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If downtown Minneapolis is dead, why is it getting a new community news outlet?

Coupled with all the high-rise construction the past decade in Downtown East and up and down Washington Avenue, Charlie Rybak envisions a growing readership for Downtown Voices.

Charlie Rybak
Charlie Rybak: “Parts of the city might feel slower now, but they’re going to get reinvented, and that reinvention really excites me.”
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

Charlie Rybak often hears he sounds and looks like his father, former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, only with a dark, close-cropped beard. (It’s true. No question.) Co-founder of Southwest Voices, a digital journalism entity serving Southwest Minneapolis, Rybak hears something else almost as often: that downtown in the city he loves is deader than a sun-baked lawn in July, and never coming back.

If you know anything about lawn care, you know some crunchy front yards that look like goners are just dormant. With a right amount of water and TLC, they bounce back. In the case of downtown Minneapolis, that’s what Rybak – a 34-year-old digital media consultant, entrepreneur and relentless optimist – is banking on with his newest digital venture, Downtown Voices.

Rybak said he’s been downtown frequently the past two weeks, attending the Twin Cities Pride Festival and Taste of Minnesota, plus meeting people for meals and coffee.

“I can assure you that it is not dead, because I saw it with my own eyes,” he said.

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So did a lot of people. The weekend before last, two sold-out Taylor Swift concerts at US Bank Stadium and the Pride Festival brought thousands of locals and visitors downtown. Metro Transit even kept light rail running late after initially saying it couldn’t. Last Sunday and Monday, the revived Taste of Minnesota attracted thousands more. And more than 28,000 attended Monday night’s Twins game with postgame fireworks.

But Rybak isn’t myopic about the real issues, either. The pandemic and its aftermath gutted the daily commuting crowd. Zelo and The Local are back, but Nicollet Mall and the skyways still have too many empty storefronts and not enough foot traffic. Thirty-story LaSalle Plaza, with an estimated market value of $87 million, just sold for $46 million according to the Star Tribune, which isn’t good for the city’s tax base. Downtown crime isn’t as rampant as outstate critics claim, but perceptions persist.

“If you go to the North Loop and go to Nicollet Mall, you feel two very different things,” Rybak said on a smoky morning last week, nursing an iced tea at a table outside a south Minneapolis coffee shop.

“I find that when people talk about downtown being dead, they’re talking about a couple of blocks that are built entirely around the five-day-a-week office worker,” he says. “Parts of the city might feel slower now, but they’re going to get reinvented, and that reinvention really excites me.”

The “reinvention” means converting vacant office space into housing. That’s where a lot of folks believe downtown is headed. Coupled with all the high-rise construction the past decade in Downtown East and up and down Washington Avenue, Rybak envisions a growing readership for Downtown Voices to tap. The demise of the Skyway News/Downtown Journal in 2018 left the Mill City Times, which adroitly covers the riverfront neighborhoods, as downtown’s lone community news voice.

“The residential population down there is going to boom,” Rybak said. “I’m really excited about that from the business side. Being on the front end of that, as that population booms, they’re going to need more and more resources … I think five to ten years down the road, I think some of the areas that feel dead will be completely reinvented.”

Southwest Voices (SV), launched by Rybak and co-founder Andrew Haeg in October 2021, jumped into the so-called “news desert” created when the Southwest Journal folded in December 2020. Rybak knew the area from growing up in East Harriett. A few months later, a competitor emerged – the print-and digital Southwest Connector, one of three community newspapers run by TMC Publications owner and publisher Tesha Christensen.

The Connector delivers a traditional print product to 22,500 homes from Bryn Mawr to the Crosstown, Christensen says, and another 1,500 to public sites. It grabbed a chunk of area advertising Rybak and Haeg were hoping to land. (Connector is distributed free but accepts voluntary donations from subscribers.)

Still, SV did OK. A detailed financial report released last January indicated it roughly broke even in 2022, thanks to a GHR Foundation grant, advertising and membership programs. To help the bottom line this year, editor Melody Hoffman, the only full-time employee, took a $15,000 pay cut, while Rybak and Haeg took no salaries at all. (Both founders have full-time jobs elsewhere and weren’t making much at SV anyway – $9,000 each.)

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“We feel like we’re at a point where we can break even long-term with Southwest Voices, and we want to try to copy that model for downtown,” Rybak said.

No one’s yet solved journalism’s shrinking advertising dilemma, but Rybak has some ideas.

A few months ago Rybak enlisted five other local properties in an advertising collaborative, Twin Cities Media Group, to coordinate ad buys among all members – SV, Heavy Table, Racket, NewPrensa (servicing a BIPOC audience), North News and KSRM-FM.

“I think it’s too early in the venture to really say too much,” said Racket co-founder Jay Boller. “But we’re excited about the potential and the sense of solidarity it builds among the (organizations).”

Though SV also hired an advertising coordinator, Rybak said community newspapers can’t rely solely on ads. Membership revenue from readers and foundation support are crucial.

“I also think for local small businesses, your local media is fundamentally a very important part of your community,” he said. “They give you an outlet to reach your community that other places cannot. We absolutely have to claw back money from Facebook and Google that local folks are putting into those platforms, and maybe we have to create new products where we can do that. But that has to be part of the bargain. If we want this stuff to exist, locally owned small businesses have to play ball.”

So why is a guy with his own consulting firm and plenty else to do devoting so much time to community journalism? In one sense, news is the original family business. R.T. Rybak was a Minneapolis Tribune reporter and publisher of the Twin Cities Reader before going into politics.

Plus, Charlie Rybak understands the need for more local news, not less, especially with jobs at daily newspapers evaporating by the week. Someone, he said, needs to mind the store and keep public officials honest, and Rybak envisions Downtown Voices adding to that oversight as SV has.

SV doesn’t produce a lot of stories – five a week, give or take – but Rybak is especially proud of the work. H. Jiahong Pan’s October 2022 piece about a fire at a building owned by a sketchy landlord presaged a fire at another of the landlord’s properties in December. Several Minneapolis School District budget pieces by education reporter Melissa Whitler eventually spawned Minneapolis School Voices, a sister publication to SV. Not long ago, the growing company renamed itself Minneapolis Voices. Rybak said he’s not involved with School Voices because it receives grant money from the Minneapolis Foundation, headed by his father.

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“I think local news is incredibly important,” Charlie Rybak said. “It’s one of the few institutions we have left that pulls us together. It’s our sports teams and it’s local news, and our sports teams pull us apart as often as they pull us together … Politics used to do that, and it definitely doesn’t do that now.

“Beyond that, I love this city a lot. I believe in this city. I’m optimistic about this city. I think some of the stories told about this city are way more negative than the reality on the ground that I myself experience. It was important to me to bring more resources to telling the stories of the city I feel like experience every single day.”

Rybak himself jumps into reporting once in a while, too. After we said our goodbyes, Rybak walked across Nicollet Avenue to check out a vacant storefront occupied until recently by Young Man, an Asian fusion restaurant. A sign in the window said a Thai restaurant was coming, and Rybak had some questions for the person working inside.

Editor’s note: MinnPost and Minneapolis Voices recently announced a joint reporting venture involving city elections. The writer was not aware of that partnership, and the editor of this story is not responsible for MinnPost’s city election collaboration.

Correction: This article was edited to reflect R.T. Rybak was the publisher of the Twin Cities Reader. An earlier version listed him as the managing editor.