The newspaper where I learned not to take no for an answer died quietly, a week before the election. The cover story was on hard times in the restaurant industry; the illustration, in classic alt-weekly fashion, was a fork bent so that it raised a middle digit. The piece included the line “You have to adapt or die. Sometimes you adapt and die.”
And with that, City Pages in Minneapolis–St.Paul joined the nearly 2,000 papers that have gone dark around the nation, from the Sudan Beacon News in Texas to the Rocky Mountain News in Colorado. The last time someone ran the numbers, in 2018, one in five of America’s newspapers had been shuttered, but the true devastation is likely much greater.
The erosion of news is a huge danger to democracy, and that’s finally starting to be recognized. But there’s been less said—perhaps because, quietly, some are relieved—about a specific part of that tragedy: the withering of the alternative press, whose rambunctious tradition stretches back to Tom Paine’s pamphlets. It’s a tradition Mother Jones stands in, too, and one that, at this moment of struggle for democracy, seems badly needed.
Like other threatened papers, City Pages fought off the Grim Reaper for a long time. I’d pick it up when I returned to the Twin Cities from California each year, finding it skinnier and smaller. It was sold to hedge fund investors, then to the daily newspaper that it had competed with (and sharply covered) when I was there in the ’90s.
But it was still, as one of the many online tributes put it, “gleefully and repeatedly poking its fist into the snoot of power.” It was irreverent, impudent, insolent, and uncowed by authority in all forms. Like its peers around the country, it had a voice both fearless and fun, a mix more notable at a time when much of our news is filled with either toxic venom or smarmy gravitas.
City Pages was, to my 25-year-old self, journalism as it should be, and I remember literally skipping down the sidewalk headed to my first day at work, pinching myself that I was going to get paid (all of $20,000 a year) to do this. I already had a subscription to Mother Jones—it was the pinnacle of ferocious, world-changing journalism—and this job felt like the closest I would get to that.
Like my colleague David Brauer, who tells a great story of his start in alt-weeklies here, I had been told that the way to build a career in journalism was to pay your dues at small-town papers, clawing your way up until maybe you landed at a metro daily. But that wasn’t an option with my immigrant status, plus there was a recession—those papers weren’t hiring anyway.
And City Pages already had my heart. They’d let me publish my very first magazine-style cover story, on families taking over vacant homes in a brutal recession. (The more things change.) The tiny staff was intimidatingly smart and cooler than I could ever dream to be. Most of them had a background in music writing, where City Pages had been a trailblazer.
One of the first stories my boss, Steve Perry, handed me to edit was by another young journalist, Clara Jeffery (who is now Mother Jones’ editor in chief), digging into how nearby Carleton College had covered up a spate of campus sexual assault allegations. (The more things change.) This was a topic many outlets were still skittish about: Women “asking for it” remained very much a trope, one that Katie “date rape or just bad sex?” Roiphe would soon make a whole career out of. Clara’s story had none of that. It was deeply researched, incontrovertibly documented, and compellingly written, and it made waves. Ultimately, Time put one of the women Clara had featured on its cover, a #MeToo moment of its day.
It was the kind of story the alternative press was born to do. We didn’t have to worry about offending a conservative suburban subscriber base—or anyone, really. Some of the best investigative reporting around the country came out of alt-weeklies: The Village Voice’s Wayne Barrett exposed what Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani were really about long before national media shook off its infatuation with them. The Chicago Reader exposed police torture. The Boston Phoenix blew the whistle on pedophile priests well before the Spotlight team did, and Phoenix New Times showed us Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s reign of terror before it made national news. Portland’s Willamette Week literally dug through the trash of local officials to highlight that police were doing the same to citizens.
All this came about because the weeklies’ roots in emerging cultural movements allowed them to eschew the mealy bothsidesism that hobbled “mainstream” news. (Ah, the arrogance in that term, with its presumption that only corporate, white- and male-dominated outlets could represent America’s mainstream.)
City Pages, launched in 1979 as a music rag named Sweet Potato, was on the tail end of the great alt-media blossoming that began in the 1950s and stretched through the Reagan years. Alt-weeklies, women’s papers, LGBTQ papers, and community radio stations sprang up to join the Black, Indigenous, and immigrant-focused outlets that had long served communities other outlets were ignoring or demonizing. And, on the national level, there were countless new magazines, including one named after a near-forgotten labor leader, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones.
“The alternative media are catalytic, introducing new concepts and values which society then accepts (usually with modifications) or rejects,” wrote media critic Ben Bagdikian (after whom Mother Jones’ fellowship is named) in 1981. “This is consistent with the historic role of radicals in America, to whom can be traced once-extremist ideas such as the abolition of slavery; the progressive income tax; […] unemployment insurance; women’s suffrage; racially integrated schools, and many more.”
