What’s the State of Alternative Media in the Twin Cities?
We talked shop with newish digital outlets Bring Me the News, Minnesota Reformer, MinnPost, Sahan Journal, and Minneapolis Voices.
9:58 AM CDT on June 29, 2023
It has been an ugly couple decades in the U.S. media business. Between 2008 and 2020, 26% of U.S. newsroom jobs vanished, according to Pew Research Center. During that same span, digital newsroom employment boomed, but not nearly enough to offset the hemorrhaging of journalism jobs. The pandemic accelerated the bloodletting, and, in recent months, axes began swinging with era-ending frequency inside the newsrooms of former digital darlings like Vice Media, Buzzfeed News, and FiveThirtyEight.
But remarkably, things are not as apocalyptic in the Twin Cities news ecosystem. In fact, overall health appears to be trending in *knocks thunderously on wood* a less dire direction. The Star Tribune is cited (sometimes breathlessly) as a model 21st century media organization; despite retention issues and staff grumblings, MPR/APM remains a public radio powerhouse; and the Pioneer Press, though weathered from years of vampiric hedge fund ownership, keeps chugging right along.
And, perhaps miraculously, startup outlets have emerged to fill the alternative news space once occupied by print operations like City Pages, Twin Cities Reader, the Southwest and Downtown Journals, The Rake, Metro Magazine, A.V. Club Twin Cities, and Vita.mn. (The author of this story went down with three of those ships—coincidence?) After locally pioneering nonprofit MinnPost became the forerunner in 2007, the trend of digitally native newsrooms would accelerate over the past five years with the launches of Bring Me the News, Minnesota Reformer, Sahan Journal, Racket, and Minneapolis Voices.
"I’m thrilled that enough talented journalists are willing to put in the sweat equity needed to keep local audiences informed and entertained," says David Brauer, a retired journalist who held the last official media critic gig in town. "It isn’t easy, and it’s truly a labor of love, in that it’s very hard for me to see these businesses scaling up—certainly not to the scale of the local outlets they replaced. The ad revenues just aren’t there, and any digital outlet that doesn’t depend on subscriptions, memberships, foundation money, or outright charity is kidding itself. This is increasingly true of the Strib, too, by the way."
As we began prepping our annual report—an article that overshares about every data set, dollar, and dream inside Racket HQ—we wondered: How are the other upstart alt outlets faring in this godforsaken industry? So, summoning the inherent nosiness required to swim in said industry, we asked our peers for peeks under the hoods of their operations.
The individual outlets vary greatly in their approaches and models, but one throughline emerged from our conversations: The cutthroat mentality of legacy media doesn't exist in our faction of the local news landscape. Rather, a genuine sense of solidarity permeates each org; don't make us quote Wellstone.
Nobody pretends it’s easy making money in journalism today. Questions about challenges yielded the verbatim response “How much time ya got?” on two separate occasions. Yet, with no bankrolling from billionaire owners or VC firms to be found, each business seems determined to plow ahead. And, at the risk of sounding sanctimonious or self-serving, that really fucking matters. When local news disappears, Margaret Sullivan wrote last year in the Washington Post, “Voter participation declines. Corruption, in business and government, finds more fertile ground. And false information spreads wildly.”
Meet the newish crop of digital journalism shops determined to keep the Twin Cities from becoming a news desert.
Funding: Roughly, 30% membership; 21% major gifts; 19% foundation grants; 10.5% ads; 9.5% events; 6% sponsorships; 4% corporate gifts
Staff members: 17
Web traffic: 433,000 unique visitors per month
Newsletter subscribers: 20,000+
Approach: “Explanatory journalism,” says executive director Tanner Curl. “Taking the readers beyond the what and when, and into the how and the why with trustworthy reporting that guides people through what’s happening in our state.”
Joel Kramer, the co-founder of MinnPost, admits he didn’t “understand online” before launching his digital nonprofit newsroom. The ex-Star Tribune publisher had great instincts, though.
