MinnPost CEO Joel Kramer: notes on dinner with the founder of the profitable news nonprofit

MinnPost CEO Joel Kramer has dinner with a collection of Philadelphia journalism stakeholders.

A small group of journalism practitioners in Philadelphia were treated with the chance to have dinner and throw questions at MinnPost CEO Joel Kramer Tuesday night. Kramer is the former publisher of the Minneapolis Start-Tribune and a frequent example of success in growing public affairs journalism online.

I was blessed to be among them and certainly took the chance to ask an array of questions about his efforts of building a statewide public policy news nonprofit that I haven’t seen answered in the considerable coverage of his efforts.

Among the celebrated local news representatives there was the newly named CEO of the local journalism institute at Temple, Neil Budde.

Though much more was handled in the 90-minute conversation that followed a public Q&A session that I heard was well-attended and lively, I wanted to share some notes I took out of this more intimate, though on-the-record, setting.

  • “Quality journalism can’t be done in for profit because it’s a public good not consumer good. A journalism outfit can no more than a museum turn a great profit in the future.”
  • MinnPost uses Acceptiva as its CRM to collect and manage donations.
  • 20 percent of revenue comes from foundations, and at least a quarter comes from memberships, part of a diverse revenue stream that put them in the black in 2011. MinnPost offers no membership benefits at all because, as Kramer put it, “fulfillment is a huge pain.” He added that Minnesota public radio has more membership staff than his entire 18-person operation.
  • Being on the MinnPost board requires ‘significant financial support,’ he said, and is a sought after board title. “Buzz is important, and that’s something that other efforts have failed to garner in their markets,” he said.
  • Kramer has a rule of thumb: one-sixth of Minnesota’s adult population is the audience goal for public affairs news.
  • For readers who come more than four times a month to a site there is a big jump in memberships, though most users don’t donate across in all categories, even ‘intense users,’ he said.
  • Commenters don’t want solicitations, and they’ve accused MinnPost of spam when they confused those channels of email signups.
  • Donors (of all kinds, including members, presumably), are added to their email newsletters, as an opt-out feature. They are solicitated consistently.
  • MinnPost has 3,000 donors, compared with 120k at their NPR affiliate. “Those 3,000 may likely donate to both.”
  • “We don’t negotiate with advertisers,” he said. . They sell ads on a per week basis, on a per-share of the site audience (i.e. six sidebar square ads running and being served in rotated basis), not based on CPMs, but basically $12-$15 CPM rate.
  • MinnPost is still having success with its real-time ads that made a lot of buzz a couple years ago.
  • They have a $1.6 million annual budget, about $400k of which comes from ads. They started out with more than $1.2 million in capital before ever writing a story. It helped that Kramer was the former publisher of the Star-Tribune, so he came with considerable credibility and business acumen.
  • MinnPost Has one FT adsales and just brought k another. 90 clients, the new one will take smaller 65
  • Kramer and his wife do not take salaries, though Kramer says they are building into the model enough revenue that his successor would be able to be paid.
  • They have a handful of editors and three staff writers, but the majority of their site content is created by contract writers who take on weekly contracts, allowing for their flexibility and MinnPost to keep them off benefits.
  • “Beginners can’t do things the MinnPost way,” he says. “We want quality not comprehension,” so their site only covers what it has the staffing expertise to cover.
  • In terms of output: 20 items a day, 8 real stories, others are wire and short items
  • Sustaining memberships that have opt-in recurring charges are more than 70 percent retention and are what they pursue.

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