In practice, what this meant was digging hard for facts that challenged assumptions (including our own), and treating seriously demands for change that conventional wisdom deemed unreasonable. When police violence shook the Twin Cities, my fearless colleague Jennifer Vogel published expose after expose of “thumpers” and the structures that enabled them. When the state of Minnesota was getting ready to hand a massive bailout to Northwest Airlines, I didn’t have to crank out incremental coverage of which politician said what (especially when they mostly agreed that it just had to be done): I got to dig into the contract itself to show just how raw a deal for the taxpayers it really was, and how powerful interests (including the husband of my now-senator, California’s Dianne Feinstein) profited.
This kind of digging was largely not women’s work, even then, in many newsrooms. Alt-weeklies were not immune from the trappings of patriarchy—at industry conventions, I remember being constantly sized up by editors who fancied themselves rock ‘n’ roll celebrities—but they were also working to blow it up. At City Pages, we had a female baseball writer and an unbroken string of extraordinary feminist rock critics. But, to our shame, in one of the whitest and most segregated major metro areas in the country, we had no journalists of color; it was left to our peers elsewhere to become launch pads for journalists like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jelani Cobb, and Shani O. Hilton (Washington City Paper), Greg Tate, Hilton Als, Nelson George, and Stanley Crouch (Village Voice), Gustavo Arellano (OC Weekly), and many more.
But if the ’90s were rich in talent for alt-weeklies, shadows had begun to loom on the business side. The weeklies’ original target demographic, baby boomers, were settling into post-thirtysomething maturity while GenXers like me were a smaller cohort, less rich of a terrain for advertisers. The papers’ edgy classifieds increasingly became the terrain of predatory escort services, and digital entrepreneurs like San Francisco’s Craig Newmark began to demonstrate that you didn’t need paper to sell your jalopy or find a roommate. And perhaps most dangerously, consolidation had arrived. Most alt-weeklies were still owned by their founders, who wanted to make a buck, sure, but also have an impact. Tom Bartel and Kris Henning, who started City Pages, would often tell me that “great journalism leads” a news organization, and business success follows.
In 1996, Tom and Kris called us together to announce that they’d sold City Pages to the Village Voice, the storied New York alt-weekly that Rupert Murdoch had famously bought out, and then sold again to pet-food magnate Leonard Stern. Stern, whose company had been on an alt-weekly buying spree around the nation, had also purchased the Twin Cities Reader, our competitor, and we were told it was to be shut down immediately.
That unceremonious end should have given us a clue as to where the priorities lay in this new era. But we were just relieved we hadn’t been bought by the other chain—New Times. Founded by a swashbuckling pair of Phoenix libertarians named Mike Lacey and Jim Larkin, it was snapping up papers from Miami to Cleveland, seeking to become the alt-weekly equivalent of the chains that had rolled up daily newspapers and television stations across the country.
Why? Economies of scale didn’t make that much sense for a product as intensely local as a newspaper—you could hardly centralize City Hall coverage, and even music and film reviews catered to the sensibilities of their communities. But consolidation had produced spectacular profits by ramping up advertising rates and squeezing newsrooms, and as American wealth became more and more concentrated, there was also just a lot of capital sitting around and looking for something to do.
The raiders’ timing, though, was not great. Not only was classified advertising collapsing, the music industry was in upheaval—soon, record and record-store advertising would vanish—and online entertainment listings were taking a chunk out of the weeklies’ calendar business. New Times and Stern Publishing (the latter rebranded as Village Voice Media and sold to private equity investors in 2000) battled it out for a decade, until VVM cried uncle and sold to New Times in 2005. (At the Village Voice proper, at least a dozen journalists quit or were fired shortly after, including its legendary DC correspondent, Jim Ridgeway—who went on to help launch MoJo’s Washington bureau.
In late 1999, as the world was freaking out about Y2k, I fired off a letter to the new editor of Mother Jones. I had always loved the magazine, I told him, but it seemed to have lost its way a bit and become predictable. Also, what about the internet?
It was the kind of letter an editor should rightfully play wastebasket target practice with, but somehow I was invited to interview for a job. At my City Pages goodbye party, the staff gave me a framed print by the photographer Wing Young Huie, whose work we often ran (documentary photography was another beautiful obsession of the alternative press), of a kid dancing atop an ATM on a South Minneapolis intersection. It has hung across from me wherever I’ve worked (currently a beat-up recliner in my living room) because it is so much about seeing the place where you live.