"Joel came to the journalism school with a crazy idea for a new web-based news site,” former journalism professor and Strib reporter Chris Ison told MinnPost in 2017. “There was a lot of upheaval in the Twin Cities news market, and as I recall his pitch, he was concerned that the cutbacks everywhere were resulting in less in-depth coverage. This community, especially, really had a continuing hunger for good, thoughtful news and [thought] that there was space for more of that here. He was trying to figure out what people believed was possible."
Turns out his vision was possible. MinnPost has evolved from a freelance-heavy startup geared toward news junkies to one of the state’s premier newsrooms. At the tail end of the George W. Bush administration, the industry as a whole had descended into its still-ongoing profitability crisis as lucrative print ads evaporated. Kramer & Co. aced two pillars of what appear to be the most future-proof model: Go digital and don’t count on ad sales.
“2007 simultaneously feels like a long time ago and not that long ago,” Tanner Curl says. “I don’t think digital news was a mainstream idea back then. Joel and [co-founder/wife] Laurie [Kramer] tried a lot of different things, a lot of experimentation.”
Curl has observed “an element of news avoidance, news fatigue” over the past year, but says MinnPost posted its highest-ever web traffic throughout the pandemic and the uprising after George Floyd’s murder. “Impact” is the nonprofitty word used to measure great stories, he says, adding that his newsroom has churned out plenty this year: Ava Kian's four-part series on the health disparities Black Minnesotans encounter; Capitol reporter Peter Callaghan's 10th anniversary retrospective on gay marriage in Minnesota; and Kyle Stokes’s accessibly wonky breakdown on the power balance of the Minneapolis City Council. “What are the voices of real-world people who are impacted by policy? These aren’t academic exercises,” Curl says of his team’s editorial ethos.
MinnPost’s diversified cash flow led to a total revenue of $1,954,386 in 2021, according to its most recent 990 form. Charitable budgets tend to fluctuate as the broader economy ebbs and flows, Curl says, though a recent downtick in that area was offset by a substantial boost from individual donors. MinnPost’s relationships with foundation and corporate benefactors can manifest in potentially uncomfortable ways, like insurance giant UnitedHealth buying sponsored content or power companies and civic bankrollers sponsoring entire verticals. (To be clear: MinnPost states its newsroom operates with complete editorial autonomy from its brand partners.)
Despite its mighty stature among the alternative outlets we’re writing about here, MinnPost’s staff of 17 is the size of a single department at the Star Tribune, where 230+ journalists still work.
“There’s a challenge around scale and adaptability in a digital environment, audience discovery has become more challenging” Curl says, noting that the New York Times has entire teams devoted to that very subject. “What are the fads, what’s real, what reinforces our mission?”
Curl says he’s excited to watch local digital newsrooms pop up, add to the vitality of the media environment, and ultimately serve as test cases for what works financially. Looking to the future, he’s bullish on the nonprofit model and, observing how MinnPost and Sahan Journal have grown, he might be right.
“This work can’t be the happy byproduct of commercial interests; it’s too important for that,” Curl says. “If you make the case that journalism is a cornerstone of democracy, I have a hard time seeing how you put it behind a paywall.”
Bring Me The News
Funding: 100% ads
Staff members: 10
Web traffic: 9 million monthly pageviews
Newsletter subscribers: Almost 30,000
Approach: “Basically, we’re for people who are looking for a broad spectrum of the most important and relevant news of the day,” says co-founder Adam Uren.
Adam Uren wasn’t sure he wanted to talk. The wry Brit doesn’t like discussing himself or his business but, he adds with a chuckle, he’s also annoyed when Bring Me The News gets left out of the local media discussion. It really shouldn't: Over the past five years Uren and his biz partner, Joe Nelson, have grown what was once a weirdly named news aggregation service into a web traffic juggernaut. And they did so via a biz model that industry forecasters have largely written off.
Let’s rewind to 2014, back when Uren and Nelson worked for Rick Kupchella’s BringMeTheNews. Kupchella, a longtime KARE 11 news anchor, sold his five-year-old operation to the Pohlad family’s Go Media the following year, telling MinnPost that the website with “a million-plus” monthly audience, “was going to take a lot longer than we hoped to scale up market-by-market.”
