Common sense

Without sacrificing a scintilla of journalistic integrity, Thinking Minnesota helps extend the influence of American Experiment in ways that matter.

This is my last issue as publisher and editor of Thinking Minnesota, as I finally fulfill the promise to my wife to end my days as being “kind of” retired and seek out other ways we can make mischief together. My thanks to American Experiment’s chairman Ron Eibensteiner for loaning me his column space to reflect on my experience with the magazine.

I’m blessed to look back on a career filled with jobs, projects and other professional experiences that kept me eager to get to my desk every morning. But nothing brought more satisfaction than watching the unfolding growth of Thinking Minnesota.

As Ron was in the process of persuading John Hinderaker to become president of American Experiment, the two started to meet in Ron’s conference room to reimagine the Center’s possibilities. Guided by the premise that “this will not be your grandpa’s think tank,” they planned to tear the Center down to its organizational studs. They would reinvigorate fundraising and hire a young, energetic policy staff to dive into issues of meaty relevance, even if occasionally controversial. And they plotted to enhance the Center’s policy work with creative marketing initiatives that far exceeded merely giving the website a much-needed upgrade. These would eventually include radio ads, billboards, bumper stickers, town meetings, webinars and even television ads.

I occasionally joined their meetings. On one of those early days — possibly even before John had officially accepted the job — I mentioned that replacing the Center’s anemic church-lady newsletter with a slickly-produced quarterly magazine would fit nicely into their arsenal of strategic communications weaponry. A magazine? They were in the midst of examining strategies to sharpen the Center’s effectiveness with the cutting-edge tools of the digital age, and I wanted to use a medium that first flourished in the era of Benjamin Franklin.

But they heard me out. The publishing marketplace, I said, was indeed littered with mass media print publications that couldn’t compete with the immediacy of online news or match digital advertising’s ability to target potential customers with unbelievable (even creepy) specificity. But not all print publications reacted equally. Niche publications — the kind that served readers with information about unique or highly specialized interests that they couldn’t find elsewhere — were flourishing. I pointed out how my client Enterprise Minnesota, an organization that publishes a magazine for Minnesota’s manufacturers, had never been stronger in readership and revenue.

We all readily agreed that Minnesota’s center-right conservatives comprised a woefully under-served media market of potential readers.

I wrote a proposal for a magazine that, like everything else in the Hinderaker/Eibensteiner wheelhouse of think tank innovation, would resemble nothing like the product of a traditional think tank. It described how we would proudly assert conservative principles on relevant issues through lively writing, appealing graphic presentation and by maintaining high journalistic standards.

Like their vision for the new Center itself, Thinking Minnesota would avoid thumb-sucking analyses that merely admire problems or vilify opponents. Without sacrificing a scintilla of journalistic integrity, Thinking Minnesota would showcase the vision, agenda, people, and successes of the Center in ways that matter to people who matter. Perhaps best of all it would discuss public policies for their own sake, without the complications of politics and politicians.

I couldn’t guarantee success, but failure — a real possibility — would be because I misread the marketplace, not because we didn’t know what we were doing. I had more than 20 years’ worth of experience as a magazine editor and publisher, plus I had already found enthusiastic interest from Scott Buchschacher, by my lights, the most talented magazine designer in the market.

I’ll always be grateful that Ron and John agreed to test the market reaction by publishing a trial issue of Thinking Minnesota, with a special nod to Ron, who offered to underwrite the costs of the first issue out of his own pocket.

We’ve all been dumbstruck at the popularity of Thinking Minnesota. The press run of that first “test” magazine was 8,000 — the sum total of the database the Center had accumulated over its first two decades in operation. The issue you’re reading right now will have been delivered to well over 100,000 mailboxes throughout Minnesota and beyond. And that’s circulation. When you factor in the industry-standard “pass-along” rate of 2.5 readers for each printed copy, Thinking Minnesota is reaching a quarter of a million Minnesotans per issue.

Ron provided a favorite plot point in the life of Thinking Minnesota on the day he emailed an iPhone photo of a two-inch stack of subscriber requests that sat neatly bound on top of the receptionist’s desk, all from a single day’s mail delivery. For my part, I was always on the prowl to find new readers, even one at a time. In the days before my cardiologist sentenced me to home-arrest to wait out the early duration of COVID-19, I kept a box or two of Thinking Minnesota magazines in the backseat of my old Audi. I would leave copies of the magazine in the lobbies and waiting rooms of any place I happened to visit — my barber, car mechanic, various doctors’ offices, restaurants, coffee shops, and even my church. I was gratified when an administrator at my cardiac-therapy gym asked me to bring more. “People keep taking them,” she said.

The success of Thinking Minnesota is not because of me. I may have developed and helped maintain the magazine’s editorial approach, and we must praise the creative design work by Mr. Buchschacher, but its secret sauce rests primarily with the remarkable team of policy fellows who independently conceive the ideas and produce the first drafts of copy. Their reader-friendly editorial output is fact-based, action-oriented and relevant. Politically-charged education standards must be exposed and stopped. The CRT activities and other extremist behaviors in public schools (like Edina) demand illumination and reform. The stunning failure by public officials to control race riots in Minneapolis demanded clear-eyed analysis. Government spending and economic policies require constant scrutiny. Wind energy is an ineffective energy source that fails to live up to its public promises. Expanding Iron Range mining will benefit the entire state. And someone has to monitor the unchecked power of the Met Council.

Thinking Minnesota reflects the important mission of Center of the American Experiment. If we don’t expose the leftist agenda that is jealously guarded by mainstream sources of news, who will? Thanks for reading. If you aren’t a subscriber, fill out and send in one of the two subscriber cards stapled into this magazine. And fill out another one for the young friend or relative who is not getting any exposure to “the other side” of public policy in Minnesota. They won’t find it elsewhere.

Capable hands. When I announced my intent to retire more than two years ago, I pledged to Ron and John that I wouldn’t leave until we found a capable replacement. We knew the transition would take some time, not because I’m so talented, but because the already depleted list of potential applicants with experience editing long-form print journalism shrinks even further when you add the filter “center-right conservative.” I’m very pleased that managing editor Jenna Stocker will take the full reins as editor starting with the next issue. We all think it will be worth the wait.