City Pages, the free weekly newspaper that chronicled Twin Cities culture and politics for 41 years, will stop publishing and close immediately, owner Star Tribune Media Co. announced Wednesday.
The company said it could no longer sustain City Pages after the coronavirus outbreak forced closings and downsizings of the events, nightclubs, bars and restaurants that were its chief advertisers and financial base.
With the closing, 30 people will lose their jobs. It adds Minneapolis-St. Paul to the growing list of U.S. cities with no more so-called "alternative" newspapers, which rose out of the 1960s counterculture scene and flourished through the 1990s, throwing sharp elbows in political coverage and spotting the edgiest ideas in arts.
"While City Pages has retained a strong brand in our market, the profound disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic have made it economically unviable," Mike Klingensmith, chief executive of Star Tribune Media, wrote in a note to employees.
He said he doesn't think the businesses that City Pages relies on for revenue will soon recover. "Even when they return, they will be many fewer in number," Klingensmith wrote. "This leaves us no feasible options other than a shutdown."
The last print edition of City Pages will be distributed this week. The company is making plans to preserve the print archive of City Pages. Its website will remain online for an unspecified period of time, the company said, but it will no longer be updated.
The publication started in 1979 as a monthly newspaper called Sweet Potato that was devoted to the local music scene. But by 1981, founders Tom Bartel and Kristin Henning were eager to grow the business. They decided to expand its coverage and change into a weekly, which they named City Pages, to challenge an alternative weekly called Twin Cities Reader.
"And the Star Tribune," said Bartel, who with his wife Henning now publishes an online travel site. "What I was proud about is we got people out of jail and we put people in jail. We did a lot of really good stories."
In the 1990s, City Pages won awards for stories about brutality by the Minneapolis police force and was sued by the police union over a story about racism, topics that reverberated in the city again this year. It won its first Premack Award, then the state's highest honor in journalism, in 1991 for coverage of Northwest Airlines.
"We believed if we did good stories we would get readers, and if we had readers we would get advertisers," Bartel said. "But that advertising model is completely broken."
In offices across the street from each other, the two weeklies battled for readers, advertisers and influence until the late 1990s when both were purchased by a New York firm, Stern Publishing, that owned the Village Voice and other alternative weeklies. The new owner promptly shut down the Reader.
Over the next decade or so, City Pages survived while other weekly and monthly publications aimed at the Twin Cities arts scene, such as Rake, Siren and Toast, came and went. Its owner, meanwhile, merged with another owner of alt-weeklies, consolidating the industry just as internet companies eroded its base of classified advertising and social media changed reading habits.
Star Tribune Media five years ago purchased City Pages from Village Voice Media, a successor to Stern. At that time, Star Tribune Media was the third major daily publisher to buy an alternative weekly.
In 2012, the owner of the Chicago Sun-Times bought the Chicago Reader, and in 2014 the Baltimore Sun bought the Baltimore City Paper. But the Sun closed the Baltimore City Paper in 2017, and the Sun-Times sold the Chicago Reader a year later. This year, the Chicago Reader, citing effects of the pandemic, reduced its print schedule to every other week.
When the pandemic lockdown in March created an immediate drop-off in advertising at City Pages, Star Tribune executives took a wait-and-see approach.
"The calculus was this is a very talented team. They know the market, they know their customers. And we don't know if this will be a two-month thing or what," said Steve Yaeger, chief marketing officer at Star Tribune Media.
In July, City Pages produced its annual "Best Of" issue that was popular with readers and usually stuffed with advertising. But it warned that some of its "Best of" awards were already out of date. "Due to COVID-19, the uprising, or the uncertainty in the aftermath of both, we've lost plenty of beloved businesses — for now or forever — that might otherwise be here today," an introduction to the feature said.
"It was rough before 2020 for this kind of publication," Yaeger said. "It just got a whole lot rougher and caught up with City Pages in a way that none of us would have anticipated at the start of the year."
The company said City Pages staffers will be offered severance and be eligible for news and advertising jobs that are open at the Star Tribune.
"Fortunately, the Star Tribune is in a strong position due to the majority of its revenue coming from digital and print subscriptions, complemented by support from a large base of regional and national advertisers," Klingensmith said.