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COVID ended City Pages — and the era of alt-weeklies in the Twin Cities

The Star Tribune announced that the paper, founded in 1979, would cease operations immediately, putting about 30 staffers out of work and leaving the metro without its most prominent alt-weekly voice.

Covers, left to right: The first issue of Sweet Potato, August 1979; an issue of City Pages from July 21, 1999; and the final issue, October 28, 2020.
Covers, left to right: The first issue of Sweet Potato, August 1979; an issue of City Pages from July 21, 1999; and the final issue, October 28, 2020.

The COVID-19 economic downturn claimed another journalism victim Wednesday — City Pages, the venerable Twin Cities free alternative weekly owned most recently by the Star Tribune.

Sweet Potato cover from February 18, 1981, featuring the Replacements.
The Strib announced that City Pages, founded in 1979, would cease operations immediately, putting about 30 staffers out of work and leaving the metro without its most prominent alt-weekly voice. This week’s print edition will be the last.

City Pages draws all its revenue from entertainment advertising — theaters, restaurants, nightclubs, concert venues, strip clubs and the like — which evaporated when COVID-19 closed down the state in March. Advertising never recovered enough to keep City Pages solvent. Issues grew smaller and smaller as the pandemic rolled on.

“As you can imagine, the current economic climate for City Pages advertisers has turned from unfavorable to unfeasible,” Strib Chief Revenue Officer Paul Kasbohm said in a statement. “Unfortunately, we foresee no meaningful recovery of these sectors or their advertising investments in the near future, leaving us no other options than to close City Pages.” 

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Strib publisher Michael J. Klingensmith told MinnPost in April he expected City Pages to survive the economic downturn that shuttered financially challenged daily and weekly newspapers from coast to coast. But as venues remained closed and concert cancellations dragged through the summer, the challenges proved greater than expected. 

City Pages issue from December 29, 1982, featuring Elvis Costello.
City Pages issue from December 29, 1982, featuring Elvis Costello.
In an email Wednesday, Klingensmith wrote, “They really didn’t have a chance given the pandemic but they gave it their best shot for seven months.”

City Pages began 41 years ago as a monthly music magazine called Sweet Potato. In 1981 founders Tom Bartel and Kristin Henning made it a weekly and renamed it City Pages, going after the market leader, the Twin Cities Reader. The papers competed fiercely, especially in the 1990s, when Steve Perry edited City Pages and the late David Carr and then Claude Peck edited the Reader.

“It made us both better,” Bartel said. “We didn’t consider ourselves to only be competing with the Reader, but with the Star Tribune and the (St. Paul) Pioneer Press. It was knock-down, drag-out for a long time.”

Its music, arts and investigative coverage, along with its annual Best Of issue, made City Pages a must-read. A stable of talented writers that included future Academy Award-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody earned City Pages dozens of state and national awards. 

City Pages cover featuring artist Scott Seekins, October 12, 1983.
City Pages cover featuring artist Scott Seekins, October 12, 1983.
In 1991, a story about Northwest Airlines by Perry and Monika Bauerlein, “Friends Don’t Let Friends Fly Broke,” won a Premack Award (the state’s highest journalism honor) for metro public affairs reporting, a category usually dominated by the dailies. GR Anderson Jr. added two more Premacks, in 2001 for exploring weak federal laws governing pension funds, and a 2005 piece co-written with Paul Demko about Minneapolis police brutality settlements.

Competition with the Reader ended in 1997 when Stern Publishing, which owned New York City’s iconic alt-weekly The Village Voice, bought both papers and closed the Reader. City Pages outlasted every other challenger, including the Strib’s alt-weekly wannabe Vita.mn, before the Strib bought it in 2015. 

“Once the Star Tribune bought City Pages, that was kind of the end of it anyway,” Bartel said.

Like most alt-weeklies, City Pages loved to jab sacred cows and powerful people. Earlier this month City Pages editor-in-chief Emily Cassel, the first woman to hold that title, riled conservatives with an item celebrating President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump contracting COVID-19. The item was pulled with an apology from publisher Mary Erickson, who called it “insensitive and in bad taste.” 

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The City Pages news comes two weeks after another established free Twin Cities paper, the Southwest Journal, announced it will shutter in December unless a buyer is found. Editor Zak Farber tweeted Wednesday that its owners set a $330,000 sale price. Several years of declining revenue, coupled with a pandemic-related 30 percent drop in ad sales, put the 32,000-circulation Journal on shaky ground.

City Pages cover introducing The Current radio station, March 2, 2005.
Former MinnPost media writer David Brauer, a veteran of the alt-weekly wars, wrote an elegant ode to it in a series of tweets shortly after the news broke, writing, “Digital pennies don’t replace print dollars, news had waned & COVID closed the 40-year book on a thriving music scene that started it all. Things die. But today, think of the joy, passion, terror, outrage. It was alive & glorious,” and ending with a plea to donate to the City Pages employee assistance fund

“City Pages closing is just another in a long line of good papers that can’t make it,” Bartel said. “Google and Facebook have killed journalism, much to the detriment of the country.”