Not long ago, I was walking through the 7th Street Transit Center in downtown Minneapolis near the Target Center when something caught my eye — an empty City Pages rack. The sight of it brought an unexpected twinge of sadness.
I didn’t know anyone who worked at City Pages, the defunct alternative weekly that served the Twin Cities from 1979 until last October, but the shuttering of any publication is never good for those of us in journalism. The Star Tribune, CP’s last owner, shut it down, citing pandemic-related revenue shortfalls. I moved here well after the twin heydays of the Twin Cities Reader and CP in the 1990s, when both award-winning alt-weeklies broke news and poked bears on each side of the Mississippi.
CP was the last survivor, and in the months since its demise no entity stepped into the arts and entertainment chasm. But now, four former CP editors — Emily Cassel, Jay Boller, Jessica Armbruster and Keith Harris — plan to resurrect the spirit of CP in a website they call Racket. It’s a word that evokes the quirky, distinct phrasing of the late David Carr, the former Reader editor known for his exemplary media columns at The New York Times.
“We wanted something that was an expression of us,” said Cassel, CP’s first female editor-in-chief. “We are all a little bit noisy, rambunctious. I think part of that alt-weekly spirit is that you are a little bit loud in a way that is not always super pleasing to the listener. So we love the idea of making a racket.”
Carr might have called this effort a “caper.” It may not be illicit or ridiculous, but it’s certainly a gamble. Instead of relying solely on advertising, Racket — which launches August 18 — hopes to generate revenue through three levels of subscriptions, from $50 up to $999 a year. The founders fronted the seed money themselves, betting folks are so starved for alt-weekly content that they’ll pay for it — something readers never did with CP, which was free and available at gin joints and coffee shops all over the Cities.
“A huge part of the reason City Pages didn’t make it is that advertising dollars dried up from the places that would have traditionally funded an alt-weekly,” Cassel said, meaning bars, restaurants, concert venues and strip clubs. “We certainly thought about advertising as a model, then looked around and said, ‘We don’t want to be in that same situation again. We don’t want to be relying on ads when it seems like those ad dollars could go away in an instant.’”
By going digital only, Racket eliminates CP’s newsprint and delivery costs. There won’t be a Racket office, either; everyone is working from home. (When the editors do need to meet, it’s usually at the Midtown Global Market on Lake Street.) All those things reduce monthly overhead, lowering the threshold to turn a profit.
Thing is, it’s hard to convince people to pay for something they’re used to getting for free. Community newspapers like The Villager and others tried this in recent years, with limited success. Cassel, though, is encouraged that 1,300 people signed up for their two free newsletters, with about half buying subscriptions.
“To have not published a single word yet and have that, that was confirmation to us this was the right thing and we’re hopefully moving in the right direction,” she said. “We’re asking people to support a totally different business model that’s online only and, once again, doesn’t exist yet. That wave of support was really humbling and felt very cool to see.”
Before the four committed to the project, Boller said he emailed Tom Ley of Defector, the employee-owned sports and culture website culled from the wreckage of Deadspin. Defector was launched by former Deadspin staffers who quit or were fired in a dispute with new owners. Though it sells no ads, Defector generates enough money from subscriptions to pay the salaries of more than 20 staffers, according to the Washington Post.
Ley responded quickly and suggested Boller and Cassel join him for a video chat.
“That was kind of our first stroke of luck with this whole endeavor,” Boller said. ”The first question I asked him was, how did you do what you did, and how can we copy it? He laughed and kind of took us through the process. They made it seem incredibly easy.”
Fifteen minutes after the call ended, Boller said Ley emailed them both, urging them to go for it. “That was a vote of confidence as we began a thing we were pretty clueless about how to get off the ground,” he said.
So what will Racket read like?
“I think (readers) should expect to see a lot of the quirky minutia of Twin Cities life that we were doing,” Cassel said. “You can expect some weird cultural phenomena, and explorations of weird subcultures or small groups you otherwise wouldn’t hear or read about.
“We’re pretty lucky here, all things considered. We have MinnPost. We have the (Minnesota) Reformer. We have the Sahan Journal. We have options. But we don’t have anything in the niche that City Pages was, this kind of fearless, scrappy little kid brother that’s always trying to punch up and has something to prove, that annoys the people that need to be annoyed.”
That would be welcome. There’s never enough investigative journalism in any market, even one with two daily newspapers and multiple news websites, and the restaurant industry could certainly use less root, root, rooting for the home team and more in-depth looks at operations and best practices. Same with the business community. Alt-weeklies traditionally fill those lanes.
But there’s another issue with Racket that isn’t easily solved: Lack of diversity. All four co-founders are white residents of south Minneapolis. Cassel hopes to recruit freelancers from every corner of the Cities to write about what’s important in those areas.
“It’s definitely something we’re conscious of, and we’re going to have to make more of an effort to reach those neighborhoods and those communities and do a good job serving them,” she said.