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City Pages: What if it doesn’t suck?

In their unhappiness with all of the changes at the alt-weekly, many critics won’t acknowledge the good things it still does: new hires, worthy scoops, well-reported stories.

It’s been about 15 months since City Pages’ staff began a mass exodus that concluded with reporter Paul Demko’s final day Friday.

As each experienced domino has fallen — Steve Perry, Britt Robson, Jim Walsh, Beth Hawkins, Rob Nelson, Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, Mike Mosedale, G.R. Anderson Jr., Michael Tortorello, Peter S. Scholtes — outrage has given way to indifference for many alt-weekly fans. These days, compliments about City Pages are as rare as pro-R.T. Rybak stories during Perry’s 13-year tenure as editor.

The sense of loss is understandable because of what CP can be. It is still the biggest alternative to the dailies and TV — with roughly 100,000 print readers and 1.5 million monthly web page views. Perry showed the scrappy underdog could effectively gnaw at city and state government, winning multiple statewide investigative awards, while hauling in trophies for arts criticism and food writing. And let’s face it — CP keeps full-time reporters employed at a time when the industry is shedding them.
CP’s current iteration has obvious problems. The music franchise is sick. So is the politics franchise. Testosterone practically drips off the pages.

But I’m an old alt-weekly guy, and we’re trained to champion the underdog. And right now, CP’s staff qualifies. The beat-down has become so relentless that the good things aren’t being acknowledged.

Editor Kevin Hoffman is a lightning rod for criticism, but in my opinion, his biggest accomplishment is hiring good staff writers — there’s not a groaner in the bunch. Three in particular stand out: Jeff Severns Guntzel, Jonathan Kaminsky and Matt Snyders.

Each has cranked out worthy scoops. Snyders bagged the biggest quarry last fall, when he discovered that the University of St. Thomas uninvited Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu for alleged anti-Israel remarks. Kaminsky produced a fine expose of south Minneapolis slumlord Spiros Zorbalas, mixing the granular suffering of real people with comprehensive document work. Guntzel nailed the tale of Minneapolis’ sex crimes unit, where a massively shrinking headcount effectively bottled up investigations.

Any of the three would’ve done the Perry era proud.

Recent departee Demko irked by all the critics
Someone who agrees: Demko. The gruff newshound is an old-guard loyalist (he started at Perry’s Minnesota Monitor on Monday) and leaves spitting nails — not at Hoffman, but at locals who write off CP.

“When [local media critic] Deborah Rybak — who I love — calls us a ‘frat boy snark sheet,’ that misses a TON of fantastic, well-written, well-reported stories that have been produced by my colleagues and myself over the last 15 months,” Demko says, voice rising.

“And to ignore Jeff Gunzel’s piece on the … MPD Sex Crimes Unit, to ignore Kaminsky’s piece on the slumlord of south Minneapolis, to ignore Snyders’ political coverage in Iowa, to ignore my piece on the High Bridge, that’s just so absurd and ridiculous that it just pisses me off.

“I see people here doing a lot of good work and hard work and — whatever the failings of the paper — that also needs to be acknowledged. It pisses me off when I think about some jackass on MnSpeak talking about how worthless the paper is.”

Unlike some former colleagues, Demko isn’t getting Village Voice going-away money to hush up negative comments. He’s free to speak his mind for good or ill.

To be fair to Rybak, Demko’s absorbing history of St. Paul High Bridge suicides and the slumlord expose weren’t written when she penned her slam. And Demko acknowledges that CP’s “frat boy snark” has an element of truth.

Snyders, at first, seems to be an exemplar of it. As a writer, he seems unafraid to do “stoopid” — living at the Mall of America for a week, smoking the not-yet-illegal hallucinogen Salvia and then interviewing the legislator who wants to ban it. Despite my “hard news” snootiness, I find him a totally guilty pleasure.

Snyders at his rollicking best would’ve been a perfect complement during Perry’s accomplished but not-exactly-knee-slapping tenure. His high jinks come off as more annoying amid Hoffman’s Ultimate Fighting Championship proclivities.

