When we started this thing with Southwest Voices, one of the most important things we agreed to was that we wanted to build it in public. 

Yes, we did it to create a new community resource in Minneapolis. But given the decline in local news organizations across the country, we wanted to be transparent about what was working (and maybe more importantly, what isn't) as we work to grow our local news organization so that other people can learn from us.

2023 was the year that Southwest Voices morphed into Minneapolis Voices, a citywide news network with three publications and four newsletters that gets us closer to bringing every Minneapolis resident a ground-up view of their community. 

See how much we’ve grown: Here’s our 2022 Year in Review 

Launching Downton Voices in the fall was the biggest organizational news of 2023. Our revenue, staffing, and editorial output grew and stabilized. We now publish four specific news products reaching different audiences: Southwest Voices covering Southwest Minneapolis, Downtown Voices covering downtown Minneapolis, Minneapolis Schools Voices covering the city’s schools, and the Minneapolis Weekly, a citywide newsletter that goes out every Friday. The last one is word-of-mouth only right now – email info@southwestvoices.news to get added. 

In terms of staffing, Andrew Haeg and I moved out of day-to-day positions and will be joining the soon-to-be-announced Minneapolis Voices board. We formalized our new editorial structure, which places three women at the helm of our organization:

  • Melody Hoffmann at Southwest Voices, a publication that would not exist in its current form without her creativity, hard work, and dedication to figuring this all out as we go. Through her writing, cultivation of our community of readers,  nurturing of a bunch of young, talented writers, ear to the ground of the city, and hilarious Instagram videos, she has helped create something special – delivering digital-first local news and cultural information in Minneapolis, and in doing so, making this corner of the city stronger and better-connected.
  • Brianna Kelly at Downtown Voices has taken a challenging assignment in a challenging moment and used it to help create something that has been a desperately missing piece of the conversation around how we will build the future of the city. Brianna has just started covering downtown as it reconfigures itself as more than just a place for office workers to visit, but also an area of town with distinct neighborhoods with community issues like anywhere else. 
  • Melissa Whitler at Minneapolis Schools Voices, covering Minneapolis Public Schools as it charts a course for its future coming out of the challenges created and accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Melissa continues to bring depth, dedication, and strong financial analyses to her reporting, which keeps families updated on the district in a way that other publications don’t. 

Minneapolis Voices also worked with a few partners to help launch the Twin Cities Media Group in April. The collective of local and independent media organizations – including Racket, Heavy Table, New Prensa, North News, KRSM Radio, and ourselves – offers advertising opportunities across several community news organizations that reach a unique and engaged audience. The partnership has resulted in nearly $50,000 of advertising revenue through February 2024 that, as individual organizations, we would not have been able to access. Through this partnership, our portion of the revenue-sharing earned us what is roughly equivalent to 40 news stories produced by freelance writers for our publications. 

That is the magic of our local advertising program. We take your ad dollars and turn them into stories about your neighborhood. Every dollar that goes into our publication gets turned into quality local journalism, telling you about what the city government is up to, what’s going on in your parks, what restaurants are opening in your neighborhood, or when it’s safe to skate on the ice.

Advertisers, in return, get access to a group of well-connected, engaged people across Minneapolis, and to advertising placements at the top of people's inboxes that you can't buy anywhere else – we get a 70% open rate every morning, which means people treat us like their daily morning newspaper. The money stays close to home and enriches the local community rather than being funneled to global tech companies that don't particularly care what happens to Minneapolis. Keep this in mind the next time you make an ad buy on behalf of yourself or a client. 

Beyond the numbers, it’s important that you know how much the little moments of connections matter to us. Like the people that write hand-written letters and checks to help us keep the lights on. Or the people we see in the grocery store that tell us about that story they loved. The emails we get thanking us for creating a sense of community for them in their neighborhood. Even the people who care enough to send us an angry note about something we publish – thank you for caring about your community enough to take the time to write in (and please turn off your caps lock). 

Minneapolis Voices Top 10 stories of 2023

Clockwise from top left: Fool Me Once opens in Uptown, 50th and Lyndale development approved, former Ward 13 City Council candidate and political protestor Zack Metzger, Rumba nightclub opens on Lake Street.