Over the years, my old colleagues peeled off. Clara Jeffery had moved on to Washington’s City Paper and Harper’s before we both found ourselves working at Mother Jones. Jennifer Vogel wrote an amazing book about her father, a famous bank robber(!). Will Hermes went on to Spin and Rolling Stone. G.R. Anderson, who had helped keep up City Pages’ tradition of hauling in big investigative awards (and on whose work, also in classic alt-weekly fashion, better-known writers liked to piggyback) went freelance. Britt Robson still writes about basketball and jazz the way the best practitioners of both play. Beth Hawkins, who had shown me that you could be both a parent and a fierce journalist (because this was not what the broader culture was, or is, telling us), became a killer education reporter. I could go on and on and on, because alt-weeklies were an amazing boot camp for journalists in the Twin Cities and everywhere: At Mother Jones, 13 of us cut our teeth in that world—from Clara and myself to editors Mike Mechanic, Aaron Wiener, Dave Gilson, Tommy Craggs, Mark Follman, Daniel Moattar, Daniel King, and Jacob Rosenberg, plus creative director Adam Vieyra, reporter Stephanie Mencimer, and senior fellow Matt Cohen.
City Pages soldiered on, in the way that newsrooms do. They afflicted the comfortable, comforted the afflicted, and sometimes afflicted everyone. Their parent company had 17 weeklies, but its dirty (literally) little secret was that a big chunk of the revenue came from Backpage.com, into which the seediest of the old classified had been shunted. Eventually the owners would spin off the papers, but keep Backpage, only to lose it in a sex-trafficking prosecution (spearheaded by then–California Attorney General Kamala Harris and recently prominent Texas AG Ken Paxton).
In 2015, City Pages was sold yet again, to the billionaire Glen Taylor, the owner of the Timberwolves and the Star Tribune. It was another “better these guys than the other guys” moment: By now, hedge funds were going in hard on the newspaper industry, and the rapacious Alden Global Capital had already snatched up the Twin Cities’ second daily, the Pioneer Press. Around the country, local papers were turning into ghost newsrooms, with ever-thinner syndicated content wrapped around ever more intrusive ads. That didn’t happen to City Pages—the Star Tribune and Taylor were better owners than that—and it kept soldiering on, even taking the occasional swing at its new parent company.
Early this year, City Pages got its first-ever female editor-in-chief, Emily Cassel. (I had been interim editor way back, but she made it to the real gig.) When I called her a couple of weeks ago, we laughed about how often a woman or a person of color gets a top job just as things fall apart (a phenomenon so common it has a name: the glass cliff). But at the time, “everyone felt really positive,” she says. “It felt like we were still putting out a valuable and interesting product. We were not hemorrhaging advertisers, and with new leadership and a really young staff we were ready to begin exploring other ways of bringing City Pages to a wider audience—podcasting, video, things that could have been really exciting.”
And then the coronavirus hit.
Within weeks, people were warning of “total annihilation” for alt-weeklies. Advertising for many of the papers dried up almost instantly: Almost every business that supported them (and almost every place where you would pick them up) relied on people gathering. Weeklies instituted furloughs and pay cuts (at what was left of Village Voice Media, staff writers were told to take cuts of 25 to 35 percent, to an average of $30,000) and a good few shut down altogether.
City Pages, too, instituted furloughs, and it soldiered on, throwing itself into covering the pandemic and the George Floyd uprising. You see the best of the alternative press’s spirit in that coverage: A three-woman team, including Cassel, went deep on what a police-free Twin Cities would look like. Investigative reporter Susan Du—whom Minneapolis’ finest had seen fit to arrest when she covered the Philando Castile protests—not only hit the streets to witness the uprising, but also took time for the kind of community-focused reporting that’s so often missing from protest coverage. Reporter Mike Mullen skewered feckless leaders, self-appointed poll watchers, and the former congressional candidate who saw fit to stage a maskless concert in a K-Mart parking lot. (Update: You won’t be able to read any of these stories because the Star Tribune has taken City Pages’ site offline, leaving only an announcement that the archive will be available elsewhere sometime in the future. A fan who created an independent archive took it down after getting a cease and desist letter.)
Cassel says she had no inkling that the end was coming; she found out about it on a Microsoft Teams meeting with senior executives, about 15 minutes before her staff was informed on October 28, hours after their last issue hit the stands. Sadness turned to anger when they learned that the Star Tribune and Taylor (who is expected to gain about $1.5 billion when he sells the Timberwolves) had not even looked for a buyer to take the weekly off their hands. “People loved this paper so much,” she says. “They would have done anything to help preserve it.”