BMTN was rebranded to GoMN.com and would last for three years, when its billionaire ownership group lost interest.
“The day after we were told we're losing our jobs, we were basically offered the opportunity to buy it—the name, the website, the social media accounts,” says Uren, who had immigrated to the U.S. in 2014. “We’re both journalists, and it was a price we could afford. It was basically just me and Joe, and whatever money we could pull together.”
In those early days of ownership, an ex-coworker told Uren and Nelson they might be able to pay grocery bills with their new company.
“That stuck in our craw a bit,” Uren says. “I'm not saying this has all been about proving that person wrong… but it fired us up, to prove we can make this work.”
Credit to the Pohlad family’s generosity and/or indifference: They parted ways with a robust suite of social media accounts—including 100,000+ Facebook followers—on the cheap. Rebranding yet again caused SEO hiccups and confused some advertisers, Uren remembers, but that vast Facebook reach still accounted for 70% of the site’s traffic. (He says it’s close to 20% these days, following Meta’s recent throttling of news shares.)
Uren and Nelson have pushed hard for more original reporting on a site that was once derided as “Steal Me the News.” And they’ve accomplished that, though you won’t find longform reporting projects on BMTW: The bread ‘n’ butter remains quick, digestible crime, weather, sports, and culture coverage. And the “very difficult and exhausting” process of growing the website is paying off. Its co-owners have added full-time staffers, created new verticals including a FanNation-affiliated sports spinoff, and, last year, surpassed 100 million annual pageviews for the first time.
“You go into these things with idealistic hopes and dreams. With our business model, it somewhat butts your head up against reality in that we have to make money,” Uren says of his website, which features no shortage of sponcon amid the news stories. “We're sticking with the old model because it's more beneficial for us, I think… I also kind of feel weird asking people for money.”
While Uren feels exposed to “the whims of the tech overlords,” he’s content with the pace of expansion at BMTN. He says friends will sometimes suggest revisiting Kupchella’s original idea of franchising out to other states, but Uren says there’s room for expansion in our metro region of 3.7 million people, not to mention greater Minnesota and western Wisconsin.
“How much is going unreported in other parts of the state?” he says. “For me, it has always been about sustainable growth. We’re a non-corporate, journalist-owned enterprise and that’s a real rarity. We need more of those.”
Funding: 69.5% grants; 15.5% advertising; 13.1% membership; 2% other
Staff members: 19
Web traffic: Varies—235,000 unique visitors last September and 106,000 uniques in January, for example
Newsletters subscribers: Around 14,000
Approach: "We saw a need for improved coverage of immigrants and communities of color in Minnesota," says managing editor Chao Xiong. "We just want to continue producing good content that speaks to our communities, that represents the communities, that uncovers stories that get glossed over by mainstream media.”
In recent years Sahan Journal has become not just the biggest news media success story here, but perhaps anywhere in the country. Following stints at the Strib and MPR News, founder Mukhtar Ibrahim ventured out on his own to launch “a one-stop shop for all things about immigrants in Minnesota” for an “audience [of] all Minnesotans,” he told Nieman Lab in 2019.
The gamble is paying off in a major way. Sahan’s revenue soared to $2.37 million, per its 2021 990 doc, and the newsroom snagged its largest grant ever—a massive $1.5 million unrestricted one from the GHR Foundation—just this month. When longtime Star Tribune staffer Chao Xiong joined Sahan early last year, he was the ninth employee. That number has more than doubled since.
“Mukhtar founded Sahan by himself, essentially,” Xiong says. “And it really just shows that people are really hungry for more coverage in our communities, more diverse avenues of finding the news.”