Here are our most read stories of last year:

  1. Fool Me Once, LynLake’s Newest Bar, is like "if David Lynch directed an Orville Peck music video" 
  2. Southwest Minneapolis Sandwich Bracket 
  3. Paving Lake Chipotle
  4. Linden Hills Gets a Neighborhood Bar: Meet Picnic 
  5. New apartment complex planned for 50th & Lyndale 
  6. An Interview with Ward 13 City Council candidate Zack Metzger
  7. Chris Parsons Passes Away 
  8. The Short and Long View of Downtown Minneapolis
  9. Rumba, a new Latinx lounge, expands Uptown nightlife 
  10. Things to do this week in Southwest Minneapolis 

Restaurant and local business news continues to be one of the most popular topics we cover. Development stories are also popular, such as the story about a still-unbuilt apartment complex planned for 50th & Lyndale. Our interview with a former Ward 13 City Council candidate Zack Metzger was widely read after Metzger gained national notoriety for his involvement in a local pro-Palestinian protest

Key Stats of Minneapolis Voices 

Here is the short of it: in 2023, our revenue increased by 63%, our newsletter subscribers increased by 59%, and our total number of paying members increased by 62%.

Let’s break that down. 

Our revenue increased by 63%

Our revenue from memberships and advertising is up 63% in year two compared to year one, while our support from foundations declined. We are significantly closer to being able to fully fund our growing operations without outside support than we were a year ago.

Keep Minneapolis Voices growing by becoming a paying member

In 2022, we had brought in $143,903 - $63,903 in revenue from memberships and advertising and $80,000 from foundations. 

In 2023, we brought in $170,130 – $115,130 in revenue from memberships and advertising, while we brought in an additional $55,000 from foundations. The foundation grants were from the Graves Foundation and the McKnight Foundation.

Here’s what that looks like:

Here's where our Year 1 & Year 2 revenue came from

Our expenses increased by 16%

In 2022, our expenses were $145,900. Here’s what that looked like:

Breakdown of our 2022 expenses

In 2023, our expenses were roughly $169,538, up 16% from last year. Here’s what that looked like:

Breakdown of our 2023 expenses

This increase was driven by a couple factors, the main ones being the launch of Downtown Voices and the hiring of Brianna Kelly to run the operation. 

This year saw my exit from daily editorial tasks. We replaced my free labor on the newsletter with Anna Koenning, who also ramped up her reporting on local businesses. We also brought on Michael Sack to copy edit the Southwest Voices newsletters Monday through Wednesday. 

One of the numbers that we’re most proud of is that we paid $50,000 to more than 15 freelance journalists last year. That’s a lot of original journalism from a bunch of smart folks that live in our community, writing about topics they know about and care about for their neighbors. 

Our newsletter list sizes are up 59% from the end of 2022

Our newsletters are the backbone of our organization and it’s become the best way to reach people. They're where we get the majority of our website traffic, and where we create the most valuable content for our readers. A lot of the content doesn’t end up on our website, which makes our newsletter community especially in the know. 

Sign up now for the free Southwest Voices daily newsletter, the weekly Downtown Voices newsletter, and the monthly Minneapolis Schools Voices newsletter. 

Not only did our newsletters grow, but we continue to see close to a 70% open rate on all of our newsletters. That open rate number hasn’t dipped as we’ve grown. That means most of the people on our list still treat our emails like the morning paper. This allows us to drive thousands of eyeballs and hundreds of clicks every single morning. Are you paying attention, advertisers? Our ads start at only $150 per placement.

Here’s who is reading our newsletter:
Source: Mailchimp data

Our social media following is up 183%

At the end of 2023, we had more than 8,500 social media followers. At the end of 2022, we were at just over 3,000. 

The biggest growth we’ve seen is on Instagram, where we have more than 4,000 followers across our publications. Instagram is also where we get a ton of growth for our newsletter. We didn’t plan for Instagram to be one of our biggest newsletter growth platforms, but here we are. 

Our membership is up 62% 

Our total membership is now more than 400 people and counting. You should join them!

Beyond that, our average lifetime dollars from each member has ticked up to $173. This is a really important metric, as it’s mostly driven by a high renewal rate. Members extending their relationship with us to another year is hugely valuable to us, and I want to give a special thank you to everyone that’s continued to put your trust and your dollars into our organization.

We’re converting 12% of our newsletter list into paying members

This is a really strong number, and it has actually gone up as our newsletter has grown. That’s told us something really valuable – if more people can hear about us, more of them will sign up for our newsletter list, and we can convert them into paying members (speaking of which, you should become one!). 

By the time we double our newsletter list from where we are today (and after it increased 59% from last year, that’s a pretty realistic goal), there’s a pathway for us to be totally self-sustaining. If you want to help us out, we’d love to take your money, but if you aren’t in a place where you can do that, helping us grow our newsletter list is the next best thing. Tell your friends you like us and that they can sign up for the newsletter on our website, and we can take the rest from there.

A look at some numbers, and from volume to value

A few years ago, I started talking about a thing I called “From volume to value”, my grand unifying theory around what was going to happen to the internet and digital information and news. 

