We launched Southwest Voices in October 2021 to build a news and information service by and for Southwest Minneapolis. We did that, in part, because we thought this community deserved a publication that served it as it changed. From transportation to housing to schools to policing, this has been a transformational period of time for this corner of the city that I was raised in. We wanted to be here to keep people connected and elevate conversations as local transformations happened.
When we launched, we committed to building in public. We wanted people to be able to learn from us and see what’s working, and perhaps more importantly, to see what’s not.
To that end, we’d like to give you an in-depth look at how our last year went, our prospects for the future, and what YOU can do to help (and if you don’t have 10 or so minutes to read to the end, the best way is by becoming a member).
There’s a lot in here, but then again, it’s been a busy year! We hope that whether you scan this, or read it start to finish, you know that this work is deeply important and also precarious. there is no guarantee we will be able to continue this work long-term unless we can sustain it financially.
What We Produced
With a tiny staff, working on a shoestring budget, we managed to produce some incredibly consequential reporting in 2022. Everything we produced started with listening—to what this community needs, to what you told us you were curious about, and to what our own staff and freelancers were hearing on the street.
We were fascinated to see how and why people arrived at our doorstep, as we monitored our web traffic, cranked up our social media accounts, and occasionally got a boost here and there from shout-outs in local media.
Below is a 2022 deep-dive into our most read stories, major themes we reported on, what drove people to our website, our finances, and our freelancers.
Here are the ten most widely read pieces we published last year:
- Our Minneapolis Public Schools School Board Voter Guide. Our most popular piece was also one of our longest, and certainly one of our most technical. The popularity of this piece shows how much hunger there is for transparent, accessible information about MPS and other key institutions.
- The backstory on C. David George, the landlord of the building at 2312 Lyndale Ave S that was the scene of a major fire in December, as well as several other properties, written by Jiahong Pan.
- Our Hennepin County Sheriff Voter Guide.
- A map of carjackings and auto thefts in Minneapolis in January 2022, which followed the most sustained period of carjackings in this city’s history in the last few months of 2021.
- Melissa’s background piece on the Minneapolis Public Schools system’s finances and looming budget issues.
- A story about the resignation of the campaign manager for School Board candidate Kerry Jo Felder.
- Anna’s story about the Malt Shop’s rebirth.
- A piece sharing data that the Minneapolis Police Department presented on gun violence in Minneapolis.
- Our Hennepin County Attorney Voter guide.
- A story about the legalization of Delta-9 THC edibles in Minnesota.
I really love this list, because I think it reflects who we are and what we do.
There’s a healthy bit of public service journalism in this list of stories, from details on candidates for local races that don’t receive much coverage, to a deep dive on budgets and public safety issues.
The deeply reported Minneapolis Public Schools budget story became essential reading when the teachers went on strike when people began asking more questions about the district’s finances. When a building in a dense neighborhood started on fire, people already knew who owned the building and about the landlord’s checkered history through our reporting.
There are also fun stories, like the re-opening of the Malt Shop, an iconic local business that was refurbished this year, or the piece on Delta-9 THC edibles being legalized and how it shifted the local cannabis landscape.
We went deeper on public safety issues, looking into when violent crime started falling in the city, early results from the Lowry Hill buyback program, and highlighting solutions from cities that saw a drop in homicides last year.
We covered local restaurants (which there seems to be an insatiable appetite for more of), like when Clancey’s left Linden Hills for Kingfield and when Chicago’s Very Own opened at LynLake, which filled all four corners of the intersection of Lyndale and Lake for the first time in years.
We covered transit and transportation topics, like why it was kind of legal for a construction truck to block a popular bike lane, the government emails that showed a long-term plan to get rid of all-day bus lanes in the Hennepin Avenue redesign plan, and last winter’s proposal to get the city to shovel more of our sidewalks.
We covered housing, like the plan to convert the Aqua City Motel into long-term affordable housing, the new development that will replace the Lake Harriet Community Church, and the Lydia Apartments expansion that opened in October 2022. And a lot more!
What Drove Traffic
Here are our biggest traffic days of the year:
A breakdown of our biggest website traffic days, with the biggest one listed first:
- The day of the August primary election, when people tuned into our voter guides, especially the guide for the Sheriff’s race (August 9)
- The day of the November general election, when people tuned into our voter guides, especially the guide for the School Board race (November 8)
- The day that 2312 Lyndale Ave S caught fire, when people headed to our website to read Jiahong Pan’s piece (December 3)
- The days following when we published our carjacking and auto thefts map (January 14)
- The day Melissa published her lengthy piece on the school district’s budget (February 23)
- The day we published the piece on Kerry Jo Felder’s campaign manager resigning, interviews with School Board candidates, and our School Board voter guide (October 28)
We show up when it matters. And this is why hyperlocal news is important, and why I will always defend our work and encourage people to support other local publications like Sahan Journal, Racket, Heavy Table, the Spokesman Recorder, North News, and yes, even the Star Tribune.
