By Regan Smith
Joel Kramer, Co-Founder, CEO, and Editor of MinnPost, wasn’t exactly destined to be a journalist.
“My mother wanted me to be a scientist. Or, at worst, a doctor or a lawyer,” he jokes.
A sports fanatic with a head for numbers, Kramer was more inclined to spend his childhood calculating batting averages and RBIs than stirring up neighborhood scoops. One of his special talents, he notes, is working out complicated arithmetic in his head without the aid of scratch paper or a calculator.
Not exactly what you might expect from the man who’s made his name in the world of words, even turning down a reporting gig at the New York Times when he was in his mid-twenties. But the Queens native is predictably upfront about the fact that a serious career in writing wasn’t really in his cards at the start.
“I intended to be a mathematician. I was not one of these kids who was writing novels or short stories all the time. I was the editor of my junior high and high school papers, but to me journalism was an extracurricular; I just did it as a school activity.”
Despite this apparent lack of interest in journalism, early in his freshman year at Harvard, Kramer found himself at a meeting of the school newspaper, The Harvard Crimson. The editor of the paper was describing the fall competition to join the staff. Although he had promised his mother he wouldn’t go out for the newspaper, curiosity and a competitive nature got the best of him. Kramer entered the contest and was elected, throwing himself into a world of fast deadlines, brutally honest criticism, and a lot of late nights.
“I had a nine a.m. physics class that semester,” Kramer recalls. “We were often up until two a.m. working on stories, and I had trouble waking up for physics the next morning. Well, I got a D in the class. I guess you could say that was the end of my math career and the start of my life in journalism.”
Over the next few years, after graduating with degrees in history and science, Kramer went on to write and edit for Science Magazine, Newsday, and the Buffalo-Courier Express. In 1983 his now-honed editing chops landed him a job in Minneapolis as the first editor of the newly formed Star Tribune, the product of a merger of the straight-laced daily the Minneapolis Tribune and its sassier counterpart, the Minneapolis Star.
“My job was to create a new personality for the Star Tribune. So I did what my editor David Laventhol did with Newsday: I tried to make it half of both. As an editor and as a publication you can be serious without taking yourself too seriously. You can be about the how and the why and not just the what.”
Mastering this amalgamative style was no easy task for Kramer, a thirty-three-year-old outsider trying to wrangle control over a staff recently ravaged by layoffs and power shifts, but oddly enough it wasn’t the New Yorker’s biggest challenge. While he was well-received by the staff overall, navigating the culture of Minnesota Nice proved trickier than anticipated.
“By the end of a month or two I had developed a good rapport with the staff, and finally two of the editors who were real Minnesotans trusted me enough to take me privately into their office. They told me that I was doing a good job, but that there was this one thing. I had to stop doing this New York thing of interrupting people when they were in the middle of speaking,” Kramer recalls. “So I said, ‘Okay, thanks for letting me know. I’ll work on it. But I do have to tell you that many of you, but especially you two, speak so slowly and with such long pauses that I honestly don’t know when you’re done and it’s my turn to talk!’”
Surprised by Minnesotans’ tendency to take their sweet Scandinavian time speaking, Kramer didn’t realize his rapid-fire tongue was being perceived as rude.
“I’m not going to tell you I’m a real Minnesotan now; I’m still really a New Yorker in a way. But I worked to adapt and they adapted, too,” he says with a laugh.
After transitioning from editor to publisher and president in 1993, Kramer finally left the Star Tribune in 1998. He spent the next decade exploring the nonprofit, public, and political landscapes, and in 2007 founded MinnPost, an unconventional publishing model to fill the gap in traditional Minnesota journalism.
Though he’s not big on looking back, Kramer notes two pivotal points in his career that brought him to where he is today.
The first: that rejected New York Times job.
“I’m not big on regrets, but I admit I do think about it sometimes,” he says. Taking the job likely would have meant a lifetime spent in New York, reporting and editing for the nation’s biggest, most respected news organization. But Kramer has built up a rich life in Minnesota within the journalism realm and beyond, and he is ultimately happy with the choice he made to move here in the 1980s.
The other point marked Kramer’s career-making transition from writer to editor. After two years working as the state capital bureau chief for Newsday, his bosses sat him down and told him he could choose one of two paths. He could either travel to Washington, DC, and work as a reporter with Newsday’s Washington bureau staff, or he could return to the home office on Long Island and become into the night news editor. They told him that if he went to Washington, he’d probably be making a commitment to be a reporter for the rest of his career because most people who go there love it. And if he took the editing job, he was probably making a commitment to be an editor the rest of his career.
“So I asked them ‘Well, what do you guys think I should do?’ And they told me ‘Listen, don’t tell the other reporters we said this, but it’s a lot easier to find a good reporter than it is to find a good editor, and Newsday will benefit more if you become an editor.’ I followed their advice, started editing, moved up the ladder, and never wrote another story again.”
Though his own personal editing career has more or less reached its plateau, Kramer plans to keep pushing MinnPost forward, adapting and evolving the organization to always deliver the best product possible with the changing technological and journalistic landscapes. In addition to the newly redesigned MinnPost website, Kramer also plans to publish more data-driven pieces that take full advantage of the Internet’s room for innovation.
For young aspiring journalists and editors looking to climb the professional ladder, Kramer recognizes that the field is much different now than it was when he started out. But he says that the advice his bosses gave him at Newsday still holds true.
“I’ve often advised young people that while you do have to think about your own career, if you can find a way to think about what matters most to the organization you work for and figure out a way to align your interests and your growth with what will help the organization, it will make an incredible difference in how well you’ll do overall.”