Fuck it we have to own the thing ourselves

From the ashes of City Pages comes RacketMN

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Also out today I’ve got a story about the Kimbal Musk-founded nonprofit garden education organization Big Green combatting its workers’ attempts to unionize. You can read it here.

In October of 2020 City Pages, the alternative news weekly that had been covering the Twin Cities for over forty years, was shutdown abruptly by its owners. It was just the latest in a long line of alternative weeklies that have been unceremoniously dumped by disinterested or incapable ownership, in this case the company that also own the Star Tribune. Surprisingly or not depending on your level of cynicism about such things, the company, owned by billionaire former Timberwolves owner and former Senator Glen Taylor, rebuffed any efforts by the staff and other interested parties to explore options to keep the paper’s legacy alive or even available online. Now, not quite a year later, a team of former staffers have said fuck it, we’ll do it ourselves. Their new effort, called Racket, will launch later this month as a worker-owned media property based in part on the model of the folks at the post-Deadspin site Defector (whose own group quitting and rebirth I covered here and here.)

I spoke with Em Cassel, the last editor in chief of City Pages, about their new effort. (Back in May Cassel reported for Hell World on the real reasons restaurants workers around the country were declining to go back to work.)

Remind us of the basics of City Pages shutting down?

The Star Tribune bought City Pages in around 2015. They shut it down in October 2020, right during the pandemic of course. They had some interested parties, including us, reach out about purchasing it, using the name and somehow carrying on the legacy. They were not interested. Didn’t want to attempt to run it as online only. Really made no effort whatsoever to preserve the journalism that was there or the legacy that was there. Some interested web guy made an archive of the website that basically mirrored it, to keep the decades of journalism alive so people could access that history. They sent him a cease and desist as well. So they were just absolutely uninterested in any alternative news legacy. And now ten months later we’re back!

So the City Pages site is not online at all anymore?

The site is literally not online right now. If you go to CityPages.com it brings you to a landing page that tells you it was shut down, oh, and also you can buy merch here if you’re interested.

That’s super cool! That same thing happened to the Boston Phoenix when it shut down. It just wasn't important to anyone, besides a bunch of people who used to work there, to keep the 60 plus years or whatever it was of reporting available. It was just wiped from the internet. Although there’s some sort of barebones janky version of it up again now that I look. Anyway it’s good because most of my goofy 2000s emo record reviews are gone now.

At least you were able to tell on yourself by starting Emo Night.

True. By the way, we're doing the first one again coming back in a couple weeks and I really don’t want to do it I think. I’m kind of scared.

That’s gonna be a great chance to get Covid.

I know and for such a stupid reason. Is the Star Tribune owned by one of these ghoulish money companies? Did they get bought up?

It’s even more ghoulish, they’re owned by billionaire Glen Taylor. He was the Timberwolves owner. He’s a former Republican senator. In 2020 his net worth was reported to be $2.5 billion. He’s a run of the mill Republican billionaire. I don’t have too much else to say about him.

It’s very good for the rich fucks when there’s no alternative weekly in their city.

It almost seems like they have a vested interest in making that happen.

You were the editor in chief when City Pages shut down?

I was the acting EIC since November of 2019. I officially got the job in January 2020. Two months later it was Covid. Six months later we didn’t exist anymore.

All of this is even more insulting considering the fact the city and the state have become the flashpoint of the biggest civil rights movement in decades. Nobody thought it would be good to have an alternative news source in the city? It boggles the mind.

It does. I think a lot of people thought it would be good to have an alternative news source, but those people aren’t the ones on the business side of the Star Tribune. We were out there covering everything last summer, from the protests themselves, the uprising, to the aftermath, the social justice reckoning, to the mutual aid movements that popped up afterwards. We were really on it right up until the end there.

What was the official line when the news was broken to you?

I got a zoom call from my boss, our publisher, who said, you know, basically I’m giving you a heads up that in twenty minutes I’m gonna schedule a meeting with the whole team. The news is this is the end. We got it via video call, like so many other people who lost their jobs in 2020. It was an absolute shock. There was no warning. No conversation about what could be done to preserve it. It was never to my knowledge a consideration that we go online only, that we consider any other distribution model. The company basically said in their own reporting that it “could no longer sustain City Pages after the coronavirus outbreak forced closing and downsizing of the events, nightclubs, bars, and restaurants that were it’s chief advertisers and financial base.”

