MinnPost Debut: A "Thoughtful" Approach to News

RYBAK: Sigh.

For some time, I’ve put off writing a post about today’s 11 a.m. debut of what’s being touted in some circles as the divine answer to the Twin Cities’ current Crisis in Journalism. I’m referring, of course, to the launch of MinnPost.com, the online newspaper creation of Joel Kramer, the former Star Tribune editor-turned-publisher-turned journalistic manumitter.

Kramer stepped forward this summer to, I guess, rescue the Twin Cities from the ravages of PiPress owner Dean Singleton and the faceless Avista-owned Star Tribune. Both, you see, have condensed news, bought off and spit out reporters at such an alarming rate (well, alarming if you’re a reporter), that it seems Kramer decided it was his sacred duty to restore Twin Cities journalism to its illustrious past.

I want to put some emphasis on the word “sacred.” It contributes to the fact that—as much as I’m trying to keep an open mind about MinnPost and as much as I would like to see it succeed as a kick-ass publication—the whole undertaking makes my teeth hurt.

As Kramer makes clear in his rather dry lectures–um, presentations– (one of which I recently attended) that there will be nothing frivolous about MinnPost. No sports scores, no stocks, no movie, music or theater reviews. No oddball, newsy feature stories that gave newspapers of old their vibrancy. Instead, Kramer emphasized, his new publication is designed to attract “news-intense,” “civically-engaged” readers, the sort of readers “who like to read The Economist,” and who value news written by “high quality” “professional” reporters “who care about Minnesota.”

Hence, his new publication’s motto: “A Thoughtful Approach to News.”

That’s where my hackles really start heading north.

Let’s talk about how Thoughtful it is to tout this new online/new media approach, then, just to be on the safe side, announce that you’ll be passing out 2,000 printed copies of the paper every day. They won’t look like a paper, mind you, (just eight sheets of 8×11 paper stapled together) and they’ll be handed out on street corners in downtown Minneapolis, St. Paul, the 494 strip and Edina. How Thoughtful is it, when you’re operating on a shoestring and paying only your editors full-time wages, to be spending 20 cents a copy on that endeavor, for a total of $104,000 per year? Oh, and then brag about the fact that, as a non-profit, you’ve already raised about $120,000. Guess we know where those Thoughtfully-donated dollars will be going.

It just doesn’t make sense.

Nor does it make sense to tout yourself as an online version of the extraordinarily popular Slate and Salon online journals where little similarity exists. Kramer has taken pains to distance his Thoughtful Approach to News from Thoughtless, opinionated outfits (well, like ours). However, Slate was just described recently in the New York Observer (probably not a Thoughtful enough publication to suit Kramer) as a fixture of “opinion journalism.” The San Francisco-based Salon is an online magazine (as opposed to a collection of tiny posts or news stories) which prominently features reviews and articles about music, books, and films.

LAMBERT: Damn, talk about a tough crowd. I knew I needed a little sharper knife when I was alone in here, but you, girl, are one hard sell. Do you heckle funeral eulogies? … not to make any connection between funerals and the arrival of MinnPost.I’ve listened to more than a few of Kramer’s presentations, and I concede they aren’t exactly 20 minutes of Chris Rock. And I’m assuming he will steer MinnPost in a direction I wouldn’t go … entirely.

But before anyone accuses me of being closed off and utterly negative to MinnPost I have to say I admire and will root for anyone who can deliver more credible content into the public news diet. Too many people consume too much fact-free bullshit. Anyone who is working to re-balance that situation has my support. Moreover, I admire someone who is willing to stick $250k of his own money into the venture and actively work at it, as Kramer has and is.

I attended his open house, too. Remember? I was the one encouraging hugs between you and my old drinking buddy, Neal Justin, (who we told we were going to rip for his new Monday column, and which we did a couple days ago). The concept and the cost of this 2,000 stapled copies thing strikes me as kind of funky. The sort of thing that could be the first item red-lined when someone screams, “belt-tightening!” But I do recall Kramer talking about some kind of feature/analysis style sports coverage.