Hoffman’s personal interests show up regularly in story choices
One need only look at the editor’s bylines to see his preoccupations: hockey fighter Derek Boogaard; the world’s strongest man; a local Guitar Hero. (Hoffman’s finest CP story explored a local man’s descent into anorexia.)

A dash of this stuff  is appropriate. Video games outsell music and deserve cultural treatment. (CP hosts VVM’s national gamer blog.) And from what I hear, hockey is pretty popular around these parts. Young blood should have its fun.

Hoffman isn’t defensive about his choices. “Those are my personal interests,” he says, noting archly that MinnPost covered the strongest man, too.

He acknowledges the strategic dimension: “It’s a fair criticism to say we’re going after a younger readership, and that includes young males.”

But such strong yin desperately needs a yang. Who looks out for young women? Dude-rich topics have crested precisely as CP lost an exceptional aspect of Perry’s exceptional tenure: strong and senior female editors.

Monika Bauerlein, Jennifer Vogel, Julie Caniglia, Hawkins — there’s no equivalent at the new CP. The two most recent hires — staff writer Beth Walton and music editor Andrea Myers — are simply too new to claim such influence.

Hoffman points to copy editor Bridgette Reinsmoen and A-list editor Jessica Armbruster as veterans with responsibility, but neither has the status to undo any editorial imbalances.

Increased web traffic bolster’s Hoffman’s choices
One vindication of Hoffman’s cultural emphasis can be seen in web traffic since Nov. 1. “Real-life superheroes” — about people dressing up in capes — was the most-read feature at 112,000 hits; the anorexia piece was second with 75,000; the Mall of America escapade finished third at 40,000.

The top “hard news” story during the period — on local churches protesting a same-sex marriage ban — had 28,000 readers. The slumlord epic came in at 22,000. (See below for more web data.)

Tellingly, there were no political stories in the Top 10. Such coverage has fallen far under Hoffman. Aside from episodic forays, CP has abandoned the legislative beat and the paper’s traditional City Hall haunts. Hoffman keeps up the site’s GOP convention blog, “Elephants in the Room,” but there’s little to distinguish it.

When the libertarian New Times Media acquired six publications, including CP, and changed its name to Village Voice Media after its high-profile flagship publication, there were two fears among the local paper’s lefty base. One, that it would it would stop being lefty. That hasn’t happened. The other — a political de-emphasis — largely has.

One need not duplicate Perry’s ideology; it had become orthodoxy, and its virtues remain on display at his new employer, Minnesota Monitor. But political anorexia in these keenly political times imperils CP as a must-read.

The irony is that the staff has some politically astute dudes. Guntzel — whom Hoffman reportedly persuaded his bosses to hire — and web editor Jeff Shaw have both worked overseas. Guntzel has done relief work in Iraq; Shaw is writing a book about U.S. military expansion ravaging Okinawa’s indigenous peoples and ecosystems. Snyders is an unabashed libertarian, which nicely flavors the soup. Their political lights are largely hidden under CP’s apolitical bushel.

Hoffman cops to problems here. A few months ago, he told me his brand-new staff needed more time to assess the landscape; in this regard, Demko’s departure was a nasty surprise. Hoffman says the paper is now implementing a loose beat structure so fewer government stories are missed.

Features like “Slumlord” and the sex-crimes-unit expose show that his troops can rise to the occasion; part of the solution will be the editor letting his reporters follow their own bliss more.

Print publication often not connected to timely news
The print pub is simply too seldom in the news cycle. The front-section Blotter is a throwaway (as it often was under Perry). There are fewer news features, most are non-timely, and the bidding seems to start at a hefty 1,500 words on up — way up. Some 800-worders — anticipating coming news events or analyzing old ones from fresh angles — would improve readability and significance while better showcasing the cultural forays.

Hoffman blames running fewer features on having fewer pages to work with; City Pages, which was regularly over 100 pages, is now often under 90. It’s not all on him: this is an industry-wide struggle. He didn’t argue about the dreadnought story sizes. We’ll see if there’s more variety down the line.

