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As Minnesota Independent’s parent expands, local staff contracts

Minnesota Independent, the award-winning lefty website, is down to two staffers after reporter Chris Steller’s contract was not renewed. MnIndy’s staff has been halved since November, even as its parent organization expands to new states and debuts

Minnesota Independent, the award-winning lefty website, is down to two staffers after reporter Chris Steller’s contract was not renewed.

MnIndy’s staff has been halved since November; Steller’s exit follows the departure of Paul Demko, who rejoined former MnIndy editor Steve Perry at Politics in Minnesota. Current editor Paul Schmelzer says Steller, like Demko, won’t be replaced, but freelancers will augment local coverage.

Asked whether the change would result in a budget or coverage cut, Schmelzer deferred comment to Hanaa Rifaey, outreach coordinator for MnIndy’s parent, the D.C.-based Center for Independent Media (CIM). Rifaey dodged the question, stating: “The Minnesota Independent will continue to be a cutting edge news site, providing Minnesotans with what they need to know about politics and policy issues throughout the state. Paul will continue editing and writing for the site, and Andy Birkey will continue his coverage as well. A stable of freelancers will help diversify our coverage.”

(One local wag, noting that Birkey is the last remaining staff reporter, jokes that the site could now be called “MnAndy.”)

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The local moves are happening against the backdrop of big CIM changes. On Friday, the organization renames itself The American Independent News Network. Rifaey describes the move as a reflection of “a ‘50 state strategy,’ with a goal of covering news across the country as we do in each of our current state sites as well as through our news site out of Washington, D.C.”

Are MnIndy resources being downsized to accommodate CIM’s national ambitions? Though the site won eight Minnesota Page One Awards in May, all but one of the individual winners are gone now. Two positions were axed in right after the 2008 elections; Perry left less than a month later.

Since then, MnIndy has had less original reporting and less traffic; the site gets fewer than 5,000 visitors most days and page views hover in the 5,000-8,000 range, though there are occasional spikes. Schmelzer was in D.C. Wednesday, and it remains to be seen exactly how MnIndy will be integrated into the new news network.

CIM boss David Bennahum continues to garner national press for his prodigious fundraising; former Washington editor Laura McGann puts the annual budget at $2.3 million. CIM is starting its sixth local news site, the Florida Independent, with the help of a $352,000 Knight Foundation grant. That’s a windfall that Minnesota, the third outpost, must envy.