The crux of the idea was that where the internet of the 2000s and 2010s rewarded people that could drive the most volume through advertising dollars delivered based on site traffic, the internet of the 2020s would shift towards who could deliver the most value. The breed of online publishers that owned the old era (places like Buzzfeed, who turned eyeballs and clicks into dollars faster than you can say “listicle”, or Gawker, who paired petty and entertaining gossip with hard-hitting reporting that often pissed off the powerful) weren’t as likely to thrive in the new one. 

The key questions for digital media companies in the 2020s:

  • Can you deliver revenue directly from your readers? 
  • Can you develop a commercial relationship with individual people, not by monetizing their eyeballs but by putting out a product that’s good enough for them to send you their hard-earned money?
  • Can you make yourself an indispensable part of their day, their week, and their month? 

If you can’t answer ‘yes’ to these questions, you are probably not going to make it through media in the 2020s. Compared to the 2000s and 2010s, it’s a much better set of incentives. Add value to people’s lives to survive, instead of just getting them to click because they’re mad or scared. The internet can sometimes feel bleak, we are turning a corner. 

This shift from volume to value isn’t exclusive to the digital media business. Cable networks used to prioritize getting as many eyeballs as possible – now, the biggest entertainment companies are obsessed with streaming and getting people to pay them directly for high-quality movies and shows. Sports leagues which used to heavily rely on casual fans are leaning more and more heavily on season ticket holders and people that will shell out huge amounts of money to watch the product whenever and wherever it is on their TV. Restaurants and dining clubs are becoming more specialized and more expensive while delivering a substantially higher quality product than they did 10 to 20 years ago. We’re moving towards a world where commercial endeavors target deeper relationships with fewer people over shallow relationships with huge numbers of people. Media companies that serve a “niche” are the ones that are winning, and the best niche of all is becoming the go-to source for news and information for your neighborhood.

A few of our bets are paying off

When we launched, we made a couple major strategic decisions that caused a few people that we talked to raise their eyebrows. They included:

  • We decided not to try to monetize our site traffic – instead, we wanted to build valuable relationships with our readers and ask people to support us directly in exchange.
  • We decided to become a for-profit entity during a time in which non-profit entities get the bulk of the funding directed at journalism.
  • We decided to emphasize newsletter sign-ups above all else, including social media growth, site traffic, and more.

A few of these have been absolutely critical to where we are today.

Monetizing site traffic can do a lot of things, but the biggest one is that it creates an incentive for you to chase eyeballs, no matter where they come from. If you get paid X dollars for each person that visits your site, you don’t really care whether they’re from Southwest Minneapolis, Southwest India, or Southwest Manitoba, the eyeballs all count the same. The Southwest Journal’s website is more profitable now that it’s run by a Serbian DJ than it was when it covered local issues. This immediately leads you to a place where, if you can run the right Taylor Swift slideshow (we love her here, relax Swifties), it can go viral around the globe and deliver you some sweet advertising revenue. 

How would that help people in our coverage area? It wouldn’t. Because our north star was asking that question about all of our major decisions, we decided not to try to take on an incentive that we thought could hurt our ability to keep people informed in a focused way.

Since we have launched, we’re seen a pretty dramatic slowdown in traffic that two social platforms send to publishers: Facebook and Twitter/X. Both of them have moved away from prioritizing news publisher content, making them less impactful and relevant for people like us than ever before. If we had chased big numbers from either one, and put the traffic they deliver at the center of our strategy, we would be in trouble right now. 

But instead, we made a bet that the safest place to stash our eggs was in the bedrock of the internet that has escaped the algorithmic peaks and valleys: The inbox. Boring. Traditional. Safe. Sound.

Focusing on people’s inboxes as the primary place that we connect with them has meant that as our Twitter/X accounts have seen dramatic slowdowns in engagements, our core way of reaching our readers has not. Our newsletters have more subscribers than ever, and even if the Twitter faucet got turned off all together, we would still be able to reach you. That matters a lot, and the shift we’ve seen in the past year has made us feel even better about making that decision. 

The national landscape

As a business, we don’t exist in a vacuum – we make money off of people becoming paying members and selling ads. Those two markets are undergoing a massive shift right now.

I’ve spent a lot of time reading end-of-year pieces from the end of last year about where the media and local news industries are headed as a means of trying to both stay current and learn about where we fit into the whole thing. You’ll find some of the interesting things I pulled out sprinkled throughout this post.

First off, traffic is way down for news organizations everywhere, as highlighted in this chart below with month-over-month and year-over-year traffic declines: 

Source: Comscore data

Huge shifts are happening in the digital advertising market. A couple of major shifts are happening, all of which impact advertising programs like ours. 