The number of journalists and local newspapers in this country have shrunk by a massive number over the past couple of decades. We need lots of people working their butts off here in Minneapolis, and across the country, to fill in the gaps left by dying newspapers and the big companies that profit off of their deaths to give us all sources of news and information that meets us where we’re at, with the resources to produce on-the ground-reporting on issues that affect our lives.
These days, you can start a local newsroom without all of the overhead and costs that print papers needed.
Southwest Voices ran incredibly lean in 2022. But running this lean is not sustainable for the long term. It required sacrifices and a good deal of unpaid labor to make it this far.
With that in mind, let’s dive into our financial picture – from how we started Southwest Voices, to how we will sustain it – with a breakdown of our 2022 expenses.
One thing becomes immediately clear looking at this list – this whole endeavor is only possible because Andrew and I also have other jobs. Andrew runs the texting platform, GroundSource, and works as a media consultant. I am a digital strategy consultant working with startups, campaigns, clean energy clients, and media companies. While we would love to be able to work on this full time and have the salaries to justify doing that, we’re not at that point.
We’ve all made sacrifices – in addition to lots of late nights, Melody is taking a pay cut from $75,000 per year to $60,000 per year, and Andrew and I stopped taking salaries from Southwest Voices (hopefully temporarily) in September 2022. We couldn’t have stopped taking salaries without having other jobs. It’s important to acknowledge that as part of our financial reality.
That’s how the money went out – so how did it come in?
Our revenue to date divides into three buckets: advertising, membership, and foundation support.
One thing we learned when looking at other local news startups when we launched, was the importance of revenue diversification. Being totally reliant on any one single source of revenue (e.g. donors, ads, members) leaves you vulnerable. So we’ve set out to diversify where we find support.
In 2022, we brought in around $144,000 in revenue: about $50,000 from advertising, $19,000 from membership programs, and $75,000 of early seed funding from the GHR Foundation. Our expenses land close to $146,000.
However, those numbers don’t tell the whole story: If you take out the foundation funding, we lost money in nine of the 12 months – however, the three positive months all came at the end of the year. We were narrowly positive in September and made a healthier profit in November and December. Hopefully, this is a trend in the right direction rather than a blip. If our November and December numbers continue, we’ll be “profitable” well into 2023, which will allow us to pay everyone fairly for their time and labor.
Our advertising budget, in particular, has fluctuated pretty wildly, but has been much more stable at the end of the year, which has really closed the gap between our revenue and our expenses. In our best month, December, we booked more than $10,000 in ad sales. In August, they had fallen below $1,000.
Vasiliki Papanikolopoulos joined us as our advertising relations coordinator over the summer, and has worked diligently to build this part of our program, which now makes up a big, and growing, part of our revenue.
Below is a chart of our cash on hand over the last six months, with the bottom line being zero. Valleyfair has nothing on us:
We want to especially thank two people, in particular, for becoming our foundational sponsors: Josh Zuehlke of Josh Zuehlke + Co., a local real estate firm, and Frank Brown from Minuteman Press Uptown, who has now moved his business to the Northside. Josh and Frank provided really critical early support to our team, and deserve recognition, as we would not have survived the year without their generous support.
None of this would’ve been possible without our foundation supporters. We got early seed funding from the GHR Foundation. Without them, we wouldn't have been able to hire Melody, as their grant basically covered her salary for the first year of our operations. We're super grateful to them for seeing our vision and helping us put this into the world. However, we now have to replace their funding in our revenue plan for 2023.
We have been able to partially replace it through a grant from the Google News Initiative's revenue program, which is run in partnership with the Local Independent Online News organization. Southwest Voices was accepted to their program last fall, and Andrew and I spent several months working with their team, which included a grant and will hopefully allow us to build more structure to support a sustainable revenue program.
Ultimately, our thesis was that getting money from lots of different sources was and is absolutely essential. That includes memberships, advertising, foundations, events, and should include a much larger discussion around public funding for hyperlocal news, as well. If we want things like this in our community, we need all of these entities on board to make it happen.
Here’s a look at our audience and where some of our traffic comes from.
Our website readership skews slightly female – but our newsletter has way more women than men (these are based off of estimates provided by Mailchimp and Google Analytics):
When looking at people’s ages, we see a big spike in the 35-44 demographic. Our website audience skews a bit younger than our newsletter.
