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Steve Perry takes over Politics in Minnesota’s daily operations

The former City Pages and Minnesota Independent editor takes over his third local online news shop, though PIM founder Sarah Janecek is still very much part of the picture.
By David Brauer

I can’t say the third time’s a charm because Steve Perry did pretty well at his first two local online news operations. The former City Pages editor was instrumental in making that alt-weekly’s website an early and excellent web adopter. He later moved to Minnesota Independent, which also reached new heights under his leadership.

A few weeks ago, Perry assumed day-to-day leadership of Dolan Media’s Politics in Minnesota and the St. Paul Legal Ledger’s Capitol Report. After freelancing full-time for PIM/CR during the legislative session, Perry will direct news coverage as managing editor. (Bill Clements, who held the title at Capitol Report, is now Dolan’s special projects editor.)

While Dolan’s management structure is, shall we say, a bit byzantine, PIM founder Sarah Janecek is still very much part of the picture as Dolan’s director of political coverage. Perry reports to Finance and Commerce Media Group editor-in-chief Scott Fagerstrom, but Janecek remains the principal mover and shaker of PIM’s Weekly Report, Perry says.

Janecek, a full-throated Republican, calls the ex-alt-weekly editor’s hire “a very significant move. He knows Minnesota politics and government like I do, thinks differently than I do. He started CP online from scratch, and they went to half-a-million [monthly unique visitors] or something like that.”

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A broader paywall, but not yet
Several weeks ago, a reader emailed me a link to a PIM/CR home page indicating that the site’s paywall would expand on Oct. 1. PIM already charges $100 a year for its weekly reports, and the Legal Ledger, which includes public notices, is $139. The page — which touted a new, merged site — indicated that more daily online analysis would be restricted “to our valued subscribers.”

Janecek says the page was an internal test mistakenly made public. Oct. 1 has come and gone with no paywall changes, though Janecek says PIM/CR is still “definitely going in that direction” while “still figuring out the recipe.”

(They could start by settling on a single brand: Politics in Minnesota or Capitol Report!)

For his part, Perry — who had been in his new job all of two weeks when we talked — says he’s still working out budget and resource requests. Still, he seemed less absolutist, with a blend of pay and free that will make PIM/CR part of the wider conversation while luring junkies to pay more.

“We do want to be a source of authoritative, in-depth coverage for the cast of characters who breathe the life of the Capitol: staffers, lobbyists and the not-inconsiderable contingent of politics junkies,” sort of a Roll Call for the state of Minnesota.

For now, Perry has a fairly small editorial staff — himself, reporters Charley Shaw and Betsy Sundquist and Morning Report Editor Peter Bartz-Gallagher. Janecek and Clements contribute copy, as does freelancer Britt Robson.

PIM/CR has pulled off some very solid coverage — Perry’s coverage of state finances has been especially good — but it hasn’t become the world-beater Janecek touted when Dolan bought her empire 18 months ago.

While Perry says the situation “remains pretty fluid,” he adds “it’s exciting that it looks like we are going to get additional resources which we will parlay into higher visibility and more authoritative status for what we’re doing.”

Even though PIM/CR’s staff is no bigger than the Strib’s, and other print, radio, TV and wire organizations still send their most experienced reporters to St. Paul, Perry says, “We want to go more in-depth in terms of politics and policy than the mainstream media is doing.”

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Detail, not denunciations
One of Perry’s strengths is his ability to analyze the media universe and suss out areas left uncovered or approaches not taken. In this case, it could be policy and process wonkiness more than blistering ideology, though Perry’s not likely to pull punches.

“This is an entirely different endeavor than City Pages,” Perry says. “That was a general circulation alternative paper. This is a news and information operation that aims to serve all parties who are insiders to Capitol dealings very well.

“There will be opinion and analysis from across the political spectrum. The principal emphasis will be on covering the day-to-day affairs at the Capitol, the roster of forces duking it out over there.”

A big part of the challenge, he adds, “will be developing digital and online products for the transformation that is already underway.”

Visible changes needed
One of this reader’s disappointments is the ongoing lameness of PIM/CR’s look. City Pages under Perry looked awesome, and Minnesota Independent’s template, while not his doing, is nice and clean. Dolan has made a bunch of money off information and technology, including public notices and foreclosure data. But if they can’t make a news site sing, can I expect their mobile app to be compelling?

Still, if a transformation is possible, Perry’s a guy who’s proved he can do it. As one of his former writers and a longtime competitor, I found it fascinating to watch his transition this year from death-to-both-parties strategist and essayist to shoe-leather reporter who got everyone to talk to him while not kissing butt.

Didn’t all those politicians remember those broadsides you tossed their way?

“Some of them did remember, but it wasn’t really a problem,” says Perry. “The Democrats remembered City Pages was hard on Republicans, and the Republicans remembered we were hard on Democrats. Everybody was cool.”

Says Janecek, “I got some flak among Republicans — a lot of flak from some. But the integrity of Politics in Minnesota rests of having people of all stripes writing and thinking for the publication. Steve had lots of conversations with Republicans.”

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Professional bipartisanship is also reflected in the rapport between Janecek and Perry. I was skeptical at first, but these two strong personalities genuinely seem to enjoy collaborating. That hasn’t always been the case with Perry, who memorably fought against Independent president/CEO David Bennahum on toeing the progressive line.

Since the Oct. 1 date is obviously inoperative, I asked Perry when I should expect noticeable PIM/CR changes. “In the next couple of months,” he replied. “The next session begins in February, and you’ll see a number of things visibly changed.”