There’s an awful lot of talk about the news lately, but not, unfortunately, the sort of constructive conversation that promotes critical thinking and engages people with their neighborhoods, their country, or their world. No, what people are talking about is the media, or, more specifically, and more onerously, the business of media. The Star Tribune is losing readers, pages, and staff. (Did that venture-capital firm buy it just for its prime downtown real estate?) The Pioneer Press is facing the same challenges, and rumors have been circulating for over a year that it will cease to exist altogether. The corporate hijacking of local “alt weekly” City Pages seems finally to have succeeded, at least in a manner of speaking. (New Times indeed—just who the hell is this Hoffman character, anyway?) And it’s not just with these outlets. Almost everywhere you turn the quality of news is being questioned as resources and profits continue to dwindle. It’s just too expensive, it seems, to chase meaningful stories these days, and the competition has never been fiercer for advertising dollars.
Enter the internet, the longtime boogeyman and sworn enemy of print media everywhere. As it turns out, it just might be the best tool any news reporter, storyteller, or publisher ever dreamed of. With more than half the U.S. now online—and two-thirds of them getting their news online—the web is suddenly a sexy proposition for all sorts of formerly hidebound print junkies. The venture capitalists are intrigued as well—you’d have to suppose that in a recessive industry, not having to pay for ink, paper, press operators, and distribution would bode well for the bottom line.
And so, with (undoubtedly) noble thoughts and high aspirations, many Twin Cities newsies have been turning to the web as a panacea for a host of the ailments currently bedeviling the news media. Former Strib publisher and editor Joel Kramer got the attention of media insiders across the country when he launched MinnPost, his long-anticipated online news site, in November. At about the same time, erstwhile City Pages editor Steve Perry debuted his own site, The Daily Mole, which he mothballed last month after a frustrating three-month run; now he is taking the reins at the Minnesota Monitor. Perry’s new employer, like a number of other local sites (including Twin Cities Daily Planet, the Minnesota Monitor, Cursor, and MNSpeak), had been up and running on the web long before that pair of high-profile upstarts made their splash at the tail end of 2007.
It turns out that the web, with its atmosphere of almost unbridled democracy (a sort of anarchic egalitarian free-for-all, if such a thing is possible), has breathed new life into the moribund American Dream. Freedom of speech. Free exchange of ideas. Anybody can play. People with a little bit (or a lot) of hubris can barge their way online and plant their flags. Every citizen (or non-) can put his (or her) voice out there. And anyone can hit the jackpot, which is, of course, measured in mouse clicks. (You can be sure even the gal blogging about what she had for breakfast is watching her numbers.) In the online world, clicks mean dollars.
The trouble, of course, comes in setting up a new online economy. How many clicks for how many dollars? What’s the rate of exchange? In a world where Britney has been the top search term for six of the past seven years, and where information is expected to be free, how can anyone make news financially viable?
Making a play with traditional journalism
Determined to uphold professional distinction above all else (presumed translation: no Britney stories), Joel Kramer latched on to a stable of reporters cast off in the recent newsroom purges on both sides of the river and set out to create a quality local news source. With the exception of a few videos and slideshows, MinnPost’s editorial model is little more than traditional newspaper journalism distributed online (in fact, until a few weeks ago, Kramer insisted on distributing fifteen-hundred Xeroxed printouts for those committed to words on paper).
While web-based businesses across the globe save on rent by having staff work from home, Kramer resists this as well. He is proud of MinnPost’s old-school newsroom, which features open space to encourage dialogue, an office for the business staff, and conference rooms and workstations around the perimeter. Just as newspaper reporters rush to meet an evening deadline, MinnPost contributors—drawn from a pool of fifty-six freelancers—submit stories each morning so that web editor Corey Anderson can post them online at 11 a.m. This also runs counter to standard web protocol, where news is live twenty-four-hours and reporters bypass editors by posting their stories directly on the website. “Our goal is not to exploit the web,” explained Kramer, “but to provide quality journalism.”
Can MinnPost make profitable use of an online medium without fully engaging its resources? Nora Paul, Director of the Institute for New Media Studies at the U of M, says no. “[Kramer] hasn’t embraced what’s interesting about online,” she argued, “which is the ability to create packages with a shelf-life, and that will have utility for a long time.” According to Paul, online news organizations need to find new and compelling ways to tell stories, and develop creative ways to pull together data. While most local online news sources have not availed themselves of Paul’s expertise, newspapers across the country are turning to her for the winning formula. Last month, eleven top newspapers, including The New York Times and the Washington Post, met with Paul (and five graduate students) to formulate questions they want answered about offering news on the web. What’s the best way to display video? Do news crawlers attract more clicks than breaking news digests? What’s the most engaging way to tell a story?
Above all, the web offers flexibility. “Online, the walls should be much more porous,” explained Paul, “so that you have an evolving story-telling space.” In other words, there’s no excuse for anything static. Online news is more a process than a product; it’s created through interaction and various points of view, so stories build up almost organically, with varied perspectives, in varied forms, from varied arenas. Ideally, the end result is a much broader picture, and arguably a more compelling story than we’ve been reading on paper for centuries.