Here’s where our traffic comes from – the most interesting note here is Facebook, where our page gets basically no engagement. However, the platform still drives significantly more traffic than Twitter, where we see lots of engagement:
As of the start of January 2023, we have 255 Southwest Voices members (people that pay us directly to help produce our content). Our average yearly member contribution is $73/year. We ended up bringing in close to $19,000 from memberships this year. This may seem like a small piece of the puzzle, but it’s incredibly important, as it accounted for close to 80% of our freelance budget this year.
We made a critical decision early on to keep all of our content open and free for everyone in the community. That decision has certainly cost us membership dollars, as putting our content behind a paywall would’ve provoked more people to sign up to read it. To be clear: we have nothing against people who do that, and may do it ourselves down the line, but it was an intentional decision we made to try to keep our resources available for everyone.
The more Southwest Voices members there are, the more reporting we can assign to our freelancer team. You can sign up right now to join!
Here’s what a few of our members said about why they signed up:
“Relevant politics, what's going on in local schools and parks, restaurants, old and new, put them in the spotlight and give them as much help as possible.”
“Please continue reporting on MPS! Issues concerning our public schools seem to be underreported elsewhere and as a parent of kids who will be MPS students in a few years, this is my gateway into learning about the inner workings of the school system. Spotlighting local restaurants, sharing events, and (when possible) shining a light on how national and global events impact SW MPLS.”
“I’m a member because I value independent media that isn’t corporate owned. Having a voice in the community that isn’t afraid to acknowledge the truth about our city, our electeds, and our situations is vital for staying informed.” -
“Southwest Voices does a terrific job presenting local stories that are overlooked or diminished by larger media outlets. Every week I learn about a new issue or perspective or event that I would miss if not for Southwest Voices.”
We’ve been lucky to get to work with some really smart writers since our launch and we’ve been focused on producing journalism that we felt we didn’t see enough of in our local news landscape.
We also felt that some of the media coverage and fear-mongering around the 2021 election, which was when we launched, did a real disservice to Minneapolis. This doesn't apply to everyone, but the absence of good information – vetted, substantive journalism that really peeled back what was happening in the city, the causes of the problems, and solutions – was really unfortunate. By far the biggest source of news about Uptown was a crime-themed Facebook page.
At the same time, discussions about issues like the MPS school board, especially around the Comprehensive District Design that rewrote the city’s school boundaries in the midst of a pandemic, the Hennepin Avenue redesign, the everlasting changes to Uptown, the 2021 police charter amendment, and the city’s Park Board were made a whole lot more toxic by how these topics were covered by much of the local press.
Many of the topics received an insufficient level of attention, while other coverage focused on controversy or inflammatory comments rather than helping people understand the stakes of the underlying issues or how deeper discussions could lower the temperature and bring us together. More in-depth coverage was needed across the board. We often look back to that time in news coverage as a reminder of what we don’t want to see or repeat in our own work. We are a long way from being perfect, but seeing this play out in real-time had a big impact on the issues we tried to tackle.
Our most frequently-published writer in 2022 was Melody, who has covered a wide range of issues from futsal courts to a contentious City of Minneapolis appointment to the origins of Indigenous People’s Day.
Anna Koenning has written several fantastic stories about local businesses, including a story on Marissa’s Bakery that she wrote in both English and Spanish. Abdi Mohamed has written a couple in-depth pieces on local Somali businesses, including Urban Skillet and The Hype. Josh Bieber has knocked out a couple awesome pieces on local history. Josh Martin wrote a couple great pieces on the city’s government, including one tracking City Council votes to try to see which members were forming coalitions with one another.
Jiahong has written several pieces for us, covering some essential transit issues on Hennepin Ave. and the Southwest Light Rail project. But it was Jiahong’s piece on C. David George’s building and past that went above and beyond. Jiahong and Melody talked about the piece after a fire at his property in Whittier, and worked on a long-form piece of journalism – before George’s property at 2312 Lyndale went up in flames in December. Jiahong’s piece, which meticulously covered the history of George’s buildings, laid out a complex story of how it got to this point.
Last, but very much not least, is Melissa Whitler. When we launched Southwest Voices, I came across her live tweets of MPS school board meetings. Melissa is a MPS parent with a background in economics, and I discovered her closely following the board during the CDD debate and the pandemic, keeping a small collection of parents and interested people informed along the way. She understood the debates going on and was paying attention because she is a concerned parent. So, we asked her to live tweet some of the meetings for us, and to write up recaps on what happened during the meetings. Then we asked Melissa to write a couple of pieces on the district's budget (like this really good one) and how the budget was laying the grounds for the teachers’ strike. We heard from several people that they were shocked to learn about the budget realities in the district when her story was published. Melissa was prescient to the pending teachers’ strike and budget crisis because she had been paying attention.
