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.