In theory, news reporting has long been valued as a public good. But in modern American history, where newspaper publishers traditionally operated as local monopolies and consistently pulled in 20%-plus profit margins, the idea of public sympathy for newspapers was really beside the point. Publishers had it both ways: well-funded newsrooms and healthy, stable earnings.
Now, of course, those happy days may have disappeared forever. As layoffs affect almost every major newsroom in the country and news coverage - once seen as a given - morphs into a dwindling resource, might the nonprofit route actually prove to be a viable future path for good journalism on the local level?
Joel Kramer believes it will. The former editor and publisher of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Kramer is now editor and CEO of MinnPost.com, an online, nonprofit journalism venture that he hopes will be an effective stopgap against the erosion of quality news coverage in his region.
Launched last week, MinnPost is run by a lean and mean staff (supplemented by dozens of freelancers), made up mostly of journalists who have been laid off recently from local papers. Indeed, it was the more than 100 layoffs in the course of a year that inspired Kramer to start the daily news site in the first place.
"I could feel a lot of angst among serious news people, and people who cared about public life and public issues, about what was going to happen with the tremendous reduction in the number of journalists, and a fear that it was just going to continue," he says. "Because what was driving it was advertising declines at the major papers, and there's no evidence that's stopping."
MinnPost is not a "citizen journalism" project. While Kramer says he looks for reader engagement, the site will remain a professionally produced news report. Its coverage areas include national and international news, arts, and sports, but it will essentially be a local news source. Unlike ProPublica, another high-profile nonprofit journalism project led by Paul Steiger, former editor of The Wall Street Journal, MinnPost will operate like a startup local newspaper, rather than a national supplement supplying other papers.
The question on the minds of those in the journalism world - many of whom are tenuously clinging to jobs themselves - will be whether MinnPost's financial model turns out to be viable. The site raised $850,000 from four "founding families," according to Kramer (including his own), a $250,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, and $130,000 from hundreds of local donors in a "membership" model like that of public radio. It also sells ads. Its annual operating budget is a little over $1 million, which puts it in the clear for this year, but hardly assures its future survival.
"In the long term, our plan is to get two-thirds of our revenue from advertising and sponsorship; one-third from members," says Kramer. "We're telling the foundations that we need their money for the first few years, and then eventually we will be able to sustain ourselves just on these other sources of money."
If - and it's a big "If" - MinnPost succeeds, the Star-Tribune and other local papers that have cut journalists because of falling revenue may end up with egg on their faces. The site's survival would prove that there is a significant sector of the market they had overlooked: readers who really care.
"We are adopting a very clear strategy of focusing on the more news-intense reader," Kramer says. "The newspapers do have a strategy of trying to serve a much broader audience, people with very different news habits."
The bad news for newspapers is if they lose the core of their readership - citizens interested in local civic issues - to sites like MinnPost, they will be trying to build a business on the back of casual sports fans and comics readers. The center cannot hold.