Being a magnet for grant money would mean very little if the journalism it produced didn’t deliver. Sahan does, however, with its ongoing dogged reporting after breaking the Feeding Our Future scandal, Hibah Ansari’s historically framed profiles on the first Black women ever elected to the Minnesota Senate, and an investigative collaboration between ProPublica's Jessica Lussenhop and Sahan's Joey Peters that explores predatory lending practices faced by Somali homebuyers in Minnesota.
Amid the Feeding Our Future fallout, Ibrahim found himself in a strange position: Feeling the need to explain his outlet’s reporting to local Somali critics who “see our work as a threat.”
“If Sahan Journal doesn’t investigate and write these stories, other media will,” he wrote of the alleged food fraud, describing it as an “open secret” in his community. “And once again, they will be stories about our communities. More dramatic revelations are probably coming. Isn’t it better to be honest with ourselves?”
Sahan’s intended readership obviously goes far beyond immigrant and BIPOC communities, Xiong says. Nor is its scope of coverage limited to the staid, eat-your-veggies genres of news—who could forget Sahan’s first and only mention of a Racket article?
“There's no one type of Sahan reader, because we're trying to cover so many different communities; we're hoping to appeal to young readers to old readers, people who are English speakers and nonnative speakers,” he says. “But it is difficult to grab readers online—you have the endless void of the internet to fight against.”
When asked about long-term challenges, Xiong, who’s “not young,” became the first media member we spoke with for this story to address the news consumption habits of younger readers. He’s not sure what they’re doing, and we certainly don't have a clue… hm, somebody in the industry should look into this ASAP.
In the meantime, just like everyone else you’ll hear from here, Xiong is heartened to see this newish class of digital newsrooms make their mark in the Twin Cities.
“The fact we can all coexist speaks highly of our readers, and also the journalists who are producing this content,” he says. “I hope it continues for years and years to come.”
Funding: Broadly, 85% from parent company States Newsroom and 15% from local fundraising
Staff members: 6
Web traffic: Around 500,000 pageviews per month
Newsletter subscribers: 7,500
Approach: "We want to do enterprise reporting, which I know is kind of industry jargon,” editor-in-chief J. Patrick Coolican says. “But essentially, that means investigation, analysis, and storytelling. We don't want to just be part of a pack; we try to be a little more adversarial in our approach."
The ol’ journalism axiom of “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” can fall out of favor among institutional Twin Cities reporters who don’t view 3M, the Minneapolis Police Department, and Capitol lobbyists as inherently suspicious characters. Minnesota Reformer is different.
And it happens to be molded by J. Patrick Coolican, a veteran reporter who spent five years working inside “the Big Green Monster” before States Newsroom propositioned him. Today, Reformer’s nonprofit parent company has established affiliate sites in 34 states; Minnesota was the 15th.
“They offered the ability to create a new enterprise,” Coolican says, one that would be free from annoying bookkeeping tasks, allowing its new editor in chief to focus on producing the best possible journalism. He was also presented with the fantasy baseball-like opportunity to hire three full-timers of his choosing. As a semi-novel, progressively “incubated” funding source that has dodged outdated “dark money” accusations, States Newsroom hasn’t required any compromises, Coolican says, pointing to its transparent donor page. He’s tasked with some fundraising, and the company brass get one phone meeting per week.
“I'm not asking permission about what stories to run,” Coolican says. “I've never felt this free.”
For Coolican, who “toiled away in the bowels” of various state Capitols throughout his career, that means the freedom to unleash a sharp-elbowed, alt-weekly-style sensibility. While firmly rooted in the fairness and tonal conventions of daily newspapers, the Reformer comes out swinging much harder. Just look at Deena Winter’s relentless reporting on MPD payouts or her heartbreaking, history-making series that reveals the human agony spawned from 3M’s “forever chemicals.” Or Max Nesterak’s peerless labor beat, featuring the throwback type of worker-first storytelling that no longer exists at the dailies. Or the data-driven desk helmed by recent hire Christopher Ingraham, whose life story became a damn book and whose scary stage-four cancer fight culminated this past April with a happy ending.
“Just the idea that I get to sit there, and ask a rude question to someone who is more powerful than me?” Coolican says. “To me, that is the joy of the job.”
