Four of Minnesota’s leading news publications gathered on December 5, 2023, at the Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) Kling Public Media Center, to discuss their coverage of the upcoming 2024 presidential election and the challenges they face as news organizations in today’s digital landscape.
Minnesota Public Radio’s Cathy Wurzer hosted the discussion and moderated the panel of local newsmakers. The panelists included Sahan Journal Publisher and CEO Mukhtar Ibrahim, Star Tribune Publisher and CEO Steve Grove, Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder Publisher and CEO Tracey Williams-Dillard, and President of MPR Duchesne Drew.
The wide-ranging conversation covered a variety of topics including artificial intelligence (AI), how publications stay in touch with their readers, and the ways news outlets are sustaining their business in the digital age.
At the onset of the conversation Wurzer’s first question was about the health of Minnesota’s news media post-pandemic. MPR’s Duchesne Drew touted the organization’s 120,000 members as a sign of its health. He also pointed to the other organizations as a sign of how the local market had an appetite for local news.
“This is a really great place to be in journalism. And it’s a great place to be in a community that has access to not just our four organizations, but so much of the richness of thought and ideas,” he said. “You don’t get this in most places, frankly.”
The media landscape
Wurzer referenced a Northwestern University report stating that 2,500 newspapers went out of business between 2005 and 2022, asking panelists if they believed print media was on life support.
While the Star Tribune’s Grove laughed at the notion, he agreed that the future was digital. “We’ve seen pretty significant double-digit decreases in print subscriptions for the last 10 years. And even this year, that’s picking up. Habits are changing quickly. It’s still a very profitable enterprise for us and for most news organizations,” he said.
The conversation pivoted to the two publications that serve Minnesota’s diverse communities. Both Sahan’s Ibrahim and MSR’s Williams-Dillard spoke to their work in capturing the authentic voices of Black and Brown Minnesotans.
“I think we have really had a big impact on how the local media cover communities of color,” Ibrahim said. “We have proven that we can actually cover communities of color in a very meaningful way without the superficial way of just drawing in when something major happens.”
Having launched Sahan Journal in 2019, Ibrahim stated that he quickly saw the hunger for stories involving Minnesota’s immigrant community, which lacked coverage relevant to their lives.
Williams-Dillard pointed to the Spokesman-Recorder’s decades-long history as a paper dedicated to elevating Black voices in the community and remaining steadfast in that mission. “The newspaper primarily covers the interests of the African American community and will continue to do so,” she said.
“It still plays the same role as it did when my grandfather, Cecil Newman, started the paper in 1934, which is coming up on the 90th next year. The role then was to be the voice of the voiceless. To give the African American community a voice that was otherwise silenced.
“So, our role today hasn’t changed. One of the things that I think about is, the more things change, the more they stay the same,” Williams-Dillard said.
As for expanding the digital audience, MSR takes a slightly different approach. “Our approach is to offer a print and digital forum to engage a youthful demographic and to hopefully create an environment where they truly feel heard and come to understand the true power of their voice and the vote,” she added.
Expanding news audiences
Much of the panel agreed on the need for more resources dedicated to coverage of Greater Minnesota communities. Grove spoke to the dwindling number of reporters in the region.
“It is pretty stark when you look at the numbers,” he said. “There are about 75 percent fewer journalists in greater Minnesota than there were 10 years ago. And I think about 25 percent fewer institutions themselves. So, this is a crisis for our country.”
Grove observed that many individuals in rural communities cited Facebook as their news source, a reality that worried the former Google executive. “If we can’t make local news work—not just in large major metros, but in local communities—it has a detrimental effect on not just quality-of-life, but really the social fabric that ties us together,” he said.
Williams-Dillard shared her goal of reaching Black communities outside the metro area who are left without any publication to reflect their lived experiences.
“There is a news desert amongst a lot of my readers. We’re not in the places that we want to become more involved in, which is Rochester and Mankato, where a growing number of African Americans live. There’s no other news media there that represents those communities in their neighborhoods,” she stated.
“African Americans live throughout Minnesota. So, what happens in, say, Hopkins or Minnetonka also matters, especially when it pertains to African Americans.”
Making money in media
With a mix of nonprofit and for-profit models, the conversation steered toward how these news organizations sustain their work. Ibrahim shared that roughly 70 percent of Sahan’s income comes from foundation support given its nonprofit status. He underlined the growing interest that foundations were taking when it came to supporting local news outlets.
“I think foundations see journalism as an essential tool for the health of our communities, for the health of our democracy,” he said.
Grove pointed to the Star Tribune’s subscription model as having a similar approach to the large streaming platforms. “You have all these subscriptions. We’re not just competing against the kind of press like we want. We’re competing against Hulu, Disney Plus, Wine of the Month, whatever other subscriptions are in your wallet that you may even forget you have,” he said.
In allocating resources to this year’s elections, the MSR has a different approach. “As a community publication, we allocate coverage of elections by prioritizing local angles and interests,” said Williams-Dillard.
“Coverage is often focused on how national politics and policies impact our specific community, including local reactions to political events, interviews with community leaders, and analysis of how national policy affects local businesses, schools and residents,” she continued.
“We may cover local political events and campaigns, providing a platform for local candidates and perspectives,” said Williams-Dillard. “We work to create a political knowledge base that stimulates, encourages and activates future generations of African American voters in Minnesota.”
The MSR has historically covered every local political election from gubernatorial races to attorney general, mayoral, city council, and school board races. “We also cover major political appointments and hires such as school superintendent and chief of police,” she added. “We share the perspectives and policies of candidates with our readers through community meetings and one-on-one interviews.
“Most of our questions are standard political asks for our communities,” said Williams-Dillard. “Will we have better schools for our children? More job opportunities? Fair treatment in the criminal justice system? Safer communities, and more access to quality health care and public transportation?”
In addition to reporting on national and world events, Williams-Dillard said, all stories have a local connection through one-on-one community engagement using print and digital polls, heard-on-the-street, and opinion pieces. “We always invite our readers into discussions and forums so that they not only learn but feel that they are a part of the coverage.”
Artificial intelligence and the future of media
Toward the end of the panel, the conversation settled on the topic of digital platforms and artificial intelligence. Although each publisher shared their range of experience with AI, they all agreed that there was an inevitability to the technology and its impact in the newsroom.
Ibrahim shared how Sahan Journal has used AI for engaging with their donor base and to improve their grant application process.
“I think there are more innovative ways that we can use AI to our advantage,” Ibrahim said. “The media is known to have this bad relationship with technology, and it killed it. Google, Facebook came and literally took the business of all the advertising and everything out of the newspapers.”
While technology is inevitable in almost every industry, said Williams-Dillard, she believes that news organizations should be cautious when employing a tool that has not yet gone through an inclusive development process exposing it to a variety of diverse communities.
“The voice that comes from AI doesn’t reflect our voices,” said Williams-Dillard. “As a Black publisher, we really haven’t used AI right now. We speak to our readers with an authentic voice.”