McGuire on Media

MinnPost is good, getting better, still has to reach higher

MinnPost made its entry into the emerging world of online newspapers last week amid a lot of national attention and a firm admonishment from its founder, Joel Kramer, that this was going to be “for people seriously interested in news.”

I was lukewarm last Wednesday when I saw the debut edition. My enthusiasm  level has significantly changed. A week after opening day the publication is starting to hit more consistently and shows real promise. 

As I’ve disclosed before, I am on MinnPost’s “National Board of Advisors” and a contributor.  In fact, my wife and I are labeled Media Moguls in the publication’s way-over the top and much too cutesy listing of supporters. That listing, and my negative view of it, is indicative of how much input said board of advisors has had.  My friends, Managing Editor Roger Buoen and Joel, are going to have to suffer through my observations out here in the blogosphere.  I know they know I will write nothing I would not say to them if they were in the room with me.

In a Minnesota Public Radio story last week Kramer wrote his own mission: “By no means does Kramer expect to replace either paper as a primary news source for Twin Cities readers. But Kramer expects to win a solid core of readers by serving up a steady diet of in-depth enterprise, investigatory and analytical stories, marked by compelling storytelling.” Kramer says, “My goal was to create a sustainable model for high-quality journalism.”

That last part won’t be decided for a long time, but the truth of Kramer’s first declaration that MinnPost cannot be a primary news source hit me upside the head hard the first two days I read it. That one site cannot be a primary source is not news. I knew that, but the palpable realization of it unnerved me. That fact confirms an important truth about the future of news. The one-stop shopping experience for serious news gatherers has ended.  MinnPost will have to be read as part of a news regimen.  There is nothing wrong with that and I’m proud to donate to that effort; but allow me to wallow in my regret that the day of what I call the “big tent” journalism that could serve a mass market with a cafeteria approach is gone.

That said, I think there is real potential for Kramer to serve that “solid core of readers.” As I’ve written before, in 1995 or so, our crack Star Tribune pollster, Rob Daves, told us that core reader number was 27 percent of the audience.  I have no clue what it might be today. I do know that during my summer stay in Minneapolis a score or more of such readers told me they were frustrated with the Star Tribune. 

That’s the audience Kramer is looking for, and the first week of the site clearly speaks to that market.  Where I am unconvinced lies in the second part of Kramer’s quote: “serving up a steady diet of in-depth enterprise, investigatory and analytical stories, marked by compelling storytelling.” It’s there, and today’s offering seems a more fulfilling diet, but I have been more than a bit hungry for the “compelling  and investigatory” stuff. That is exactly what MinnPost will need to do more to be successful.

My quick report card would look like this:

Sophistication–A. The Twin Cities market remains one of the most sophisticated in the country.  Kramer taught me how to do sophisticated in ways he probably never appreciated. And, Buoen always pushed reporters to a level that rose above the common. These two know sophistication, and it shows throughout the site. Now they have to add some “edginess” to that sophistication.

Quality Writing—A-  Again, this plays to the strength of the top two leaders. Additionally, the freelancers MinnPost has contracted are an impressive lot, and excellent writing marks most of that list. It comes across in the first week. Even stories that strike me as less than compelling are well-written for the most part.  Enthusiasts of good writing will be rewarded. Dave Wood is one of those profile writers angels probably admire.  His gut-grabbing piece on Jon Hassler captures the drama that Hassler’s life has become. I contend Wood’s piece has to become the norm more than the exception. Personal profiles– not the sappy, groveling indulgent celebrity profiles we see so much of these days, but tough honest profiles that capture the dynamics of the human spirit– are still in high demand by readers. And, when those profiles are accompanied by the powerful video that accompanies the Hassler story, this sort of piece could become MinnPost’s calling card.

World view. B+  Obviously MinnPost editors want to keep this in balance, but the current World/nation page is pretty darn impressive.  It looks like  Susan Albright and Steve Berg are going to do the heavy lifting, and that’s an impressive pair.  I found their early postings refreshing and informative.  It’s not the kind of reporting and thinking you see in most regional metro papers these days. And, that may not be the acid test, but it is a good place to start. As good as those two are, David Brauer’s piece on the possible myth of public disdain for Democratic leadership in Congress was a show stopper. It’s the kind of piece that makes you question the common wisdom, and it should be the metaphor piece Buoen and Kramer use as their rallying cry for insightful provocation.  

Local perspective stories  C+ It’s not that such stories are totally missing. I simply believe this has to be an A for MinnPost to thrive. Steve Berg’s piece ( can we spell prolific B-e-r-g?) on Chicago Ave becoming a medical corridor perfectly assembles a “bunch of stuff I sort of knew, but had not put into a comprehensive whole.” Berg ties it all together for me.  This is another standard-bearing type of piece.  MinnPost is going to have to do that kind of story every day to make a telling impact in the community. Joe Kimball’s piece on Jesse Ventura’s new book and G.R Anderson’s story on the Rybak -Pawlenty truce gone south are great examples of taking the time to put local people and issues in the proper perspective.  Those stories are going to make MinnPost different if they keep up the pace.

Holy Crap, Mabel!” stories-D –I used the less elegant phrase when I was Star Tribune editor to describe pieces that would make Harold and Mabel interrupt their reading at the breakfast table to shout and point at a story or set of facts that surprised and set tongues wagging.  The nature of a supplementary news site demands a steady diet of such stories.  Local blockbusters have to be a mainstay. I am not following Twin City news all that closely, but Jay Weiner’s post late Wednesday afternoon that the new Gopher stadium may have a name crisis did that for me. To a lesser degree so did Christine Capecci’s story on the racism on a local web site I won’t even bother to mention or link. That raised my eyebrows and that’s a good thing. I am afraid though, as I used to say in the newsroom, my socks remained in place too much of the time.  Local blockbusters are not easy to come by. Neither are readers. The  readers MinnPost wants need to feel there is a big payoff for clicking on the site.  Too many stories are polite evergreen.

I gave out a lot more D’s on the papers I have been grading for the last week (thus explaining this blog’s short hiatus.) MinnPost editors and reporters deserve to be proud of what they’ve done in the first week. The site is easy to navigate and it promotes from story to story with subtlety and effectiveness. Founder Kramer has said the site cannot be all things to all people, and I hope that remains a mantra. There will be pressure to do fringe stories that do not address the core mission.  I hope those pressures are resisted. 

This is all one man’s opinion. MinnPost will get better, and it has to be better. Still, I am proud of the money Jean I spent on this bold and noble endeavor.  

UC BERKELEY’S DEAN QUAGMIRE SHOULD BE A CAUTIONARY TALE.

It is difficult not to use bad words in discussing the mess in the UC Berkeley journalism department. This Contra Costa Times story is a must read.  The lack of transparency from a journalism school is maddening, but  two issues should be screaming at people in the academy and in journalism. A) There are precious few women serving as deans of journalism schools and this woman, Dianne Lynch, got ousted  before she even got to campus. I do not pretend  to know the details of this fiasco, but nobody should be proud of this outcome. Look at your journalism classes for heaven’s sake. If they are like mine, they are 80  percent female. How long can we play this white male power game with a straight face?  B) After watching this unseemly affair and the stunning lack of openness, who in the name of the journalism gods would want to take that job now? Good luck.