Opening up the front page of the Minnesota Monitor on Wednesday morning, readers saw articles on Abu Ghraib, the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, an analysis of the recently-completed state budget process for this year and a veterans’ political organization’s take on Senator John McCain’s opposition to revamping GI Bill benefits. This mix of national and local political news and coverage of local issues is a signature of the news site, and others like it in the Center for Independent Media’s slowly growing network of news websites around the country.
While the 2008 campaign has definitely put a great deal of national political news on their front pages, editor Steve Perry says that’s a bit of a distortion: “I want to stress that we’re about local events and government, not just electoral politics.”
Like its sister Web sites, Minnesota Monitor sees itself as stepping into the hole left by traditional newspapers’ flagging political coverage in Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and New Mexico, with a special Washington D.C. site focused on federal politics. CIM chose those states specifically because they all have electorates that are divided evenly between Republican and Democrat, according to Jeff Morley, the Center’s Editorial Director.
Both Perry (formerly of City Pages) and Morley say the Minnesota Monitor and its siblings, though, are not meant to replace the big newspapers of each state, like the Star Tribune. They have neither the resources, nor the staff to cover International Falls down to Albert Lea in the same way the “Strib” can with its 150+ person newsroom. (The Monitor has nine journalists, including Perry and Paul Schmelzer, the managing editor).
While they haven’t yet gotten a mention in the New York Times for breaking a story, the Monitor and its writers have recently been “out in front,” as Perry describes it, on the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy story and coverage of dissent among DFL party leaders about the state of Al Franken’s senate campaign.
Both stories – and others like them – have later been picked up by mainstream news outlets, in part due to the Monitor’s reporting, Perry said, describing their strategy as identifying developing stories and digging in to the topic, in order to put their well-researched “government accountability” perspective on the mainstream media’s radar.
This mirrors a trend in many internet-based news media, where they tend to focus on a distinct and limited range of issues that their staff knows very well, due to the cost of employing scores of full-time journalists to cover everything from Capitol Hill to garden shows.
While Perry acknowledges that the Monitor’s readership is mostly political insiders, journalists, and “interested lay readers,” he is hopeful that a recent steady upward trend in the number of visitors to the site shows they are beginning to break out of this politically-obsessed demographic and into the mainstream. Post-election, Perry also sees the Monitor’s coverage diversifying into more local events and arts coverage, although politics will “always be the spine” of the website.
The Monitor and its siblings affiliated with CIM are one of the few news organizations that have adopted a nonprofit business model, where news – particularly critical, well-informed news – is treated as a public service rather than a commodity to be sold, as in the mainstream media. The implicit point Morley, Perry, and others are making with these papers is that mainstream journalism can no longer provide the political accountability and push for good government with this news-as-commodity business model that seems to be leading so many newspapers towards oblivion at the hands of owners who demand staff cuts to make up for falling revenues.
In order to support their reporters and editors, CIM relies almost exclusively on foundation support. Most donors focus on “community-building” or “building a sustainable future.”
To some, these priorities, and those of CIM’s daughter websites, smell of a left-ish, “progressive” bias, a charge both Morley and Perry vigorously deny. “If any Democrat thinks he’ll catch a break from us, he’ll catch a surprise,” Morley said, citing the Michigan Monitor’s highly critical coverage of the (Democratic) governor of Michigan. He agreed that accountability and good government may be perceived as “liberal” interests, but argued that they are universal concerns, and ones that attract many Republicans to CIM’s websites, either as readers or writers.
To Perry, it comes down to promoting quality journalism. Mainstream journalism is a “know-nothing culture for defensive reasons,” Perry said. “They go and get the best quotes from the suits behind the biggest desks and present that as all you need to know.”
Having a voice and an informed opinion is dangerous, he explained, if only because it leads to charges of activism or lobbying for a particular political faction. Minnesota Monitor, he said, puts readers first. “We expect our writers to do their homework and explain to our readers…what is going on, to the best of our ability.”
James Sanna (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an intern at the Daily Planet.