In a way there’s truth to that I suppose. That sort of shit killed tons of alt weeklies around the country. Rock clubs and restaurants and so on stopped needing alt weeklies to advertise. It’s part of a trend for the past twenty years.

Yeah. Monika Bauerlein at Mother Jones, who used to be a City Pages staffer, wrote a really good piece after the closure about the sort of general decline and then steep cliff that alt weeklies have been on. We are not the only ones, we are a recent loss in a long line of very tragic losses. But it doesn’t feel good to be part of that legacy.

It’s interesting because I was just at the alt weekly AAN conference in Boston a couple weeks ago as like the “here’s how to do a newsletter” guy on a panel. Sure enough here’s an alt weekly basically turning into a newsletter.

Yes. We will have a website, but newsletters will be a big component of that. I think we’ve seen the rapid success of places like Axios, with the idea being like, get people in their inbox, be there first thing in the morning. It’s just the 2021 version of getting the paper on your stoop every morning. It seems like a no-brainer.

And from what I understand you guys are also going to share Axios’ Beltway insider centrist politics right?

Totally. We love the Democrats. The Democrats are perfect.

How big is the staff now?

Four of us. All former City Pages editors. At the end there weren’t that many of us in the newsroom as it was. I think there were twelve of us when we shut down. Now there are four.

What will you focus on?

A lot of it will be lefty politics. We are going to keep covering the labor movements going on in the Twin Cities, especially in the restaurant industry and all these previously not very unionized spaces. The other part of that is local arts events, music, all the things that make a city a vibrant and diverse and interesting place to live, which is totally missing from the current media universe. It’s a gaping hole.

You talked to some of the Defector folks about how to pull this off?

They turned out to be in many ways the blueprint for what we’re doing. They worked with the same web design and production firm that we worked with. We asked Tom Ley at Defector for advice a handful of times. I can't thank them enough to be willing to be the torchbearers for this digital media movement.

It seems like we talk about this as a trend now, people picking up from shuttered more traditional digital outlets and turning them into their own smaller thing. It almost makes more sense this way though. In my day at the Dig and Phoenix, they both had these big offices, prime real estate in the middle of an expensive city. You don’t need that at this point. Resources could be better spent on paying staff and freelancers.

That’s exactly it. I’ve always been baffled by the fact that so many media organizations are tied to the east coast in big expensive cities where real estate is unattainable and the cost of living is way too high. You just don’t need any of that stuff. We’re already in the midwest, shit is cheaper here, but we can make it cheaper still. We don’t have a huge footprint. We don’t need to be downtown. We’ve all got Gchat, we’re fine.

Similar to Defector, are you all co-owners?

It’s a four way split between the four of us. Good rates for freelancers as well.

Will you expand on that if you grow?

That would be the hope down the line. We want to make sure that it works first before we get anyone else to sink with us again.

And a mix of subscriptions and advertisements?

The idea is the advertising should be unobtrusive, none of that shit you see everywhere like “one weird trick!” We’ll try to be more conscious about it than that. It seems like without having some amount of advertising you’re leaving money on the table. It’s just about being a little more intentional.

I’ve toyed with that idea myself but I feel like everyone would get pissed off at me. Obviously I wouldn’t take ads from fucking Raytheon or whatever.

That’s part of it. It gives us an interesting opportunity to get rid of the stuff that was not serving us at City Pages at the end. We had to take ads from some fucking groups I would not have taken ads from. We’d be like… Jesus, these people? So it’s great to not have to do that this time around.

Are you optimistic about the state of indie media? You must be if you’re jumping in, but it’s just been years of constant body blows. It’s hard to keep your head up.

It absolutely is. I think so many people in this industry feel this axe looming over their heads. It’s been shown time and time again that you are disposable to your company. You could be sold to some vampiric hedge fund any moment. But the thing that gives me hope about this specifically and other writer editor owned publications like us is…  we were in a union position at City Pages. We were in the Star Tribune's guild. That didn’t save us at the end. I think what is interesting is that now people are like, well fine, fuck it, a union won’t even protect us, we have to own the thing ourselves. I think that’s an interesting shift that’s even a degree further than before.