MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA — The Twin Cities Daily Planet focuses on a combination of neighborhood-level news and coverage of progressive, social justice-related issues in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. But it wants to be more than just a news-gathering operation. The Daily Planet is just as committed to creating journalists—or, perhaps more accurately, citizens who engage with their communities through journalism—as it is to publishing them, and since it launched in 2006 it has helped attract and train scores of paid contributors, many of whom had no previous involvement in journalism.
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Directly beneath the site’s front page masthead is a box listing local events that the Planet would like its readers to cover, things like a rally at the state capitol, or the opening of a local Middle Eastern cultural center. Given its dual purpose as journalism outlet and citizen journalist incubator, it’s appropriate that the site’s front page reads, in part, like the minutes from an editorial meeting. However, it took several years for the site to hone its mission and infrastructure.
The Planet was founded by former Detroit Free Press and Minneapolis Star-Tribune writer Jeremy Iggers, who now heads the Twin City Media Alliance, the website’s parent nonprofit. The Planet’s beat is relatively broad, and an average front page will have stories on local issues like the debate over public financing for a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings, alongside reviews of local ethnic restaurants or local theater productions. Mary Turck, who became the Planet’s editor in 2007, says that the site has an overall purpose that guides its editorial content: reporting on those who, in her view, “are not being covered: communities of color, youth, impoverished communities across the country, and immigrant communities.” The Planet’s tagline reads “Local news for global citizens.”
Recently, the Planet has covered topics like unemployment in Minnesota and a hunger strike launched by a local cleaning workers’ union. Turck notes that the Twin Cities is home to Somali, Ethiopian, and Hmong communities, and says that some of her site’s most influential stories have to do with the region’s immigrant enclaves.
Turck says that when the Daily Planet launched, it took an active role in organizing the same communities it was reporting on, largely through its leading role as the news website of the Twin Cities Media Alliance. The Alliance allows scores of Minnesota-based “ethnic and community” media organizations to share ideas, plan events, and encourage cooperation among the city’s independent outlets. During the Daily Planet’s first year in existence, its content consisted of articles reposted from their Media Alliance partners, a diverse group that included everything from ethnic news publications to independent radio stations. “These became media partners who agreed that their original content could be republished on the Daily Planet,” says Turck.
During the Daily Planet’s first year, Iggers and Turck expected the rest of the site’s content to be produced by its readers. That aspect of the operation struggled to get off the ground. “In the beginning the thought was that a lot of the content would be spontaneously generated by citizen journalist contributions,” she says. “That didn’t generate a lot of news the first year.”
Turck pushed for more original content when she took over as editor, and developed a unique system that combines offering payment to the citizen journalist contributors that most sites categorize as volunteers.
Payment is relatively modest, and Turck says that freelancing fees range from $10 for a short theatre review to $100 for a longer-form news feature. There is no hierarchy among the site’s freelancers; contributors who have just graduated from the training program are paid the same rates as those who have worked as professional journalists for public radio stations and daily newspapers. Thanks to the success of the system, Planet writers now produce upwards of half the site’s content, while the rest consists of material cross-posted from one of the Planet’s fifty-plus local media partners.
The Planet’s “citizen journalism” classes are aimed at anyone interested in learning more about the journalistic craft. “We have Citizen Journalism 101 which is an intro to the whole idea of journalism,” says Turck. “Then there’s Citizen Journalism 201, where the expectation is that you produce a story a week.” The classes have a special focus on new media, and Turck says that the Daily Planet has held special one-day seminars on blogging, podcasting, and the journalistic use of social networking sites.
Turck explains that the classes aren’t offered in order to expand the Planet’s stable of contributing writers, which, at over 100 freelancers and regular reporters, is already pretty deep. “Our aim isn’t to create journalists,” she says, “but to give people a taste and get them engaged in the process.” Still, the seminars, as well as the website’s weekly writers workshops, have been a reliable source of journalistic talent. “I don’t think we have many regular contributors who haven’t started out with either the writers groups or the workshops,” says Turck.
The Daily Planet currently gets around 80,000 unique visitors a month according to its own numbers and its primary sources of revenue are grants and advertisements. The website includes an impressive list of funders, including the Minnesota-based McKnight Foundation and the Challenge Fund for Journalism. Turck says that the site may experiment with other fundraising methods, such as an NPR-inspired membership model.
Even with its current cash flow, the Daily Planet is having its intended impact, and is helping organize a vast network of media organizations and citizen journalists, providing a strong base for the grassroots media community in the Twin Cities.
Twin Cities Daily Planet Data
Name: Twin Cities Daily Planet
Principal Staff: Mary Turck, editor; Jay Gabler, associate and Arts editor; Jeremy Iggers, Twin Cities Media Alliance executive director.
Affiliations: Parent nonprofit: Twin Cities Media Alliance; Foundation support: McKnight Foundation, the Minneapolis Foundation, Bush Foundation, the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative, Advised Fund of the St. Paul Foundation, the Still Ain’t Satisfied Foundation. Content: fifty-plus local community and ethnic media organizations and more than eighty individual bloggers. Ad network: Google Ads.
CJR on Twin Cities Daily Planet:
10/20/10: Community News: “Where’s the Money?” - Medill’s series on business models for news sites - Lauren Kirchner
10/08/10: On Face Time and Free Labor - How two local news sites train and retain volunteer contributors - Lauren Kirchner