One knock against Hoffman — still heard — is that his love of narrative writing leads to heavy-handed excision of elements that complicate (or enrich) the storyline. Hoffman is absolutely firm in his editing style, which grinds through more rewrites than old CPers were used to. Many of the departed found the changes inferior.

Demko has a pretty funny story about Hoffman objecting to a story lead where a Satanist-turned-blueberry-entrepreneur smoked dope; Hoffman worried that the drug use would make the guy a less-sympathetic white hat. “Dude, he’s a Satanist,” a laughing Demko recalls telling the editor.

“My initial dealings with Hoffman editing stories were difficult,” Demko acknowledges. “He had a vision of the story that he was beholden to. But that’s the one story in 15 months where I’ve felt the process with him — which can often be grueling — produced a story not as good as it could’ve been. I can’t crucify him for that.”

Demko says that on the High Bridge story — which featured the harrowing tale of a suicide survivor — Hoffman “significantly improved the story by asking for a significant amount of history on the bridge, its construction and reconstruction, its suicides over the years. It was a 24-hour bout of hell adding all that stuff in. But ultimately, it gave it a narrative spine, a lot more strength, a lot more depth.”

Now, Demko’s capable of, ahem, making an editor decide to terrorize someone else. I can’t say everyone inside the shop has the same level of satisfaction. But his praise is a feather for the oft-flogged editor.

Music coverage needs improvement
City Pages got its start as a music paper, so it’s sad that it’s no longer a must-read on the subject. Hoffman recently fired music editor Sarah Askari, a Perry hire.

I’m no music expert, but from what I can tell, the local complaining centered on the firing’s clumsiness more than the loss of Askari’s prose. (The short version: Hoffman was seen talking to Myers while Askari was still employed. Some say Askari knew she was on thin ice; she denies it.)

A week after Askari left, City Pages discovered that since January 2007, web traffic for the paper’s music coverage had fallen steadily; once peaking close to 8,000 unique viewers a day, it now struggles to get to 4,000.

There are many reasons: the rise of competitors, smaller issues — and, Askari notes, the departure of many good writers. Three CP writers who made “Best of Music Writing 2007” — Michealangelo Matos, Jessica Hopper, and Dylan Hicks — no longer write for the paper.

And unlike the paper’s word-heavy news features, CP’s arts coverage has been largely nuggetized into 200-word bursts in A-List calendars. That makes sense in a faster-paced world, but Demko says a major loss has been CP’s weekly arts features, which truly set the paper apart.

“When we had Michael Tortorello editing Diablo Cody on TV, Rob Nelson on film, Dylan Hicks analyzing the music scene, there was a lot of good reading week in and week out,” he says.

Shaw — who has his own budget and isn’t managed by Hoffman — is trying to rebuild the franchise with more music pieces online. The paper will soon debut a monthly online-only art feature. Scholtes is writing for CP’s website, and the hardworking, indefatigably local Myers might stage a grass-roots revival. But it won’t be won in bite sizes.

VVM hasn’t exactly helped. A quick comparison of the mastheads — March 2006 to March 2008 — shows that it has cut City Pages’ writing staff almost 30 percent. (The paper is preparing to give several offices back to its Warehouse District landlord, including Hoffman’s sprawling corner space, once inhabited by publisher Mark Bartel.)

There’s still an editor, a managing editor, a music editor, a web editor and six staff writers. What’s vanished is a tier of senior editors: G.R. Anderson Jr., Beth Hawkins, Britt Robson and Rob Nelson. Overall, there are three fewer arts/culture writers on staff.

Hoffman deserves credit for snatching up bloggers who deserve a shot, like Myers and budget-dining guy James Norton. Foodie icon Moskowitz Grumdahl was overdue to find greener pastures — emphatically exonerating Hoffman on her way out. The Norton/Rachel Hutton food combo seems to be working better than anyone could’ve reasonably hoped.

