Posted at 5:09 PM on February 24, 2009
by Jeff Horwich
As someone who works for a competing news organization, it's hard not to raise an eyebrow at what appears to be a state grant for two struggling newspapers.
The Minnesota Job Skills Program and the University of Minnesota (through it's journalism school) are ponying up money to help the Pioneer Press and Duluth News Tribune "help newspapers revolutionize their business model and to thrive in an increasingly Internet-based industry," according to a U of M news release I got this afternoon.
The project will offer a series of training programs for staff in the advertising and editorial operations of the newspapers, both of which have undergone considerable downsizing in the past year. It is believed to be the first job training grant to help the news industry with the assistance of a journalism school. The goal of the partnership is not only to train employees with new technical, computer-based skills, but also to reassess the way in which news and advertising is delivered.
The Job Skills grant totals $238,000; the U of M and the papers themselves are chipping in an additional $470,000 (it's not clear how much of this is the U and how much is the papers).
If I'm skeptical, you can imagine what they think of it at the Star Tribune (where, in a similarly unprecedented move, they are considering going to foundations for donations to fund their investigative work).
The incentives here all make sense: I suppose you get help wherever you can if you're a newspaper these days. From the state perspective, they're interested in preserving jobs. And it sounds like the U will have new opportunities to get their students involved with the process of (trying to) save the newspaper newsrooms in a digital world.
But something about it ain't quite right. Even though they're not turning profits right now, newspapers are for-profit entities. Owners and investors are big beneficiaries of a potential recovery. In that event, is there any profit-sharing planned for the state and the U?
Just a clarification -- the U of MN School of Journalism and Mass Communication is the grant recipient and will be solely responsible for the expenditure of grant funds. We will develop and deliver the curriculum, based on input from the newspapers about their training needs. The staff training provision was part of the Newspaper Guild contract negotiated in 2007 and includes staff from the Pioneer Press, Duluth News Tribune and Star Tribune. Because of differences in Guild representation, the J-School started the process with St. Paul and Duluth first. The Star Tribune will come under the next round of grant applications. As Director of the Minnesota Journalism Center, the School's outreach and professional development unit, I see this training opportunity no differently than any other journalist training we've done for the past 12 years, which many MPR staffers have attended. We are delighted that the state thinks highly enough of the Journalism School to invest this amount of money for an important, and Guild-negotiated, training effort.
Thanks for the clarifications, Kathleen.
Back in my time as a business reporter, I myself attended U of M training, on a couple of occasions. And it's a great service. It's one of many reasons we're so lucky to have the J-School here in the Twin Cities.
Still, this feels like something on a different scale. The training the U usually sponsors is open to individual journalists from anywhere. This is a quarter-million dollar program targeted (for now, anyway) at rehabbing two specific news organizations. (Interesting to hear, though, that the Strib might benefit from Round II.)
I'm certainly not rooting for the papers to fail. But as private, for-profit companies, this regional "media stimulus plan" raises some interesting questions.
Among those percolating right now: How does this look to New Media operations (like The Uptake, or MinnPost, or...well, like my little two-person skunk-works at MPR) that live on a shoe-string but are already making strides at figuring this new world out?
The J-School will develop the curriculum for these two news organizations, but anything we create can (and will) be used for training beyond the life of this specific grant, which ends on October 31. We intend to develop materials that we can use in our classrooms and with other news organizations through Minnesota Journalism Center training opportunities such as those you have attended in the past.
I can't resist a tongue-in-cheek response about how this looks to other operations -- this is why union representation is still a good thing. The Guild is responsible for this initiative and as a long-time Associate member of the Guild, I'm thrilled the union has this accomplishment to tout. ;-)