Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


After the Senate fight: What’s next for The Uptake?

Minnesota’s ground-breaking “C-SPAN for the common man” is hard up for funds. They have big plans … that could lure them out of state.
By David Brauer

Few organizations will be as sorry to see the U.S. Senate recount end as St. Paul’s The Uptake. Recount junkies have mainlined The Uptake’s wall-to-wall video coverage, while the group has reaped tons of good publicity for becoming, as founder and executive director Jason Barnett puts it, Minnesota’s “C-SPAN for the common man.”

But it turns out covering an election’s aftermath isn’t quite as remunerative as covering the election itself. In the last months of the 2008 campaign, The Uptake received major funding from progressive groups like Alliance for a Better Minnesota, but that money went away after the election, Barnett notes.

Thus, the Uptake essentially funded its groundbreaking recount work and subsequent legislative coverage on its own and via small donors.

“We’re in a period where we have very little money,” Barnett conceded in late May, which he called “the worst time” the group has had in the past year.

This year, The Uptake has raised a decent amount of small-donor cash — $24,000 in the past three months — “which is actually pretty cool,” Barnett says. “But we don’t have any big money coming in. We’re applying for stuff, but the short-term cash flow is tight.”

If Barnett was paying everyone on his core staff, The Uptake’s expenses would run about $16,000 to $20,000 a month — a quarter-million-buck-a-year operation. For now, only two workers get paid: uber-staffer Jennifer Whigham and reporter Noah Kunin. Uptake mainstays such as Barnett, Mike McIntee and Chuck Olsen get bupkis.

Such volunteering makes The Uptake an $8,000-a-month deal currently, which includes not only coverage but training dozens of citizen journalists. And even those reduced costs are covered only if individual donors keep ponying up — problematic if star attractions Franken and Coleman (or supporting players Margaret Kelliher and Marty Seifert) aren’t dueling for eyeballs.

Despite the group’s lefty roots, The Uptake has clearly improved political coverage for the entire state. Their recount work showed mainstream media what a video newsroom could do; the Pioneer Press and MinnPost wound up retransmitting the nonpartisan streaming, and the Strib moved much more aggressively into the space after The Uptake showed the way.

The Uptake’s legislative work was equally rewarding. Instead of merely showing the endless drone of legislative debates, Whigham monitored the floor sessions and edited key debates into comprehensible segments beyond mere sound bites.

That value-added was scooped up by activists and journalists around the state, but there are plenty of free riders who aren’t ponying up. (Disclaimer: I’m a donor.)

When I talked to Barnett late last month, he was celebrating a four-figure payday from, of all places, Conan O’Brien’s debut “Tonight Show.” Apparently The Uptake has some sort of D.C. feed, and Barnett sold rights to the Sonia Sotomayor announcement, subsequently dubbed (by Conan, not our guys) into a lengthy Joe Biden joke.

While Conan may be a single star-studded example, Barnett says the financial future of The Uptake could lie out of state.

Talks with local news organizations about “running multi-media arms of their current operations” have not yet borne fruit. The Uptake’s site generated 620,000 page views between January and late May, a nice number but not one anybody will get rich from. That makes The Uptake’s work precisely the sort of “public good” foundations should support, but so far, they haven’t. Barnett calls this “a tough game,” where “the only way to get in is if you know them.”

That forces the money hunt further afield. “Some of the people wanting services are national organizations, and they aren’t necessarily that interested in Minnesota,” Barnett notes. “If Minnesota wants to keep The Uptake around, we need to figure out how to do that. If our money comes from Michigan, we’ll have to go there.”

Despite the “bleak” present, Barnett says he prefers the situation now to the one a year ago, when Uptakers had no money — but also no reputation. He’s enthused about new initiatives building on The Uptake’s work, such as an archive library.

“It’s not free to build — we want folks to be able to search by keyword, who said what, so that various organizations can use video in their work. There would be fees for downloading and fees for us.

While journalists may not willing to pay such fees, Barnett notes in the recount’s case, “We’ve also been valuable to lawyers and law schools. We provide live coverage to a bunch of events that may be below the realm of importance to newsrooms that are still incredibly important to citizens.

Article continues after advertisement

“When I think about where we’ve come from, I think we’re going to be fine. But we do really need help.”