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Remembering the Twin Cities Reader, 22 years after its death

Twin Cities Reader
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
The last edition of the Twin Cities Reader, dated March 12-18, 1997.

Twenty-two years ago this month, the Twin Cities Reader published its final issue. I remember it clearly because I was on the staff of the Reader at the time and all of us were very suddenly unemployed. There’s nothing special about the 22nd anniversary, but I find myself thinking about the Reader every year about this time.

The Reader, for those too young to remember, was a free weekly alternative newspaper that covered a mix of local news and arts. The printed edition was the only form in which it existed. The Reader had no web site. Smartphones and social media did not yet exist. The aging computer sitting on my desk was a PC called a “286.”  Our idea of high-tech was the fax machine.

The Reader’s scrappy staff was collectively fired in mid-March 1997 because an out-of-town owner had recently acquired our direct competitor, City Pages. The same outfit then bought the Reader just to shut it down.

A humorless guy from New York stood in our threadbare office on the second floor of the Lumber Exchange building in downtown Minneapolis. He gave us the news that we already knew: we were out of business. It was a Wednesday afternoon; the latest issue of the Reader had just hit the racks. I had been working there for almost four years, my first “real job” out of college.

“Last day to operate is Friday,” he told us. There was nothing left to operate. We had two days to clean out our desks. After nearly two decades of battle, the guerrilla war of the weeklies in the Twin Cities was over.

In the grand scheme of the global media business, the Twin Cities Reader was a flyspeck. But looking back after more than two decades, maybe its shutdown was a small harbinger of the looming trouble for print publications everywhere: declining revenue, industry consolidation, steady layoffs and some guy from New York telling you that you don’t have a job anymore.

The metal newspaper racks for the Twin Cities Reader and City Pages were usually standing right next to each other in local bars, clubs and restaurants. Each paper had its partisans, but many readers picked up both. If one of the weeklies had a good story, people might keep talking about it all week long. Sometimes we found stories that the big media outlets missed. Sometimes we had more attitude than information.

In the big picture, the 1990s were good years for the alternative weekly industry. Business was booming in those pre-digital days because the papers drew younger readers who didn’t pay much attention to daily newspapers. In the days before dating apps and web sites, alternative weeklies ran “personal ads” — classified notices from people seeking romance. Ask your parents.

But the Reader was not cashing in on the trend: in its final years, it had fallen into second place as the smaller of the two papers. Despite being an elbows-out alternative newspaper, for many of its final years the Reader was part of a larger group of publications that was ultimately owned by an East Coast private equity group. Investing in the Reader was not a priority.

From the alternative weekly point of view, the big dailies were stodgy, humorless and not tough enough on the city’s big institutions. From the metro daily newspaper point of view, the weeklies were little tabloids: reckless, a bit sleazy around the edges, and full of stories with shaky sources, not to mention some occasional profanity.

Back then the idea of a major daily newspaper owning some grubby little giveaway rag like either the Reader or City Pages would have been seen by either side as preposterous. The weeklies were meant to be an “alternative” to mainstream media. But in 2015 the Star Tribune acquired City Pages and folded its own weekly arts and culture freebie, Vita.mn.

Today people find news everywhere: on web sites, devices, and social media. But at the same time it often seems that there are fewer distinct local media voices.

Back in 1997, the Star Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Twin Cities Reader and City Pages had four separate owners. Today the three surviving titles — all of which have smaller staffs than 20 years ago — have only two owners. Many media trendwatchers think that the number will ultimately be reduced to one.  At that point, what’s the alternative?

Burl Gilyard worked as a staff writer at the Twin Cities Reader from June 1993 until March 1997.

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Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Gabe Ormsby on 03/18/2019 - 10:04 am.

    The Reader – City Pages competition made both better papers. I miss picking up the pair midweek on the hike home from work. Bonus: The two papers rolled up together made a formidable bat with which more than once I indignantly whacked cars who violated my pedestrian right-of-way. Made a nice boom on a sedan trunk.

  2. Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 03/18/2019 - 11:37 am.

    I also miss the heydays of the alt-weeklies. I started picking them up to
    keep tabs on what concerts were coming to town, and eventually grew into reading the actual stories. Before the internet, the alts were often the only source of in-depth journalism you could find. They did a great job of picking up on stories and perspectives that mainstream papers wouldn’t bother with.

    To take a somewhat trivial example, I’ve always been a basketball fan, but even as a young reader, I was bored to tears by the formulaic mainstream coverage. I always looked forward to those City Pages issues where Britt Robson would write about the team; it was obvious he had a passion for the game, and each article would spark some interesting idea I hadn’t considered previously.

