Online journalism’s entrepreneurial gambit

For journalists like myself no longer working at major news organizations, the travails of the Minnesota Post as a non-profit online entity reported, written and edited by refugees of metropolitan dailies are at once encouraging and unsettling.

Encouraging because former Minneapolis Star-Tribune editor and publisher Joel Kramer’s baby is living up to its promise to readers on its membership brochure:

“No Britney. No Paris. No Lindsay.”

If you like the idea of a hard-core news site that delivers measured coverage of government, politics and community concerns, then MinnPost.com won’t disappoint. I was especially impressed by its recent project in conjunction with the Sunlight Foundation to track the federal money trail of each member of Minnesota’s congressional delegation.

But MinnPost’s.com’s situation is also unsettling in that 10 months after its heavily publicized launch, Kramer isn’t certain that his business model — a combination of foundation money, limited banner advertising and reader contributions, is going to pan out.

Speaking at the Society of Professional Journalists national conference in Atlanta last week, Kramer was frank that his experiment — inspired by a similar venture in San Diego — remains just that. Both from an editorial and financial perspective.

“We don’t think we’re more virtuous. We’re serious, but we’re learning that the Web is difficult,” he said after appearing at a session on non-profit journalism with ProPublica managing editor Stephen Engelberg. “We don’t know if we have enough money to get through four years.”

That’s the goal Kramer has set for MinnPost.com to break even. Kramer has raised more than $1 million for the venture largely through his own efforts via corporate and philanthropic connections, including the Knight Foundation. The idea is to be self-sustaining with “no permanent begging of foundations.”

Getting major retailers on board to purchase banner advertising is difficult, since non-profit news doesn’t attract enough traffic. Kramer estimates his site has roughly 20,000 regular readers, with about 1,000 individuals making donations between $10 and $10,000.

Expenses for MinnPost.com are limited to $100,000 a month, a figure Kramer says he can’t raise if the site is to reach its objectives. He has a full-time staff (he and his wife do not take salaries) of six editors, but the site depends on content created by a collection of 40 freelancers.

They are experienced journalists, many of them veterans of the Twin Cities’ declining major papers, the Star-Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press. These are backgrounds that Kramer demands for those seeking to contribute to the publication. But they are obviously making far less than they were during the not-so-distant heyday of legacy print media.

“The future of journalism is going to move a lot of people into entrepreneurial journalism,” he said. That’s a phrase that’s starting to take off in the profession, especially as more mid-career journalists are being axed through buyouts and layoffs.

Kramer says he’s fielding plenty of inquiries from parties interested in starting similar sites in other cities. His advice to those with journalism in their bones: “Find a business partner.” Not just to raise money, but to lend credibility to the enterprise.

Journalism 2.0 author Mark Briggs, who also has just left a newsroom environment, says the industry is starving for news entrepreneurs for whom “true research and development means [the] painstaking pursuit of an idea.”

• Here’s another novel idea, this one in a smaller market, and undertaken by a mainstream newspaper chain: Start an online news site in a town in which you don’t publish a newspaper, but someone else does. And where your competitor doesn’t have much of a Web component.

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