J. Patrick Coolican left the Star Tribune months ago, but he still wears a reminder of his five years at the newspaper covering state politics: A green-and-white Strib ski cap, which he sported last week at a Cathedral Hill coffee shop.
Coolican, 45, has taken a few gambles in his journalism career, like quitting his first newspaper job to travel without another offer in hand. The latest: leaving a secure, well-paying, union-protected staff position at the Strib to run a startup political news site. The Minnesota Reformer launched Tuesday, the 15th entry in the States Newsroom network, a national nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., and Chapel Hill, N.C., dedicated to in-depth statehouse coverage.
“Obviously there’s something of a risk in the long term,” Coolican said. “First of all, the way the industry is, I’d be naive to think I could just work another 25 years at the Star Tribune, because you don’t really know what’s going to happen. I thought this was just a great opportunity to do something fun, and that I think is important and meaningful.”
States Network says it wants to fill the void created by more than a decade’s worth of newspaper layoffs and buyouts. According to two Pew Research Center studies cited on the States Newsroom website, newspaper newsroom employment declined 47 percent from 2008 to 2018, and only 30 percent of newspapers have anyone assigned to statehouse coverage.
If you’re read any newspaper in the last decade — especially those owned by Gannett, GateHouse Media or Alden Global Capital (parent company of the St. Paul Pioneer Press) — you hardly need a study to confirm those statistics. There are fewer pages, fewer stories, fewer reporters to hold the powerful accountable. It’s depressing.
And yet, Minnesota is the rare state with a relatively sizable Capitol press corps, with reporters from the Pioneer Press, the Star Tribune (which alone has four journalists assigned there, a total that doesn’t include all their political reporters), the Associated Press, the Forum News Service, Minnesota Public Radio, the Minnesota News Network on radio, five television stations, MinnPost and several specialty web sites, all covering the seat of state government.
And while Minnesota’s Capitol press at times can fall victim to one of journalism‘s more common sins — a herd-like mentality that can sometimes fail to discern action from impact (especially during the legislative sessions) — the fact that there exists a sizable stable of reporters also means good work does get done. In the last few years alone, some of the state’s biggest stories have been driven by strong enterprise and investigative work connected to or coming directly out of the Capitol.
Still, Coolican believes there’s room for even more, and political enterprise — coverage that tends to spring from reporters’ inquires and ideas rather than driven by the events of the day — is where he sees Minnesota Reformer carving a niche. (When Chris Fitzsimon, States Newsroom’s director and publisher, was asked why they expanded to Minnesota instead of an underserved state, he said the size, literacy and level of political engagement here made the state an attractive market. “We are looking forward to adding to the quality reporting that’s already being done,” he said.)
States Newsroom launched last year with five sites. It emerged from North Carolina Policy Watch, an online news and commentary outlet launched by Fitzsimon, founder and director of a progressive think tank in Raleigh, N.C.
Fitzsimon has been vague about States Newsroom’s funding, calling it a combination of philanthropy, grants and grassroots donors, but the network does not as of yet disclose who any of those funders are. (The Hopewell Fund, a 501(c)(3) sponsorship non-profit that supports a host of left-leaning ventures, managed the network’s office and administrative functions while the operation was getting organized, but is not involved with it now, Fitzsimon said.)
“We didn’t want to wait until we had everything set up financially to start the journalism,” Fitzsimon said in a telephone interview. “We used Hopewell as an incubator, which is something they do often. They were just basically a way we could immediately get started by becoming an independent organization. They’ve never had any editorial say or input into what we do.”
Still, the lack of transparency has raised questions about the network’s purpose and independence. (The Institute for Nonprofit News, which includes 230 media organizations such as the Texas Tribune, ProPublica, and Minnesota-based outlets such Ensia, PRX, the Sahan Journal and MinnPost, requires members to identify all donors that give more than $5,000 in a year.)
Coolican said the site will feature guest op-eds from his lengthy list of contacts, some liberal, some conservative — not, he said, the same tired voices and bylines we see constantly elsewhere.
And though op-eds will lean progressive, he said, the news coverage will not. “We’re going to report stories fairly, truthfully,” Coolican said. “Opinion pieces, people will have to judge for themselves.
“Myself, our team, we are not party hacks; we’re not partisans,” he said. “I suspect we’re going to write a lot of stories that are very irritating to people in the DFL, including powerful people like the governor, Senator (Amy) Klobuchar, etc.”
Fitzsimon didn’t know Coolican, but said Coolican’s experience and cheeky politics newsletter for the Strib caught his attention. “We believe Patrick is uniquely qualified to shine a light on what’s happening at Minnesota in the legislature and throughout the state, in terms of state politics and policy,” he said.
Coolican came to political reporting in a modern way. He grew up in central Connecticut, earning a liberal studies degree from Notre Dame in 1997. Two years later, over late-night drinks at a jazz bar in Chicago, Coolican and his best friend from college, Steve Myers (now an enterprise editor at USA Today), decided to start a website to cover the 2000 presidential election.
Armed with laptops and road maps, they logged thousands of miles in Myers’ red-and-white Chevy Blazer, driving between New Hampshire, Iowa and California. The Blazer wasn’t a dreamy ride — Coolican put it in a ditch during a snowstorm — but those internet clips got Coolican his first job, at the Keene (N.H.) Sentinel.
After a short stint at the Seattle Times and a fellowship at Ohio State, Coolican landed at the Las Vegas Sun, where he met his wife, photographer Leila Navidi. The Sun emphasized enterprise reporting in contrast to its competitor, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, winning a 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for a four-part series about construction deaths on the Vegas strip. Coolican didn’t contribute to the Pulitzer entry but wrote enterprise and columns before he and Navidi joined the Strib in 2014.
With States Newsroom providing the backing, Coolican hired a three-person staff: Former Strib politics reporter Ricardo Lopez; Max Nesterak, a former associate producer for MPR’s Morning Edition; and Rilyn Eischens, a data reporter. Coolican’s politics and pop culture newsletter will be prominent on the site, which has no paywall and accepts no ads.
Among the stories planned for Tuesday’s minnesotareformer.com launch: A data study revealing how many of Minnesota’s ten fastest-growing jobs don’t pay enough to rent a two-bedroom apartment in the Twin Cities. (Answer: A lot.)
“I think we can punch above our weight because of their skills,” Coolican said. “We do have good Capitol coverage here. But when you don’t have the responsibility of being the paper of record, or the radio equivalent, it gives you great freedom to just do the great enterprise reporting that needs doing.”