To mark MinnPost’s 10th anniversary, our writers and editors have been digging into the archives to highlight stories that have stuck with them over the years, a series we’re calling MinnPost 10 at 10. Today we have something different, though: The story of how MinnPost actually got off the ground in 2007, told by those who lived through it.
The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Minnesota media in the spring of 2007. Both Twin Cities daily newspapers were reeling from dramatic revenue drops as the Internet decimated their classified and display advertising, and emerging free online content led consumers to think that maybe they didn’t have to pay for the news.
The Star Tribune and Pioneer Press newsrooms had already cut dozens of reporters and editors, with more buyouts and layoffs imminent. The Strib — purchased just eight years earlier for $1.2 billion — had just been sold for $530 million. (In 2014, Glen Taylor would buy it for $100 million.)
Still to come was the 2008 recession, and — in 2009 — the Star Tribune’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition.
Into this journalistic and economic cauldron came an unlikely new player: MinnPost, a nonprofit, online news organization staffed by many of those newly unemployed newspaper editors and writers. The goal: to fill the void in news and perspective that was missing from the thinning newspapers.
A hopeful group of local families rallied around Joel Kramer, a former editor and publisher of the Cowles-era Star Tribune, who’d left the paper not long after McClatchy bought it in 1998. Steeped in the traditional newspaper business — which required printing presses, delivery trucks and daily deadlines — the group raised some money and then began a steep learning curve to figure out the online news business.
Joel Kramer, MinnPost founder: By early 2007 there’d been a very large number of buyouts at the two papers and that raised a stir in the community about the future of our newspapers. People called me, because I’d been the publisher of the Star Tribune. Some were interested in putting together a group to buy the paper, but I thought the asking price would be way too high, based on what I knew — that this was just the tip of the iceberg of the problems that were going to be coming.
Lee Lynch, founder and retired CEO of Carmichael Lynch advertising: Some of us were looking to rescue the Star Tribune, because it was slipping away and we really thought great journalism was going to end in the Twin Cities. The thought was to either buy the newspaper or start a new one. And eventually, we realized we’d have to go online, with no paper, no presses, no truck drivers. But even so, we’d have to come up with a large amount of money.
Joel Kramer: Laurie [Kramer, his wife] and I did some research on nonprofit models and read about a news site in San Diego [The Voice of San Diego] and mentioned that to some of the people that were approaching us. We said we’d develop a business plan, and if we’d get enough donors on the front end, that Laurie and I would be interested in running it.
Laurie Kramer: Not everyone had an interest in a nonprofit, though, and we lost some investors.
Lynch: It had to be nonprofit, so when people made contributions, they could get a [tax] deduction.
Joel Kramer: Two reasons I didn’t want to try a for-profit approach: First, I couldn’t look anyone in the eye and say we’d make money. The news business model was in decline. And second, working on the back of a napkin, I felt [a for-profit site] would need significant revenue from readers. At that time, only the Wall Street Journal was charging for online content and the prevailing wisdom was that you couldn’t charge readers for online news.
R.T. Rybak, former Minneapolis mayor; former Star Tribune reporter; former publisher of the Twin Cities Reader: I remember hearing about it early on, and with my background at the Strib and the Reader, I knew how difficult it was to maintain a print publication. As the paper got thinner and thinner, the voices we knew were disappearing and we questioned whether there’d be any kind of place to find objective views on the city.
Chris Ison, journalism professor at the University of Minnesota, former Star Tribune editor and reporter: Joel came to the journalism school with a crazy idea for a new web-based news site. There was a lot of upheaval in the Twin Cities news market, and as I recall his pitch, he was concerned that the cutbacks everywhere were resulting in less in-depth coverage. This community, especially, really had a continuing hunger for good, thoughtful news and [thought] that there was space for more of that here. He was trying to figure out what people believed was possible.
Joel Kramer: Not that we understood online. We didn’t. But it was the way to publish without trucks and paper and delivery. We felt that even the older readers who cared about the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press would be willing to read an online paper.
Ison: We were enthusiastic about his idea, and knew Joel was a guy who didn’t throw these things around casually.
Rybak: I saw the potential of the internet and knew that it was critically important to keep some of the great voices in the community. But I didn’t think it would be a slam dunk for these guys.
