Improve Minnesota by bettering the
quality of our public discourse
A Civic Caucus
Review of Minnesota’s Public
March 10, 2017
John Adams, Steve Anderson,
Dave Broden, Lonnie Broden, Janis Clay (executive director), Pat
Davies, Paul Gilje, Randy Johnson, Dan Loritz, Marina Lyon, Paul
Ostrow (chair), Dana Schroeder (associate director), Clarence
Shallbetter, Andrew Wallmeyer.
Engaging more people in
respectful and informed discussions of where we ought to head as a
community is one of the best ways to improve our public
decision-making, according to MinnPost Publisher and CEO Andy
Wallmeyer. He agrees with the Civic Caucus that improved public
decision-making is one of the surest paths to a better Minnesota.
MinnPost exists to improve Minnesota by improving the quality of
our public discourse, he says.
He reviews the November 2016 Civic Caucus
Thinking Ahead: Strengthening Minnesota's Public-Policy Process.He
likes the report's philosophy and the Civic Caucus's emphasis on
inclusion and transparency, both in the report and in the way it
operates. But he believes the structures and mechanisms outlined in
the report would not achieve the kind of public discussion the Civic
Caucus is seeking. Instead, they would limit the number of people
who choose to participate in the public-policy process. He says the
format of the conversation the Civic Caucus suggests in its report
demands a lot of its participants. He suggests a more open approach.
Wallmeyer discusses the problem of "filter
bubbles" created by platforms like Facebook that show people only
things they'll like and with which they'll agree. He says we also
create our own place-based filter bubbles by where we choose to
live, with our neighbors more likely to be like us today than they
were even 10 years ago. These filter bubbles can cause people to
assume that theirs is the only legitimate point of view.
MinnPost sees itself as a statewide
media outlet, Wallmeyer says, and it hopes to expand its outstate
Andrew Wallmeyer is publisher
and CEO of MinnPost,
an online-only news publisher best known for its coverage of
Minnesota politics and policy. Wallmeyer joined MinnPost as
publisher in 2014 and added the CEO title in 2016, when founders
Laurie and Joel Kramer retired. As publisher and CEO, Wallmeyer
leads a staff of 22, spending most of his time on business
development, audience growth and strategic partnerships.
Prior to joining MinnPost,
Wallmeyer spent three years as a strategic management consultant at
McKinsey & Company, where he served a diverse array of clients. He
concluded his time at the firm as a public-sector fellow, working on
projects focused on state education policy, the use of technology in
K-12 instruction and citizen satisfaction with state government.
Before his time at McKinsey, Wallmeyer
reported for a number of news organizations in the U.S. and Germany,
including The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times,
the Associated Press, Dow Jones Newswires, the Wisconsin
State Journal and the Stillwater (Minn.) Gazette.
Wallmeyer holds a B.A. in journalism from
the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an M.B.A. from the
University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.
About MinnPost :
an online-only news publisher best known for its coverage of
Minnesota politics and policy. MinnPost was founded in 2007
by Laurie and Joel Kramer out of concern over legacy media
companies' declining investment in high-quality public affairs
journalism. Since that time, MinnPost has grown to become one
of Minnesota's most respected news outlets, as well as a national
leader in the nascent nonprofit news industry. In two of the last
three years, it was named among the nation's three best outlets of
its size by the Online News Association.
On average, according to Publisher and CEO
Andy Wallmeyer, MinnPost attracts 465,000 unique visitors
every month. (A person would be counted twice if she or he logged in
on two different devices during the month.)
September 2015, the Civic Caucus has been undertaking a review of
the quality of Minnesota's past,
present and future public-policy process for anticipating, defining
and resolving major community problems. On Nov. 27, 2016, the Caucus
issued its report based on that review, Looking Back,
Thinking Ahead: Strengthening Minnesota's Public-Policy Process.The
Civic Caucus interviewed MinnPost Publisher and CEO Andy
Wallmeyer to get his reaction to the report and to learn about
MinnPost's mission and its contribution to improving the
public-policy process in Minnesota.
The philosophy in the Civic Caucus report on improving the
public-policy process in Minnesota is good.