In fact, one of the more interesting conversations I had over at the MinnPost office was with ex-Strib Timberwolves beat writer, Steve Aschburner, who will contribute stories to the site. Steve’s separation from the Strib was one of the most hamhanded of many hamhanded episodes. But he seems philosophical about it now.He said two things that I found interesting. One, he sees in Kramer – for all his wonkiness and lack of hip-hop cred – “an actual leader,” as he put it. A much overlooked factor in the struggles of modern newsrooms is that while the staffs may be aging-to-aged veterans, middle level editing/managing jobs – thankless eye-glazing jobs — are often handled by comparatively inexperienced people for whom budget control is as high or higher a priority than quality writing and reporting. Too many, in my experience, don’t even qualify as avid newspaper readers themselves. I’m paraphrasing here, but Aschburner’s view was that, “I’m tired of being told to respect and follow somebody just because they’ve been handed a title. With Joel, I have no proble
m following his direction because he’s proven he can lead.”

The other thing Aschburner mentioned was that as a sports writer he doubts he’ll have the difficulty making the transition to the less formal and freer style of the Web. Sports departments everywhere have long had a special license for language, attitude and commentary that newsroom managers in other departments – some for reasons of inexperience, others for reasons of incompetence and/or timidity – don’t allow their staffs.

RYBAK: I truly am sorry. I don’t mean to be so nasty. But as a ratty-ass reporter, undue pretentiousness beckons like an overfull balloon to a pinholder. Oops, there I go again, not being Thoughtful.

I want to say something nice about J-Kram, so you’ll get off my butt. I wasn’t working at the Strib when Joel was in the building. But my homies say that he was one of the finest editors the paper ever had during his days in the newsroom. A guy you wanted looking over your shoulder as you wrote. The best.

Once he ascended to the publisher’s suite, however, opinion shifts. Kramer the publisher, in order to save journalism back in the mid-1990s, implemented procedures at the Strib that remain laughable to this day.

He divided its reporters into “teams,” (which totally Balkanized the newsroom), and engaged in a whole bunch of newsroom renaming: Subscribers became “reader-customers,” the managing editor became the “news leader,” and the newspaper became “perhaps the most ridiculed newspaper in the country,” according to a New York Times article about the Strib written in 1995. Kramer, the once-accessible editor dug in his heels and stubbornly defended his rampant jargonism, which was dismantled after he left the paper.

I see Joel the editor in his commitment to an ambitious undertaking like this and in seeking to bring some legitimate news gathering back to the marketplace, even if I think he is severely underpaying the talent. There are some real standouts among the reporters he’s signed up and I look forward to seeing their bylines regularly.

However, I see Joel the publisher in his stubborn belief that he knows better than anyone else when it comes to the Internet. If he really believed in the Internet, he wouldn’t be messing around with handing out expensive stapled copies of an online paper. If he really understood the Internet, I think MinnPost would be a lot more Daily Mole and a lot less refried mainstream media.

That said, I’ll be reading with great interest.

LAMBERT: The other issue that caught my attention was when he declared that MinnPost, with people like Doug Grow, Britt Robson, Susan Albright, David Brauer, my old buddy Sarah Janecek, G.R. Anderson and Steve Berg, to mention just a few, would not be offering political endorsements … on the advice of his attorneys and their interpretation of the 501(c)3 statutes.

I don’t get this.

As it is, MinnPost might be tilted more heavily left-of-center than the old Strib – Sarah can’t do all the righty lifting – but other than porn and Britney Spears (a redundancy, I suppose) nothing drives traffic like politics, and a fair and open Op-Ed board-style discussion of candidates and referendums would be pretty damned interesting.

This will be a fascinating test of the appetites and affinities of web users, web-intense users. Will Kramer appeal to an MPR quality audience with a product that goes only a little bit further than the existing daily papers? Or will he find that the stories/posts that earn the largest audience – and hold out the greatest potential for ad revenue – point in him a different direction, possibly more Slate and Salon than StarTribune.com?

I wish him and his crew the best.