Lynch: Four families put up $850,000 of the seed money. [Those families were Joel and Laurie Kramer; Sage and John Cowles; Vicki and David Cox; and Terry Saario and Lee Lynch.]
Laurie Kramer: The original board wanted to start out in an impressive way, not to be frugal, because we’d only have one first chance to show what we could do.
Joel Kramer: We initially said we would like to raise a total $2 [million] to $2.5 million to start. We ended up with only about $1.25 [million] or $1.5 million, with some help from the Knight Foundation. We wanted more, but decided to go ahead.
Joel Kramer: Roger Buoen was our first hire, in June or July.
Roger Buoen, former MinnPost executive editor, former Star Tribune assistant managing editor: I had retired from the Star Tribune in 2005. But it was boring and I regretted leaving journalism. I heard Joel was thinking of starting up some sort of website and was looking for a managing editor. Joel had already been working on the financing at that point; he and Laurie had contributed a large amount and people they knew were contributing. They had about $1.4 million at that point. But there was no name [for the site] yet.
Laurie Kramer: We liked the name “Post” because it was both old-fashioned and new-fashioned. We considered MinnesotaPost and MinnPost. We opted for MinnPost as shorter and more interesting. We considered .org and .com (we bought both domain names) and thought more people would read it if didn’t have a nonprofit address.
Buoen: I was tasked with finding writers. I’d worked at the Star Tribune for 30 years and my wife Cindy had worked at the Pioneer Press, so we knew lots of journalists. The Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press and City Pages had bought out or laid off over 100 writers and editors, and we knew those people were still interested in doing good journalism and still had great sources.
Ison: With all the layoffs and buyouts they had a pretty good opportunity to pick up veteran journalists interested in a second or third career. They had a nice staff to start.
Buoen: Over a couple month period, I had intense conversations with writers and editors. It was all so informal. We didn’t have an office yet so we were meeting at coffee shops around town. Sometimes we met at the Roseville library. My first hire was Corey Anderson. He’d been at City Pages. He seemed on board with what we wanted and most importantly he knew how to lay out a website, with all those graphic and technical skills needed to write and edit the website.
Corey Anderson, MinnPost web editor/creative director: I was still working at City Pages, which had recently been purchased by New Times out of Phoenix, so there was a lot of turnover and upheaval. Lots of us not shown the door were looking for a new door. Joel called and wondered if I knew who he was. I said no. He didn’t hang up on me. We met for lunch and talked about the opportunity. I told him I didn’t think much of the name, but it wasn’t a deal breaker.
Buoen: Looking back, it’s clear how important it was that all these good people were available to work for the site. It was a good time for a site like MinnPost to be created. We looked at various ways of organizing the staff. We needed some full-time editors and people like Corey to come in every day to put up the site.
Joel Kramer: Our journalism model, from the beginning, was a newsy magazine. We wanted experienced writers who could write analytically, the way a good magazine would do it. Some took to it, others were used to a more traditional style.
Buoen: It wasn’t difficult to find people to write for the site. If we’d tried earlier, or now, I don’t think you would get that number of high-quality people.
Don Effenberger, former MinnPost news editor, former Pioneer Press editor: Casey Selix and I were hired early as co-editors. We’d both worked in St. Paul, and Roger and Joel didn’t know the St. Paul side very well. We met weekly at the Roseville library — Casey and I, with Corey, Joel, Roger and Laurie to start planning. Roger and Joel found the office in August, and we started there after Labor Day, about two months before the launch. Like with any startup, there were many decisions. One day we’d come up with the company policy on unnamed sources. And then the next day, decide what color the wastebaskets should be.
Joel Kramer: Our model was to use all freelance writers. We had a lot of names and had oral commitments. We told them how much we could spend, and it surprised some how little it was. The idea was to flood the zone with the names of all these journalists, even though some only wrote one thing for us. Some decided we didn’t pay enough, or use them often enough. Some didn’t fit our MinnPost style, so it quickly dropped to a manageable number.
Laurie Kramer: Initially we had just about every former newspaper and magazine reporter and some TV people.
Doug Grow, former Star Tribune columnist: I’d taken a buyout at the Strib and was looking for other opportunities. I’d heard Joel was thinking about starting this thing, but wasn’t sure of the starting date. I encouraged him to get going, because there were a lot of stories I wanted to do.
