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Summary of Meeting with Joel Kramer
8301 Creekside Circle, Bloomington, MN 55437
Thursday, July 12,
Kramer, former publisher, Star Tribune, founder and former
executive director, Growth and Justice
Verne Johnson, chair; Lee Canning, Chuck Clay, Paul Gilje (by phone), John
Mooty, and Jim Olson (by phone)
Context of the meeting
Caucus has conducted several meetings on public affairs information
coverage by Twin Cities media. Today's meeting is with Joel Kramer, who
is exploring the possibility of an internet-based newspaper for the Twin
Cities area and the state of Minnesota
Welcome and introduction
introduced Kramer, former publisher of the Star Tribune and founder
and former executive director of Growth and Justice, a think tank.
Comments and discussion
Kramer's remarks and in discussion with Civic Caucus members the following
points were raised:
1. Pessimistic future for
newspapers --The newspaper business future is very concerning,
he said. Newspapers have been shrinking and will continue to do so. The
reason is not primarily the drop in readership, although there is some of
that. The Star Tribune still has 350,000 daily circulation, with
about one million readers. That's a lot of people and influence.
The problem is advertising. For 150 years newspapers were
able to support a higher level of journalism through advertising.
Television never proved to be as serious an advertising threat as feared.
But with the internet the powerful position of the newspaper has
dropped. With its loss of advertising to the internet, the newspaper
industry cannot sustain the journalistic payroll of the past. Internet
advertising is growing at 30 percent a year, he said. Moreover, it's not
just the volume of advertising that is going to the internet. Much
advertising remains in the newspapers, but newspapers aren't able to
charge the rates for advertising they used to get.
The newspaper reader never has picked up much of the tab, and
now with outlets on the internet giving information away, Kramer doesn't
see any way for newspapers to be as profitable or as big in the future.
Younger people are more attracted to the internet. An audience of one
million certainly can sustain a business, but only if they pay more. A
core group of people want to read and are frustrated because quality is
deteriorating. But some of them are willing to pay, he said. Kramer
believes that it might be possible to raise the quality and the price and
accept a lower level of circulation, say, reaching 200,000 copies a day
instead of 350,000. But that's not the strategy the Star Tribune
or others--with the exception of the New York
following. The Star Tribune is changing its content in a hope to
appeal to less-dedicated readers and, thereby, maintain circulation, but
Kramer is doubtful that such a strategy will succeed. He doubts that a
strategy to direct more resources to suburban news, for example, will hold
2. National newspapers not as
bad off --Kramer said the newspaper problem is concentrated
among the dailies in the metro areas. The San Francisco Chronicle
already has had four rounds of staff reducing buyouts, and the Star
Tribune has had two rounds. It will get worse. National papers such
Times, and Wall
Street Journal are also challenged, but remain healthier. It was
noted that Wall Street Journal readers apparently are willing to
pay, including for internet service, but Kramer said most of those people
are on expense accounts and are buying information that they believe will
help them make money or improve their careers. . Interestingly, he said,
dailies in small urban areas and suburban dailies are generally faring
better than those in metro areas.
Greater awareness of leading newspapers
—Increased access through the Internet to a national paper like the
has the effect of increasing the serious reader’s appetite for quality
news. Years ago when he was an editor, Kramer said that there might have
been 5,000 Minnesotans who read the
So there weren't too many people asking, "Why don't you cover the news
like the Times?"
Today, with the
for free on the internet, many more people think that coverage by their
own metro newspapers ought to be equivalent to that of the
4. Finding a way to pay for good
journalism --The big question for good coverage on the internet
in the future is how to find a revenue source to pay for creating the
journalism, which is expensive. You have advertising on the internet, of
course, but a lot of that advertising is disconnected from news. For
example, he said, classified advertising was a very important source of
revenue for the newspapers. But classifieds on the internet no longer
have, nor need, proximity to the news.
Blogging is good for democracy. Everyone can express
opinions. But even the bloggers need a good source of news upon which
they can base their comments.
5. Absence of an agenda-setting platform
noted by a member of the Civic Caucus that years ago the Star Tribune
had large circulation that went far beyond the Twin Cities area to
rural areas and even other states. Thus there was a common platform for
shaping issues. Such an agenda-setting platform no longer is present.