“Love” is not a word you often hear people use about their workplace, but I knew what she meant because that was how I felt about City Pages too. And so did a lot of readers. To be sure, there was “a bit of gravedancing,” as Cassel puts it (tweets in the vein of “good riddance to you commies”), but mostly there was “an enormous feeling of grief, that there was something really singular that City Pages did. For a lot of folks there was a feeling that we didn’t know what we had until it was gone. I still see people tweeting: ‘I would have loved to get the City Pages take on this.’ But we can’t anymore.”
Twin Cities readers are fortunate in many ways. The community is home to more news outlets than most cities its size, including strong startups like the Minnesota Reformer—one of several newsrooms whose parent organization was incubated by a liberal dark-money group, but editorially independent and with a strong investigative bent—and Sahan Journal, dedicated to Minnesota’s immigrant communities*. But City Pages left a hole that won’t be filled. As it hasn’t been in so many other places, smaller and larger (in New York, the Village Voice may be coming back from the dead next year, but its new owner’s record in Los Angeles does not inspire hope for this zombie.)
And it hasn’t been, because for far too long, America has delegated the essential work of keeping democracy informed to the marketplace, and the marketplace mostly sucks at it. (It’s pretty good at sports, entertainment, and other content, just not at sustaining news that speaks truth to power.) For all of the three decades that the for-profit news business has been in trouble, we’ve been told that what’s needed is just some new way to “monetize” audiences—search engine optimization! social optimization! pivot to video! pivot to mobile! pivot to mobile video!—and some venture capital (or, in a few cases, philanthropic investment) to make it work.
But here’s the problem: Starting from scratch can be incredibly inefficient. It takes a ton of time and money to build a newsroom and the infrastructure that surrounds it, and even more to develop an audience. What would have happened if even a portion of the time and money that has gone into new platforms and outlets for news had gone, at least in part, into shoring up and transforming organizations that had already done a lot of that work?
You can’t do anything new inside a “legacy” newsroom, we’re often told—these are dinosaurs, best hurried along to extinction. And surely that has been true for some, especially those that for years have been fleeced by corporate owners. But what of a shop like City Pages? Would a fraction of the capital that has been poured into “disrupting” news have been enough to give it escape velocity, through COVID and beyond? How many times must we really reinvent the wheel?
I ask this, admittedly, with some self-interest. In the years since I left City Pages for Mother Jones, I’ve watched wave after wave of innovators reinvent the wheel that existing newsrooms were already putting their shoulder to every day. Most recent case in point: The Correspondent, a flashy initiative to create the English-language counterpart of the Dutch reader-supported news site De Correspondent. It launched with $2.3 million in foundation support and a slick crowdfunding campaign that ate up much of its $1.8 million in “runway funding,” only to disappoint its supporters (and its first US employee) when the founders admitted they weren’t building a US newsroom after all.
This month, after a few more steps down the ladder of ambition, the Correspondent folded altogether. And while I’m sad it ended up this way, I’m also mystified that it had to start that way: The Correspondent promised to “unbreak the news” with a model built on support from readers and in-depth reporting on issues that matter. Uh, sound familiar? There were so many nonprofit US newsrooms pushing in this direction already—how much more return on investment could there have been in strengthening and innovating there?
Why do big-name foundations and investors default to this launch-and-fail cycle over and over again, instead of advancing and improving work already being done? It’s sexier, for sure—America is all about tearing down cool stuff and building something more boring instead. And perhaps that legacy of pushing the envelope, of advancing ideas that won’t become mainstream for a while, also feels a little too hard-edged for top-floor conference rooms and fancy pitch decks. You never know, after all, whose powerful snoot will get hit next.
Cassel is right: Alt-weeklies have done something singular, and that something is not likely to be replaced by the philanthropic or venture-capital establishment. Wendi C. Thomas, a great investigative reporter and founder of the Memphis-based, justice-focused nonprofit newsroom MLK50 (one of the great, underfunded, and necessary nonprofit local startups you can find and support here), puts it sharply: “How do I get these funders, who are part of the status quo, to support work that is aimed at disrupting the status quo?”
Which is why I feel today exactly the way I felt back when I was skipping to my first day at City Pages: ridiculously fortunate to work where I do. Because at Mother Jones, we have something more durable and more powerful than corporate backers: you. Millions of you who read our stories, watch our videos, and listen to our podcast—and hundreds of thousands of you who pitch in with a donation or a subscription. Thanks to you, we can keep impudence and irreverence alive. We can punch up, push the envelope, and even find ways to laugh (and help you do the same). And thanks to you, I hope, we’ll never have to say that the next story you read from us will be our last.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the Minnesota Reformer‘s funding.