Google is killing off “cookies”, which is a fancy way of saying that lots of the types of ads that track you all around the internet are going away. This has huge implications for the way that online ads are served to people, and reduces the value of banner ads (aka the big colorful ads in the sidebars of most websites).

Layoffs continue to rock the industry with new body blows coming every week. On a single day in January, the LA Times fired more than one hundred people, while legacy publications National Geographic and Time cut back their workforces as well. Earlier this year, Sports Illustrated was gutted after several bad business decisions in a row. Last fall, the Washington Post cut 240 jobs. And that’s only from the last six months. On the whole, the industry lost more than 20,000 jobs last year.

It’s not like there isn’t money in media – in fact, there’s tons of it, a lot of it is just going to the wrong places. The vacuuming of advertising dollars by social media companies is well documented, but it goes deeper than that. 

The Messenger, a remarkably poorly-run digital publication, burned through $50 million before folding in less than a year. For context, for $50 million we could easily run neighborhood-level publications and newsletters in every corner of Minneapolis AND St. Paul for more than a decade – and have enough left over to give back 75% of the money at the end.

The solution to this problem is sometimes posed as one that foundations, alone, can solve. While I am a huge believer that media organizations of all sizes should be getting foundation funding (and that governments, who spend millions of dollars on ads every year, should be directing most or all of that money to local news), organizations that receive foundation funding haven’t had a much better survival rate than those that have not. This piece about how direct funding doesn’t lead to sustainability lays out why.

We think advertising is shifting towards publications like ours

In a number of those end-of-year wrap up pieces, there are hints that we are moving in the right direction.

In Brian Morrissey’s newsletter, The Rebooting, he wrote a piece called “The Decline of Mass Media” that had a section that made us feel a bit more optimistic about where we can fit into the great reshuffling of the digital media landscape: 

"That said, it’s hard for me to see a long-term workable model that puts at its center the act of attracting visitors to webpages to expose them to advertising. That will be a shrinking part of just about every media business model.

Instead, many publishers will need to confront the need to get smaller and more focused. The year of efficiency has given way to a more-with-less era. The Information Space will mean far more publishers, with far different businesses. Better to look at the situation prior to mass media to understand the direction we’re heading."

In Thomas Baekdal’s piece, “Returning To a Contextual Focus”, he touches on why the advertising market may be in the midst of a larger shift away from heavy traffic volume and towards quality context – or, from volume to value:

"But money is only part of the problem. A much bigger problem is the disconnect between what makes the ad-tech middlemen rich and what we gain as publishers.

The easiest way to see this is by looking at the continuing problems with news fatigue and news avoidance. Yes, a big part of that is just the state of the world, but in every study we look at, people cite volume as one of the key reasons why they’re giving up on the news. And the reason why we’re creating so much volume is because we have optimized for clicks and views — again, a product of a programmatic focus.

This is the disconnect. The model that has made the ad-tech market rich is also exactly what has made us poorer — not just in terms of revenue, but also in terms of journalistic value.

It might sound paradoxical, but the future will require the media to be like magazines and print newspapers tend to be: with less content, but of better quality. With valuable intellectual property, instead of publishing the same information being produced by their competitors. For years, we’ve been assuming that journalism misses the paper. The reality is that what we’ve been missing for years is the care and the processes behind the content that is published."

How can local news survive in a world in which major digital publishers are shrinking by the day? That’s really the wrong question. Local news now has a much easier path to survive than they do, Logan Jaffee argues:

"In 2024, the heart of local news strategy boils down to the question: Do you care about place, or not?

To what I believe are the most exciting and promising new local journalism organizations, the answer to that question is, deeply, yes. That calls for a very different, and I’d argue more challenging, way of doing journalism than nationally-focused organizations with interests in “local.” Authentically local journalism outlets already know this. And with so many new — and needed — locally-focused news and information organizations bubbling up across the country, there presents an exciting new space on the horizon for these journalists and newsroom leaders to redefine their relationships to place."

Beyond that, there’s a shift in the direction of publications that put resources into engaging with their audience – not just pumping out as many stories as they can. Melody, Brianna, and Melissa spend hours every week answering emails, texts, social media posts and messages, and more. Here’s what Meredith Artley had to say about news organizations that prioritize engagement:

"The best use of the internet is not to be a place to push out content, walk away, and leave interaction to the ethics-free giants of social media, but to enable true interaction with the people the work of journalism is for.

The social platforms broke the trust and hope that was, in painful hindsight, naively placed in them. 2024 is the year for news organizations to prioritize and own consistent and true engagement. The ability, and the mandate to do so, exists right now."