Buoen: After we signed a lease for the place [where MinnPost is still located] I was in charge of arranging for the phones. It’s always been a joke about what a terrible job I did.
Joel Kramer: We’d been advised that if we were going to be online we’d better have a very good website.
Laurie Kramer: We hired a local website development company, Clockwork.
Joel Kramer: We could have hired people to build an open source platform, but we didn’t think we could get a high-quality site up quickly enough.
Anderson: Clockwork did an amazing job. They only had three months or so to build the site from the ground up. Five years ago we migrated to a new system and are now in the process of migrating to our third content management system.
Joel Kramer: The Knight Foundation helped us at the beginning, but it took a while to convince other foundations to give to journalism, which had always been a profitable business.
Laurie Kramer: We said from the beginning that we did not want to rely on foundations, and wanted to keep foundation support at less than 15 percent. We figured that after they’d funded us for a while, they’d start looking for new things. It turned out that they’ve been steady and wonderful supporters, but we hadn’t planned for that.
Joel Kramer: We started asking for money before we launched.
Laurie Kramer: Our first donation was from Joel’s sister in Florida. She gave us $50. We mailed letters to people back then and used a Post Office box at the downtown Post Office. We checked that box every day. Then we signed up with PayPal for online donations. Every time we got a donation, it would ding. At night at home, we’d hear the ding, ding, ding. We were so excited.
Buoen: Joel was talking with Tom Bartel, who owned the Rake. We were going to merge and take their staff; they’d do arts and we’d do the political component. But that fell apart. Joel was also talking with Minnesota Public Radio while we were organizing, trying to make an arrangement with them to have MinnPost writers come on the air each morning to talk about their stories. That fell apart, too. Our relationship with them was testy for a while.
Joel Kramer: I was working with MPR’s news director on a proposal that we’d give them our best story each day to use on radio a few hours before we published. They’d get some good reporting and we’d get visibility. But then they stopped the discussion and said they couldn’t do it. Their newsroom was interested, but someone higher up decided they wouldn’t do it.
Lynch: MPR was antagonistic toward any competition. They wouldn’t even respond to our calls. We thought we had an ally, but they protected their brand. That had been a key strategy and losing it took one of our legs off.
Sally Waterman, MinnPost director of advertising and sponsorship: I was working at CarSoup when Joel contacted me. I had worked for the Star Tribune online, and MPR and the local AOL, so I had significant experience with online advertising. Joel was unique in that he had a foot in both worlds: He was a journalist and had a business sense. We began talking about whether we should we accept advertising and sponsorships. Why not have two different revenue streams? The third would be foundation support.
Joel Kramer: We started more with advertising than sponsorships and memberships. Sally believed we could get a higher ad rate than the commodity rate because we had such local commitment.
Waterman: We do accept political advertising, which is unusual for a nonprofit. But we include a disclaimer that we don’t endorse candidates. It’s rare that we’ve turned down any ads. Once I accepted a small amount of political advertising from a man but then refused to sell him additional advertising when we discovered he was running for office here in Minnesota but was not qualified to run for office because he was a fugitive and/or a felon.
Laurie Kramer: Ads were a hard sell in the beginning. We had little experience with online and didn’t know who we were targeting.
Waterman: We didn’t have a product yet, but we sold $9,000 or $10,000 before we even had a website to show. Some of the earliest advertisers on MinnPost were small and large nonprofits, higher education institutions and arts organizations. And that is still true today.
Effenberger: One of the big innovations was to curate the comments; we reviewed them before we put them up. It made the discourse far more civil.
Buoen: As for content, we decided to focus on public policy, public affairs and the arts. We added some sports later on. The goal was to appeal to people knowledgeable about the news. We didn’t want to repeat what the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press and television stations were doing, but we tried to keep it timely. We wanted the main story on the site to reflect one of the big topics of the moment. That wasn’t always easy to do. It might seem like it would be, but it’s not, if you want something above what the others are doing. It takes time for in-depth reporting and analysis. Some days we never achieved it.
Joel Kramer, on the decision to update the site Monday through Friday rather than keep it live 24/7: We felt that to attract top editors and writers while paying nonprofit salaries, we needed to give staff weekends off. Also, since we weren’t trying to replace the dailies but rather to supplement them with strong analysis, there was no need to publish on the weekend. We later added a Saturday edition, prepared on Friday.