Andy Wallmeyer of MinnPost
started his remarks with that thought and said, "I'm a big fan of
what the Civic Caucus is doing and what you're trying to do. I
really like the philosophy in the report. I--and I believe everyone
else here at MinnPost--agree that improved public
decision-making is one of the surest paths to a better Minnesota.
"And engaging more people in respectful
and informed discussions of where we ought to head as a community is
one of the best ways to improve our public decision-making. We're
very much on the same page with the Civic Caucus. It's why
MinnPost exists and it's what we're trying to do every day,
albeit in a different way. I like the Caucus's emphasis on inclusion
and transparency, both in the text of your report and in the way you
The vision outlined in the report would
not achieve the kind of public discussion the Civic Caucus is
seeking. Wallmeyer said that is his harshest critique of the
report. "The structures and mechanisms you're suggesting would limit
the number of people who choose to participate in the process," he
"It has a strongly institutional focus,"
he said of the process the report recommends. "The process seems to
be driven by a relatively small number of organizations--cultural,
academic, civic institutions. In that sense, it feels a little bit
out of step with where, especially, younger people in the population
see the nature of civic discourse and what they expect."
"By focusing on a small number of
organizations that speak with an institutional voice," Wallmeyer
continued, "there's a lot of emphasis on authority and distillation
and synthesis, which is good. But people are inherently suspicious
and are growing more suspicious of our leading cultural institutions
every day. I don't think the answer is to move away from the
institutions, but it does change how we have to operate."
He said people in the news business can no
longer say, "I write for the paper. I gave you my conclusion.
This is my source. Take my word for it." He believes there's a lot
of work institutions can do in terms of focusing and advancing the
conversation, but the general public expects institutions, including
the media, to show their work in how they reached their conclusions.
"What did you do? Who did you talk to?" That's especially true of
millennials, he said.
In the media landscape, Wallmeyer said,
there are organizations that have risen to become some of the
largest public affairs or media organizations out there in a span of
10 years. He pointed out that Google and Facebook are each less than
20 years old.
There's very much a generational mindset
out there. Wallmeyer made that comment and said, "There's a risk
when we overly emphasize institutional authority, because it can
delegitimize the process or product in the eyes of some people.
They're inherently suspicious of institutions. They're inherently
suspicious of Congress. They're inherently suspicious of the media.
There's a millennial mindset that's a never-ending quest for
An interviewer commented that millennials
don't watch mainstream media, but they're just as well informed on
topics and issues as we are. They're getting their information from
multiple sources and they assimilate information differently.
There are differences between data and
information, and between knowledge and wisdom. An interviewer
made that remark and said many young people get caught up in data
and information, but they have very little knowledge about how
"Where do we go when people traffic in
this data-rich world," the interviewer continued, "but there's no
shared knowledge base? How can we connect with that next generation
of civic leadership, those aged 18 to 25?" He said just grabbing
snatches of information is not the same as a yearlong Citizens
League study committee. You can't do that in a short conversation.
Wallmeyer responded that data, information
and knowledge are all essential to have an informed debate and
conversation. "How important is the order in which those things
come?" he asked. Some people could ask what the role of debate is.
The Civic Caucus seems to be saying you have to have knowledge in
order to participate in a debate. But some people say debate is the
process through which you acquire knowledge. You could flip the
order of those things and say anyone is welcome to the debate. If
you do this online, you don't have to be instantaneous.
"There's been a fundamental shift in the
way a public conversation unfolds," he continued, "which mirrors a
shift in the way we're approaching information more broadly. It's
like the process of editing. When do you edit? The institutional
approach is that you edit on the front end. You credential." He said
the Civic Caucus edits these conversations, for example, by deciding
which speakers to invite.
It's the same thing with the internet and
with newspapers, Wallmeyer said. "Now everybody publishes
everything. Sometimes the result is fantastic." He pointed to
Wikipedia, which he said is better in breadth and quality than the
best print encyclopedias ever were, and to Amazon reviews, which he
called "better than Consumer Reports."