Our biggest battle right now is fighting new avoidance

If we are ruthlessly competitive with something, it’s this – a majority of people don’t watch, listen to, or read the local news, and we see it as our mission to get them to engage with what’s going on in their community.

The piece in Neiman Lab, written in part by University of Minnesota researcher Benjamin Toff, asks: “So who are the consistent news avoiders?”

"But a bigger and more persistent gap lies along what the political scientists Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan call “the other divide”: the divide between people who are deeply involved in politics and rarely, if ever, avoid news consistently and those who are largely indifferent toward politics and avoid news far more often. To be clear, we are not suggesting that all or even most young people, women, or people of lower socioeconomic classes avoid news consistently. That is verifiably not the case. But if you do meet someone who consumes practically no news at all, there is a good chance they will fall into one or more of these categories."

Our publication’s readership is both younger and more heavily represented by women than most media outlets (our median newsletter readers is a 34 year-old woman, and our median Instagram follower is a 25 year-old woman), and that’s a really promising sign in our desire to help fight news avoidance.

Sam Cholke wrote about the decline of social media platforms and what it looks like to reach people as that decline accelerates in the piece “News confronts reaching audiences in a post-social world”:

"Over the next year, the news industry will have to confront the realities of building an audience in a post-social media world — a world where the news not only doesn’t reach those who aren’t looking for it, but is not a consistent presence in many Americans’ lives."

The landscape in the Twin Cities

While most of the big, national companies making cuts dominate the headlines, people should be incredibly optimistic about where the local media is at relative to a few years ago. 

Our partners in the Twin Cities Media Group represent the backbone of a thriving landscape of independent, local publishers that are doing high-quality community-driven journalism. I would encourage you to spend your money with them every day.

Axios Twin Cities puts out a fantastic newsletter every morning, MinnPost and the Minnesota Reformer are publishing remarkably good stories about public policy and local governments, Minnesota Public Radio has been launching fascinating new teams, Sahan Journal is a national success story for their impressive growing team, Longfellow Whatever just launched to give the greater Longfellow area a strong hyperlocal newsletter, people like John Edwards from Wedge LIVE!, Josh Martin, and the Minneapolis Documenters team committing themselves to sharing information about what the city government is up to, and incredibly bright spots are starting to dot the suburbs, including Eden Prairie Local News and the newly-announced Woodbury local news project.

Beyond that, the Star Tribune appears to be headed in a much better direction than it’s been in the last few years, with stronger coverage of public safety, housing, a handful of interesting hires, and a really interesting new direction. Aside from the occasional hiccups (like the fiasco surrounding the city’s 2023 election where a majority of successful City Council candidates correctly concluded they wouldn’t get a fair shake from the editorial board and didn’t even both participating in the process), I’m optimistic about the direction of the paper. Their focus looks like it's more on creating a statewide footprint than on expanding their presence in our backyard, which I believe has created a pretty clear opportunity that we intend to take.

I'm certain I forgot to mention some great publications in there, and if that's you, please take it as a sign of the many great things going on that I couldn't fit everyone.

This moment, right now, is one in which everyone in the Twin Cities should be incredibly optimistic about our local news scene, even as the scary headlines about job losses at many big national publications continue to pile up.

Here’s what to come from us in 2024

This year, we’re going to keep going in the same direction we’ve been going – not up, but down. More resources mean we can ground ourselves deeper into the communities we serve, cover issues that matter in more depth, and do more to amplify some of the beautiful people, organizations, and businesses that make our city what it is.

We'll launch more collaborations. We worked with many more publications than ever this year, including an election partnership with MinnPost, a collaboration with The Boy Lynx podcast, and additional efforts to publish our writing on the websites of people we love and respect like The Minnesota Reformer and Bring Me The News. The Twin Cities Media Group is off to a great start, and it has so much room left to grow. We are working on some new partnerships that would allow us to work with others to bring you grassroots news from every corner of the city. We are also in talks with a couple companies that may not look or feel like media companies, but we are convinced will have a decisive impact on the future of news in our city (and especially beyond). 

We're going to be having more events. I’m writing this down to help keep us honest. We meant to launch these this year, but a lot of stuff was happening. We will have some more in-person events coming soon, and they will be fun. We guarantee it. You’re going to love them.

Beyond that, we want to get to know you a bit better. Seriously, if you take one thing away from this, let it be this – we really love hearing from you. You give us our best story ideas, our most important feedback, and drive our editorial and operational strategy. Get in touch and let us know what you want and need!

P.S. Did you enjoy reading this, or anything else we do? Consider becoming a paying member today.