    Online culture has allowed everyone to pursue niche passions a bit more fully, but it means we don’t all talk about the same alt-weekly cover story (which is a little unfortunate). Current sources for quality local journalism, like Minnpost, streets.mn, or Wedge Live, all benefit in some way from the long history of the alt-weeklies. Given that the alts and mainstream papers both had their revenue streams slashed by Craigslist, et al., the financial picture continues to look dim for newspapers going forward, though I think there are still readers hungry for real journalism.

  3. Submitted by Tom Dietsche on 03/18/2019 - 12:03 pm.

    I met the woman who became my wife by running a “want ad” in the personals section of the TC Reader in 1986. Great publication! Got lots of replies to the ad, BTW. (This was before Tinder).

  4. Submitted by Dan Emerson on 03/18/2019 - 12:46 pm.

    Even though I always considered CP the better paper (I wrote for them) I always assumed the Reader would eventually win the battle due to higher readership, especially in the suburbs; so it was a surprise when the Reader folded.

  5. Submitted by Dan Emerson on 03/18/2019 - 01:56 pm.

    there was a film shot in the Twin Cities around 1980 or so, based on the personals called The Personals. They managed to include the roller-skating-around the lakes craze, too.
    I remember when CP paid $15 for live music reviews. nobody got rich (except, eventually, the founder/publisher)

  6. Submitted by David Markle on 03/18/2019 - 03:19 pm.

    CP still does some investigative reporting, but there was a time when CP did more than either the Star Tribune or the Reader. In fact, at one point a major agency of the Minneapolis government, MCDA, tried to get CP to retract an entire article by Jennifer Vogel about city politics and Riverside Plaza ownership/management, but CP held firm because there was nothing significantly inaccurate in the piece.

    Good work, when you’ve revealed problems that the government doesn’t want known!

  7. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/18/2019 - 07:50 pm.

    I always picked up copies of both. But truth be told, I could never recall which I’d read any particular article in. For me, it was always, “I read it in City Pages or the Reader.”

    I think it was City Pages that had Doug Tice as a writer. I never understood that, an alternative running a column by a white guy apologizing for The Man.

    • Submitted by Dan Emerson on 03/19/2019 - 11:19 am.

      no, Tice wrote for the Reader, which was slightly less “alternative” and more “mainstream” during much of its run, which began in ’78 (If I remember correctly). City Pages began as a music monthly called Sweet Potato, then went weekly and transitioned to less counter-cultural sounding City Pages.

  8. Submitted by Jim Boulay on 03/18/2019 - 09:06 pm.

    The Reader really had all the info about what was going on in the twin cities music scene! Fun fact that was overlooked was that City Pages used to be called Sweet Potato!

  9. Submitted by Martin Keller on 03/19/2019 - 09:09 am.

    Two alt weeklies in one city, what a luxury! As someone who worked for both papers — and Sweet Potato — the competition between the two tended to create a weekly seesaw. Inevitability the coverage one week would be better than the work done at the other, but “end users” benefited every 7 days. Even after 22 years, I still miss the old annual cover story at the Reader, its Get Out of Town issue, which roasted all of those deserving of the honor from all walks of public life. Somebody – or some blog – should resurrect it.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/19/2019 - 12:28 pm.

      A I recall, they both came out on Friday. Then one bumped it up to Thursday, quickly followed by the other. Then one started publishing on Wed, soon followed by the other.

      It ended there, but I wondered if they would eventually work back through the days of the week to get back to Friday.

  10. Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/19/2019 - 01:04 pm.

    To me, the Reader and City Pages were just one paper since they came out the same day and could be found next to each other.

  11. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 03/19/2019 - 08:21 pm.

    You can still get your alternative newspaper ‘fix’ when you travel North to Duluth. The Duluth Reader is published weekly and distributed throughout N.E. Mn., Northern Wisc., and the Western U P of Michigan. It is usually about 100 pp and has a number of weekly opinion writers as well as info. on entertainment, a twin cities section, personals, eat and drink, classifieds, sports, news and views, et. al.

  12. Submitted by Dan Marchand on 03/20/2019 - 04:49 pm.

    Maybe the best homage is listen to Lovelines
    from the Hootenanny album, where Westerberg reads (sings?) a stream of consciousness the personal ads from the back page of one the alt-weeklies. I don’t recall if it is from the TC Reader or CP.

  13. Submitted by Brian Gandt on 03/25/2019 - 01:26 pm.

    Living in Mpls 90-93, I read both every week. An early afternoon in the window seats of the Uptown with a pitcher of Summit Extra Pale, a Mediterranean Skillet, and the TCR, was a delightful way to spend some leisure time.

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