"Forget about a filter in deciding who
gets to participate in this conversation," Wallmeyer advised. "The
more important questions are: How can we maximize the number of
people who participate in the conversations? How can we maximize the
number of contributions that are made? And how can we ensure that
the most valuable contributions have the greatest impact? The role
for institutions, in my view, is to structure and guide the
conversation and to make sure we're posing the right questions and
putting mechanisms in place to form a process that helps ensure the
best things rise to the top."
He said another role institutions can and
should continue to play is to help focus attention in an
increasingly fragmented world. If there were a shared civic
engagement platform where participants could pose questions and
invite everyone to submit answers, for example, leading institutions
could play a valuable role in helping point people there.
MinnPost exists to improve Minnesota
by improving the quality of our public discourse. Wallmeyer made
that statement and said, "We are about informed and respectful
dialogue." But the news media, he said, has historically been
terrible at measuring the impact of its work in those terms.
The average metro daily newspaper
traditionally received 80 to 85 percent of its revenue from
advertising, he said. "What the advertisers cared about were
eyeballs; how big is your audience? So we got really good at
measuring our audiences. But as to the impact our work has had in
the communities we serve? We haven't been nearly so good at
Wallmeyer said one measure he'd like to
use in determining MinnPost's impact in the community is the
extent to which people who read it feel they have the information
they need to have an informed position on major issues of the day
and that they understand the processes around those issues, so they
know how to engage in them. If MinnPost does those two
things, he believes, then ultimately, people will feel a greater
sense of agency--they will be more likely to feel that they can
positively impact the direction of their community.
The format of the conversation the Civic
Caucus is suggesting demands a lot of its participants.
Wallmeyer made that comment and said the table stakes for the
conversation are very high. He noted that it's very difficult to
skim a 27-page report, referring to the Civic Caucus report on
Minnesota's public-policy process, noting that many people would
likely put it into the category of "TL; DR" (Too long; didn't read).
He wondered if there's a way to have this
public-policy conversation, but to figure out what the "atomic"
units of it are and give people an option to engage at that more
atomic level. We should think about how we'll know when we have a
great public-policy discussion. "What would a more open approach
look like?" he asked.
Wallmeyer gave two examples of what he
sees as open approaches: Wikipedia and Twitter. There's a lot of
public discourse on Twitter that tags public officials, asking them,
for example, "Why aren't you fixing our potholes?" He said that's a
different kind of engagement and accountability than the traditional
call to an intern working the phones in a Congressional office,
since the Tweet is a very discrete and very public action--something
that's easy for others to view, digest and, if they care to,
interact with and/or build upon."
"Consider ways to unpack your conversation
and your conclusions into smaller pieces that are easier to digest,"
Wallmeyer advised the Civic Caucus group. "Encourage people to
engage on those elements. Consider ways to give folks as many
potential paths as possible to accessing and contributing to the
He encouraged Civic Caucus members to
imagine building something that would allow people to engage on a
single question via Facebook or Twitter. "If that were to exist, you
could tell people that this is a place to express your comments
right now, just like leaving comments at the end of an article on
MinnPost or the Star Tribune," he explained.
Is there a hierarchy of influence? An
interviewer explained an experiment that was done at the University
of Minnesota in the 1970s. The experimenters created a survey that
asked random people, "Is there a person whose opinion on a
particular issue you respect?" They then asked the same question of
the people who had been named as respected in the first survey. This
process continued in that same way, until the experimenters created
a "hierarchy of influence," the interviewer said.
The interviewer then asked how you can
intervene in a way that doesn't just spread data and knowledge, but
that influences things.
Wallmeyer responded that we could look to
Twitter and Facebook as the ultimate longitudinal extensions of the
experiment the interviewer described. "They're doing that in real
time," he said. The systems look at how many followers someone has,
what percentage of his or her posts are retweeted, what percentage
of people are reacting or interacting with a piece of information,
which people changed the direction or momentum of a particular
conversation and which people are producing the tweets or posts that
generate the most conversation.
Filter bubbles strengthen people's
ideological silos. The newer media are providing people with
more immediate information on obituaries or other pieces of news, an
interviewer commented. "But when we deal with what we do as a public
about an issue, lots of that information is clouded by people who
are in silos," the interviewer said. "They're ideologically driven
already to consume certain facts and news that strengthen their
narrow silo view."
