique of anybody, but it is an opportunity created by the challenges the other media face. Clearly the newspaper model is deteriorating. It used to be that newspapers had strong pricing power for their advertising, and that enabled them to do, frankly, what other media didn’t do, which was invest a lot of money in news. Historically, it’s always been the newspapers that put the most money into news. They’re losing their ability to do that and as a result a lot of good people are leaving. Our goal in attracting a wide range of people is: this is not just for political junkies or policy junkies, by any means. It’s about, for example, what you might expect to see on the cover of the New York Times. The Times does a lot of government coverage and a lot of political coverage, but it also covers science, health, the arts, culture, popular culture, on occasion, when it has an interesting way of looking at it. That’s our goal: to cover the whole range of human experience with writers who have had a long time developing their contacts, their understanding, and who know what’s going on.

PS: What’s the learning curve been like for you? You’ve got a lot of experience editing and publishing, but… can you teach an old dog new tricks (no offense).

JK: The learning curve has been intense. I’ve only been at this about six months. I’ve spent a lot of time reading on the web, Googling, and experts and so forth, and also talking to lots of people and attracting people who know more than I do to help us. Yes, it’s a different world, both in the business model and in how you present information and how readers get information. But one interesting thing about the learning is that once you start you learn fast and you get feedback from readers and learn a lot that way. That part is exciting, because it defines how nimble you are in responding to that. But one thing I want to emphasis -- and I think it’s part of the intellectual challenge of it -- is that while the web is a different world and many things can be done there that cannot be done in news and need to be done differently, we expect a large part of our audience to be people who are not focused on the fact that this is a web thing. These are people who just want high-quality news, and they’d be perfectly happy if it was in print. They just feel there isn’t as much as there used to be and there isn’t as much as the community needs, and they want it, and they understand we need to provide it in this medium because that’s where the economics are. Therefore we have to keep them in mind, too, and not just be focused on the latest dazzling thing that can be done just because this is on the web. That’s going to be tricky.

2 comments:

Ed Kohler said...

Great interview. Thanks for "posting" this.

josh said...

I like the interview!

Heh. Blog as application.