Kramer replied that the internet at least offers some opportunity for
returning to a statewide news and agenda-setting focus, because it does
not cost any more to deliver the news online to someone in rural Minnesota
than it costs to deliver it to someone in the metro area.
6. Difficulty in sustaining two
metro dailies in the Twin Cities area --In response to a
question, Kramer believes that in the future there will be one print
newspaper where currently there are two, the Pioneer Press and the
7. Finding quality public
affairs coverage --A key issue for the Civic Caucus, a member
said, is how to assure quality coverage of public policy and governmental
action at the state and local level.
8. Kramer's preliminary
business model for a new product --Kramer outlined parts of an
evolving strategy he is developing. First, he said, is to start
something new that focuses on a smaller audience-- in effect, the more
serious readers who want quality coverage and feel they are getting less
of it than they used to. This means aiming for perhaps 200,000 readers,
many of whom are opinion leaders, not trying to cater to the varied
interests of more than a million people.
Second, he said, is to use the internet, because it enables
you to produce a product much more cheaply than is possible via print.
No printing or distribution expenses--big expenses with print media--are
Third, a non-profit approach is more likely to work than a
for-profit approach. You might have 200,000 serious readers, but perhaps
only 12,000 are willing to pay. If you sell your news to that number of
people, you have a newsletter, not a newspaper. Thus, Kramer is thinking
that a non-profit approach, combined with donors' contributions and
advertising, is the most likely route to success. In discussion with
Kramer it was noted that his approach is strikingly similar to that of
Minnesota Public Radio (MPR). He said that there is room in the market for
that same model to be applied to an audience that wants the same kind of
quality in the written word as MPR seeks to provide on the radio.
9. Some models to build upon
--Kramer said that a number of metro or regional news sites have
started up on the internet in the last year or two. One in San Diego is a
nonprofit, as is one expected to begin soon in St. Louis.
Sites in the
(Seattle-Portland) and the Rocky Mountains, on
the other hand, are for-profits. Each has a different news approach as
well, with the San Diego site focusing more on original content while the Pacific
puts more emphasis on aggregation of other publishers’ content. Following
the meeting Lee Canning reported on two of these sites.
Go to http://www.crosscut.com/ for an internet service for Seattle
and northwestern USA. Crosscut describes itself as follows: "Crosscut
is a guide to local and Northwest news, a place to report and discuss
local news, and a platform for new tools to convey local news. The
journalism of regular citizens appears alongside that of professionals.
News coverage with detachment, traditionally practiced by mainstream media
outlets, coexists with advocacy journalism and opinion."
Go to http://voiceofsandiego.org/ for an internet service for San Diego.
Voice of San
itself "a nonprofit, independent and insightful online newspaper focused
on issues impacting the San Diego region." Its mission statement: "To
consistently deliver ground-breaking investigative journalism for the San
Diego region. To increase civic participation by giving citizens the
knowledge and in-depth analysis necessary to become advocates for good
government and social progress."
10. Effective fund-raising is key
been seeking larger donations to create a reserve that would cover losses
in early years, giving the enterprise time to build advertising revenue to
sustain quality journalism. If possible, he'd like to have the internet
service operational by this fall.
11. Interest of the Civic Caucus
on the material, not the media --In the
discussion a Civic Caucus member said that whatever approach is taken that
our interest is in the generating and disseminating of quality, serious
public affairs information, by whatever media works best.
The discussion extended briefly to the role of the Civic
Caucus itself in sharing information. While not diminishing the
significance of generating proposals for action, some Civic Caucus members
said that the main contribution of the organization has been in
distributing information and in promoting intelligent discussion of
--On behalf of the
Civic Caucus, Verne Johnson thanked Kramer for meeting with us today.
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. Core participants
include persons of varying political persuasions, reflecting
years of leadership in politics and business.
A working group meets face-to-face to
provide leadership. They are Verne C. Johnson, chair; Lee
Canning, Charles Clay, Bill Frenzel,
Paul Gilje, Jim Hetland,
John Mooty, Jim Olson, Wayne Popham and John Rollwagen.