Coolican views the Reformer audience as a potpourri of “very online Minneapolis progressives,” “normie Dems,” “boomer ladies who aren’t on Twitter,” elites, independents, and even some Republicans. “I love ‘em all,” he says, sounding like a true newsroom boss. “Our goal is to influence the conversation.”
The intense grind of launching a new outlet has mellowed, Coolican reports, though those early days inspired some harried introspection—“What am I doing? What is this? This is no way to live.” It was worth it, he says, and now with no legislative session or election on the horizon, he’s eager to have his staff dig deep for more unexpected stories.
“Any day I could hit up a source and get some candidates saying something stupid,” he says. “But now, it's like, OK, we actually got to go do the work.”
Coolican is content with his newsroom’s current size, and hopes the Reformer can serve as a launching pad for talented young reporters with coastal career ambitions. Here at home, he observes, the “incredibly rich” scene of digital news startups “feels like the future.”
Funding: 50% ads, 30% memberships, 20% foundation grants
Staff members: 1 full-time, about 5 part-time
Web traffic: 20,000 to 30,000 unique visitors per month
Newsletter subscribers: A few thousand
Approach: “Communities should be able to tell their own stories. Fundamentally, when you’re in a city, you need people who are all pulling the boat in the same direction,” says co-founder Charlie Rybak. “That’s what we want to be: a place people can come to to get information they trust and news they need.”
Charlie Rybak’s affinity for the vibe of Southwest Voices—the first node of his growing, neighborhood-based news org—goes way, way back. Growing up in southwest Minneapolis, he worked as a delivery boy for the Southwest Journal, the weekly print magazine that landed on doorsteps and racks for three decades. “When it went down [in 2020], I, along with a lot of other people, was very sad,” he says.
Alongside Southwest Voices co-founder Andrew Haeg, Rybak was determined to fill that vacuum digitally. (The unaffiliated Southwest Connector has emerged as a spiritual print successor.) Southwest Voices is a consuming passion project for Rybak, who pays his bills working as a consultant. He enlisted journalism instructor Melody Hoffmann as the outlet’s lone full-time employee, and she has guided the type of coverage that many fear is disappearing as hyper-local papers shutter—neighborhood meetings, construction projects, business openings. Rybak says Southwest Voices is an unabashed advocate for the area it covers.
“It’s the kinda stuff where we can connect dots for people, and push them toward interesting community solutions,” he says. “Beyond that, cool people who are creating something new, we’re giving them a marketing outlet.”
Or cool residents who’d otherwise go uncovered, like impassioned litter eraser Henry LaBounta. Or cool grade schoolers who are leading change, like the ones profiled at Ella Baker Global Studies & Humanities Magnet School. Some meatier stories, like this investigation from H. Jiahong Pan into the safety hazards created by slumlord C. David George, have flashed the capacity for real reporting depth.
Rybak’s famous last name raised some eyebrows with last year’s launch of Minneapolis Schools Voices, an education-focused offshoot that receives financial support from the Minneapolis Foundation, which is led by Charlie’s dad/former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak; Charlie is not involved in the site’s operation and doesn’t receive any of those funds, a disclaimer reads. Another addition to the Voices universe, Downtown Voices, was announced just this month as a spiritual successor to the Downtown Journal. If it goes well, Rybak says future neighborhood-specific sites are in the equation. The umbrella name Minneapolis Voices has already been deployed.
Rybak’s collaborative and entrepreneurial zeal is obvious when he talks shop.
“The economics of the business are really tough. There’s a lot of money in the media industry, and a lot of it goes to what I would consider to be bad places–Facebook, Google,” he says. “All of us going it alone is not going to work.”
Earlier this year he spearheaded the creation of Twin Cities Media Group, a collective of small news orgs (Racket included) that bound together to sell joint ad buys. And this week Minneapolis Voices announced a reporting partnership with MinnPost to examine election campaign mailers.
“We have to work together against the big guys,” Rybak says. “Or they’re going to eat up all of us.”
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