It quickly became clear to us that Melissa's coverage was much more valuable as a citywide asset rather than just for residents of Southwest Minneapolis. We heard from SO MANY parents who felt under-informed about what was going on at the district level and in their kids’ schools, especially during the pandemic. So, we looked to both expand Melissa's coverage citywide, and fund more reporting to provide a multi-dimensional perspective on the city's public schools.
This led to the creation of Minneapolis Schools Voices, our sister publication. The team is currently building a one-stop-shop for news and information on what's going on at MPS to help parents and community members stay informed.
From the start, we wanted this to be a platform for neighbors to come together to publish things about their community.
During the teachers’ strike, we published multiple first-person perspectives from the city's teachers, which you can find here and here, and one published well before in January of 2022 to let people know what life in his classroom was like during that chaotic period of time.
Beyond that, we published pieces by Melanie McCall on what happened after she was carjacked, a piece full of lots of powerful emotions, from fear to grace and everything in-between. We published a piece from a 12 and a 16 year-old, Louis and Eleanor Walker, about why schools should have free meals. We published a celebration of Paul Beckstrom, a long-time Settergren’s employee. And we published a piece on how lilacs can bring us all together.
We don’t want Southwest Voices to ever just be Melody and me broadcasting our thoughts to the world. In the spirit of that, please send us your submissions! What do you think about the city? What changes would you like to see? What do you want in your neighborhood? What big ideas do you have? Send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org, or even send them as video, audio, or photography if that’s easier for you. We would love to get them published.
Stuff that didn’t work
So, so many things!
When we launched, we kicked off with a partnership with a few participating neighborhood associations that we were quite excited about. The idea was that we would send a portion of each month’s revenue to the neighborhood association of the area that each member lived. We thought it could create a great symbiotic relationship with the neighborhood organizations helping to promote our work and deliver us members, growing our membership base, and delivering them a financial return in exchange. Unfortunately, the program didn’t deliver as many members or as much money as we had hoped, and we had a varying degree of participation from the neighborhood organizations (some were extremely involved, some were partly involved, and some asked not to be involved at all) that made the program much more of an administrative headache than it was worth for either side.
We definitely didn’t plan for someone to launch a print newspaper covering the exact same boundaries after we launched, which made it harder for us to gain traction on ad sales.
We also planned to hold monthly membership meetings once we launched. While we are still really bullish on capturing the spirit of the idea, and building alongside and with our members, it was very clear that many of our members simply wanted to give us money to produce journalism, and nothing more, so we have gone back to the drawing board on this one. But we’ll be rolling out a new membership event calendar soon that we think will better serve our members in the months to come.
Where We Go From Here
There’s a lot of stuff we’re working on. We’re going to be expanding our event offerings in the months ahead (more details to come on that). We’re going to be adding more benefits for the paying members that support our work. We’re going to launch more neighborhood guides to keep bringing to life your favorite things about the places you live, work, visit, eat, dance, and more. We’re going to (hopefully) bring on more staff members soon. We have some plans in the works for some fun and interesting collaborations with some other local publications. We also have some tentative plans for some future expansion, similar to what we did with Minneapolis Schools Voices.
Most of all, we want to make sure that we’re always listening to you. If you read this, and especially if you made it this far, we care about what you think about what we’re building, where we’re going, and how we can get better. At the bottom of this piece, and at the bottom of every piece, there’s a box for you to give us your feedback. We read these submissions every day. Please keep them coming – good, bad, or ugly. We can’t do any of this without you, and we can’t cover this city in the way that you want unless you tell us what you like and what you don’t.
So, we’ll close with this. We’ve been able to accomplish a lot of really good things with a relatively small budget. I don’t think we’ve even begun to scratch the surface on what we would be capable of with a more well-funded operation.
How can you help? Consider becoming a member. If you own, work at, or have a close relationship to any local businesses or organization, consider spending your advertising budget with us, where it will support local journalism, instead of shipping it off to Facebook and Instagram so that Mark Zuckerberg can buy another mansion. If you’re throwing events, think of us as a place to help spread the word.
Every dime that you invest in us makes us a bit stronger. If you want things like this in your community, you have to support them with your resources, or they won’t be around much longer. That goes for us and all of the other great local publications we have in this town, as well. We’re headed in the right direction, but with your help, think of all of the great stuff we could do – together.