The paper may never be the same — CP’s rocky transition might’ve come at precisely the wrong time in journalism’s commercial history — but there’s talent within those besieged walls. Don’t let the hate blind you to the gems inside.

City Pages on the web

Say what you want about Village Voice Media officials, but they’re open about their web traffic data.

Comparing Steve Perry’s last month — February 2007 — to the same month this year, City Pages’ web traffic has grown smartly by most measures. A big reason: pop culture tales (real-life superheroes, living at the Mall of America for a week, Diablo Cody), slideshows of naked or nearly naked people, and blogs about unclothed dining and porn.

Such is life on the web, where the mere mention of S-E-X sends page views soaring. (The most popular thing I’ve yet written for MinnPost was about sex ads in the Star Tribune.) The new-era CP seems to, umm, beat the drum regularly.

Still, one shouldn’t overlook other efforts: more concert reviews, an engaging Twin Cities Eater blog, a why-not gamer section and a decent amount of print-story “expanded coverage.” Web editor Jeff Shaw plans a fuller roundup of weekend shows (not limited to music), more local political coverage and a monthly web-only art feature. The site also will regularly plumb its archives for historically relevant or entertaining work.

Here are the Top 10 features, blog posts and slide shows from Nov. 1 to April 22, with a few comments:


1. Real-life superheroes: 112,354 hits
2. Boy, Interrupted (male anorexia): 74,597
3. Living at the Mall of America for a week: 40,028
4. Wedding Crashers (gay marriage): 27,961
5. Diablo Cody: 25,104
6. South Minneapolis slumlord: 21,195
7. Skinheads at 40: 15,322
8. High Bridge jumpers: 14,311
9. Jesus Weekend: 13,670
10. Soldier suicides: 10,976

There’s a real mix here. Four are solid but not time-pegged news features (gay marriage, slumlord, bridge jumpers and soldier suicides), two are engaging features with some heft (anorexia, skinheads), three are fluffy (heroes, mall, Cody) and Jesus Weekend is, well, unclassifiable. But no news that tears the whole town apart.

Slide shows

1. Naked Sushi: 181,685
2. Superheroes: 73,069
3. Boy, Interrupted: 64,220
4. Hair metal history: 44,582
5. Bikini show: 32,101
6. Diablo Cody: 29,635
7. Polar Bear Plunge: 17,981
8. Skinheads: 17,405
9. First Ave Fetish Bash: 17,211
10. Powderhorn Art Sled Rally: 13,264

The real ace in CP’s hole, web-wise: Slide shows — where each image is a page view — can really goose traffic. It should shock no one that most topics are less than meaty.

Blog posts

1. Naked Sushi: 5,548
2. Ms. Pac-Man Poses For Hustler: 5,174
3. Minnesota conjoined twins: 4,717
4. Gene Simmons sex tape: 3,605
5. Bill O’Reilly lynching: 2,389
6. McCain mistress 2,138
7. Boy, Interrupted expanded content: 2,070
8. Real-life superheroes expanded content: 1,934
9. Philosopher or warrior: 1,931
10. Westminster dog show local dog: 1,603

It’s sad that no substantive politics made the list, but Gene Simmons’ sex tape does. Such is the web’s viral world.

On a macro level, CP’s February-to-February blog numbers are up across the board. Visits are up 43 percent (128,000 to 182,000) and page views have doubled (175,738 to 357,118). Blog readers lingered 62 percent longer on the site (a minute and a half versus 56 seconds). The “bounce rate” — people who leave without viewing another page — has fallen from 81 percent to 75 percent. (That’s moving in the right direction.)

The paper’s non-blog content is up too, but not universally. Visits slipped less than 1 percent (415,021 to 413,429) but page views were up 9 percent (1.4 million to 1.53 million). Readers spent 15 percent longer (2:46 to 3:11) and the bounce rate fell from 58 percent to 53 percent.

City Pages’ traffic ranks third in the Village Voice empire, even though the 16-paper chain has alt-weeklies in bigger cities such as New York, L.A., San Francisco, Seattle and Denver.