Wallmeyer agreed. He pointed to the
"manifesto" Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg published Feb. 16, 2017, "
the piece is "enormously significant." "It
was a very public assertion--just short of mea culpa--that
Zuckerberg recognizes that the way Facebook has set up their
algorithms has created 'filter bubbles' and that the company has a
social responsibility to do something about that," Wallmeyer said. "Facebook
shows you stuff it knows you agree with, which ends up with some
unintended negative consequences."
Wallmeyer explained that a filter bubble
means someone is not even being exposed to people with alternate
points of view. In Facebook, there's an algorithm that optimizes
showing you things you'll like. "If everything you're exposed to
shows you your point of view, you think people who don't hold that
point of view are stupid," he said.
Online filter bubbles only exacerbate a
long-term trend we're seeing in the physical world that has resulted
in U.S. citizens living in more homogeneous communities than ever
before, he said. Our neighbors are inclined to be more like us than
they were 10 years ago. "It creates a place-based filter bubble," he
said. "We're choosing that ourselves." But, he said, the Facebook
filter bubble is scarier because it's so fast and so effective.
Wallmeyer said he believes Zuckerberg, in
his statement, was saying that maximizing shareholder value is not
enough, is not sufficient. "Zuckerberg came out and said we have a
responsibility to look at more than that. They're trying to figure
out exactly what that means in practice, I think, and they don't yet
have the answer."
What does democracy look like? An
interviewer commented that it's maddening to many in the Civic
Caucus that so much political conversation is completely unrelated
to public policy. "How do we change the conversation?" he asked.
"Right now it's 'Resist.' People are marching and saying, 'This is
what democracy looks like.'"
"Do you know what democracy looks like?"
the interviewer asked. "Democracy looks like a bunch of people from
all over Minnesota who have completely different political views
sitting in a room yelling and screaming at each other, but somehow
agreeing that they can figure something out. That's what democracy
The interviewer asked how we can change
the conversation from "resist." "How can we change that culture?" he
asked. "Part of being a good citizen is talking to people you
disagree with. What's the role of the Civic Caucus and MinnPost
in changing that culture?"
MinnPost does series on important
topics. Wallmeyer said his job is "to find the resources to do
stuff like that. In our second decade, we're going to double down on
the stuff we're good at, primarily providing thoughtful coverage of
state politics and policy. We want to go deeper and have more
full-time reporting positions dedicated to doing it better and
He said MinnPost is now considering
a two-to-three-year project looking at race and disparities in
Minnesota. "It would be full-time reporting--a beat for multiple
years," he said. "It would be a steady drumbeat of coverage on a
topic and would amount to a substantial body of work on a critical
issue for our state."
MinnPost thinks about partnerships,
especially with other media. "We know we're not the be-all and
end-all; no single media organization is," Wallmeyer said. "Our role
in a multi-media-outlet partnership is to provide that steady
drumbeat of high-quality coverage." He noted that MinnPost
hosts more than a dozen events each year, most of which are designed
to complement its online reports by discussing issues in person.
An interviewer asked how the in-depth
effort would compare with the Star Tribune's investigative
journalism pieces. "The Star Tribune is fantastic," Wallmeyer
responded. "We're lucky to have one of the strongest metro daily
newspapers in the nation here. People who've always lived in
Minnesota don't appreciate the unusual quality of our news-media
ecosystem. MPR (Minnesota Public Radio) is a public radio
powerhouse. TPT (Twin Cities Public Television) sets the standard
for public television broadcasters. And MinnPost is looked to
as a national leader among the newest generation of nonprofit news
"The great challenge of our industry,"
Wallmeyer continued, "is that high-quality news pieces are expensive
to produce, but have a limited shelf life. The combination of those
two things means it's hard to make a profit in the news business.
That becomes even more difficult for places that have a geographic
focus that limits the size of their audience." He said that economic
challenge is why MinnPost was founded as a nonprofit, noting
that "hard" news has always been subsidized in some form. "Back in
the day, the 'A' section of a newspaper was in effect subsidized by
other, more profitable parts of the daily newspaper bundle--by the
classifieds, the ads and syndicated content. But that product was in
effect 'unbundled' by the internet."