U.S. Sen. Al Franken at MinnRoast 2014, talking about the different levels of ObamaCare plans: There’s actually also a MinnPost plan. It’s free. You get great coverage but if something happens over the weekend you have to wait until Monday.
Laurie Kramer: We launched on Nov. 8, a Thursday. We waited until after the election on that Tuesday.
Buoen: We’d been promoting it for weeks. It was a big deal to finally see the site up there, and figure out what traffic we had.
Joel Kramer: I remember we had a tremendous amount of hits at first, so we thought we had a tremendous amount of readers. Then we figured out that hits are not the same as readers — it had something to do with bots and one person might be creating 20 hits. We didn’t have analytics yet.
Lynch: When we were off and running, I thought it was fabulous that we had so many great writers working for such low pay.
Joel Kramer: MPR had a reporter work on a story about the launch, and when I woke up at 5 in the morning that day — it was a very stressful time; I couldn’t sleep — I saw the very positive story on MPR’s website. But by the time we got to the office, it was gone from their site, and it never did air on the radio.
Buoen: There was a small story in the New York Times about us when we launched. And I was interviewed by a lot of other news organizations, including one in Paris. They wondered what we were doing, what the concept was. Joel’s reputation as a former newspaper publisher got us a lot of attention.
Joel Kramer: Shortly after the launch at 11 o’clock, a parody of MinnPost appeared on a website. It was called MinnToast and it was pretty funny, with stories about how seriously we took ourselves. We couldn’t tell immediately who created it, but within an hour, we decided to put a story up on MinnPost about the parody. By making fun of ourselves we really derailed it from being a big deal. Corey eventually found it was created by Tom Bartel of the Rake, who we’d been negotiating with earlier to possibly join us.
Waterman: For ad sales, it sure helped to have the site up and running. A lot of organizations were intrigued with us, but wanted to see if we were going to be around. After about a year, more people started to take my calls.
Buoen: We had a print edition at the beginning that we distributed in coffee shops and the skyways and the Capitol. It was expensive and distribution was a problem. But at the time, we thought many people might want to read us on paper.
Joel Kramer: We thought it would help with promotion by exposing it to more people, who we could eventually convert to reading it online.
Effenberger: We were still very old school at the time and still dipping our toes into the new media thing.
Grow: I was standing in a skyway handing out these MinnPost newspapers and I thought: This is how I started in the biz when I was a kid. Delivering Watertown, S.D., newspapers to the doorsteps.
Laurie Kramer: It was soon clear that [the print version] wasn’t going anywhere.
Effenberger: We dumped it after about two or three months.
Joel Kramer: We had started with a budget that would have been all spent in a year, which was not financially prudent, but we figured in that year we’d make more. Then the recession started, and we had to cut back right away. Because we were mostly freelance, we didn’t have to lay off anyone, but we did reduce our freelance budget substantially.
Buoen: Early on, we paid per story. There were almost 50 writers at the beginning, making it hard to manage with a small core of editors. Sometimes the quality of work was uneven. Eventually, we went to weekly contracts with a core group of writers. That made the budget more predictable.
Effenberger: In the first months we published up to 14 posts a day. We had to edit and enter them into the system, which was a lot of hands-on work for us.
Buoen: We learned some things. I had expectations that video would rule the site so we made arrangements with a video production company. But it took a lot of editing and a lot of shooting. It was expensive and it didn’t get the traffic I’d thought. So we cut back and went to the blogger’s approach, with lots of voice and analysis. Hiring people like Eric Black and David Brauer brought a lot of voice and those kind of stories attracted readers. We had a lot more freedom to interpret things than I was used to at the Star Tribune.
Laurie Kramer: We wanted a serious site for serious people, but we soon found out what kinds of stories are popular online.
Joel Kramer: In the first year we had a story that got 100,000 readers. It turned out to be about Health Partners’ mascot, Petey P. Cup.
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From day one, MinnPost’s nonprofit newsroom has depended on support from readers. These tax-deductible donations have been instrumental in MinnPost’s growth and success.
As we celebrate our 10th anniversary, we’re asking loyal readers to continue making MinnPost possible with a member contribution. These contributions, in any amount, are vital to our work.