Friday, former Washington Independent editor Laura McGann published a staff memo from CEO David Bennahum that gives the “Minnesota model” a vote of confidence. I should note that model equals precisely one full-time reporter; most of MnIndy’s staff was whacked a couple years ago, though local editor Paul Schmelzer and contributor Patrick Caldwell help Andy Birkey.
Bennahum charts the descent of the Independent network’s donor-based model; he raised nearly $3 million per year during the Bush administration, but that plunged to $1.9 million last year; a $1.6 million surplus dove to $400,000. As he announced D.C.’s closure, Bennahum described the company’s new strategy:
Institute “pay go” budgets: programs must be supported. When they are not, they have to be either closed or operated at the level being supported. In the case of new programs, require multi-year commitments as a precondition for operations. This is what we have successfully done in Florida, where the program has two year commitments.
Be more innovative in terms of leveraging the “network effect” to help smaller programs operate with limited budgets. We pioneered this in Minnesota, where we’ve learned to operate a robust site with one full time reporter. The site is successful thanks, in part, to the way we can syndicate content throughout the network from our sister sites. …
In the case of New Mexico, we are going to institute the Minnesota model, with the aim of working to rebuild support over time.
Although some of Minnesota Independent’s award-winning reportage went viral, the site has never had consistently big traffic or many ads. There literally wasn’t a lot of local buy-in; Bennahum was dependent on big-city, coastal donors and foundations who, it sounds like, moved on to the next big thing.
You can argue about whether the Independent’s sites are “robust,” but one reporter per state is fairly thin soup and isn’t likely to turn around fortunes in places where it gets instituted.