He said investigative journalism units are
the most expensive of all the high-quality editorial work. "It's
great when a for-profit news outlet still has an investigative
unit," he said. "We'd like to do more investigative journalism at
MinnPost. And we don't see that as an either/or proposition with
the Star Tribune. For the good of our state, we'd like to see
it be more of a 'yes, and' situation."
Are you trying to change or improve public
policy? An interviewer commented that when the Citizens League
was at its prime, study committees heard from community voices and
then came up with a proposal. "People who made public policy,
primarily the Minnesota Legislature, often adopted what we
proposed," she said. If you're trying to change public policy, you
have to give politicians something that tells them what to do. "MinnPost
ought to help us figure out how to deal with public-policy issues,
like diversity in Minnesota, with an outcome that tells public
policymakers what to do."
Wallmeyer responded that MinnPost
is not an advocacy organization and it never will be. "We'll
advocate that people should be informed and engaged, but that's
about as far as I expect you'll see us go," he said. "We're not
going to tell people who or what to vote for." Setting the agenda by
deciding what we're going to cover is an opportunity for MinnPost,
and we see our most important role in the broader conversation as
fact-finding and truth-telling.
The interviewer agreed that MinnPost
shouldn't advocate on issues. "But there are public-policy
decisions that come from good information," she said.
MinnPost sees itself as a statewide
media outlet. Wallmeyer gave that response to an interviewer's
question about whether MinnPost views itself as metro-focused
or Minnesota-focused. "Our focus is the state," he said. "We have
specific beats that are geared toward covering outstate issues.
Could we do that better? Of course we could." He said he hoped
within two months, MinnPost would be able to make an
announcement about expanding its outstate coverage.
"We are passionately committed to a
mission that serves the people and the interests of the entire state
of Minnesota," he said. "And we know we could do that better than we
We shouldn't think a small team of experts
can, by itself, come up with the best answer to a public-policy
problem. Instead,Wallmeyer believes we need to have "a more
inclusive civic dialogue that involves more of the state and helps
break through some of those filter bubbles and is structured in a
way that encourages intelligent, respectful, informed discourse."
The most important thing in encouraging
people to communicate across their differences is getting through
the filter bubble. Wallmeyer said that's a role the media have
an opportunity to play. Years back, he said, in the days of the
monolithic metro newspaper, everybody had the same front page and
one of three TV newscasts. In that way, the media helped set a
common agenda for the entire community.
While that agenda-setting power has
diminished, the media have greater opportunities to go out and have
smart conversations with people who represent different geographies
and cultures, he said. By doing that, media outlets can improve
civic discourse by helping people understand perspectives that are
different from their own.
Conservatives have a valid critique of
mainstream media that the people who are publishing and reporting
are coming dominantly from one side of the political perspective.
Wallmeyer said he believes there is truth in that statement and that
a lack of political diversity doesn't engender the great
conversations. "Even if the reporters and publishers are well
intentioned and do their best to 'call it down the middle'--and I
believe they are--those with different points of view are likely to
have differing views on where the 'middle' is. Reporters and
publishers with the same point of view are less likely to correct
their internal confirmation biases--a bias all people have--if
they're not sitting next to someone with a slightly different
perspective on where the middle is." He said he thinks about the
value of ensuring a range of diverse perspectives--and not only in
political terms--when looking at the composition of MinnPost's
There's a kinship with MinnPost in
what the Civic Caucus values and its view of a path to a better
Minnesota. "I really like what you're doing and what you're
trying to do," Wallmeyer said. "I'm happy to keep this conversation
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. The Interview Group
includes persons of varying political persuasions,
reflecting years of leadership in politics and
business. Click here
to see a short personal background of each.
S. Adams, David Broden, Audrey Clay, Janis Clay (executive director), Pat Davies, Bill Frenzel, Paul Gilje, Dwight Johnson, Randy Johnson, Sallie
Kemper, Ted Kolderie,
Dan Loritz, Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow
Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmermany,