For more than a decade, Adam Bubolz and his friends have championed Twin Cities underground bands on their website, Reviler.org, without collecting a dime. Not that they have much of a choice.
The demise last month of City Pages, which had been in publication since 1979, was a stark reminder that alternative journalism — covering artists and news stories that slip under the radar of mainstream media — is an endangered species.
The loss of advertising due to the pandemic hasn’t helped.
By late March, more than three dozen alternative weeklies nationwide had announced significant layoffs, pleaded for donations from readers or ceased publication, according to a study by Nieman Journalism Lab.
Star Tribune Media Co., which had owned City Pages for the past five years, blamed the current economic crisis for its decision to close up shop. The majority of the publication’s advertising relied on restaurants and entertainment venues that have largely stopped spending for most of the year.
“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, said in a note to employees.
The loss could provide an opportunity for other local entrepreneurs to fill the gap in local arts coverage. Don’t expect Reviler to be one of them.
“We just write about things we want to turn people on to,” said Bubolz, who works for a printer manufacturer when he isn’t shooting concerts at small venues like 7th Street Entry. “There’s no pressure to be the local outlet that covers music everyone is talking about.”
Major media companies have no immediate plans to dramatically increase coverage of the arts scene.
“We haven’t focused yet on this question, because the pandemic has unfortunately silenced so much in local arts and entertainment,” Star Tribune Executive Editor Rene Sanchez said. “But as we get to 2021, we will be thinking more about it, especially what new things we might be able to do in terms of coverage digitally.”
The Current radio station, which is owned by Minnesota Public Radio, continues to introduce blogs, podcasts and programs dedicated to local music, including a new show on the Duluth scene. But the Current’s managing director, David Safar, said he doesn’t expect his team to take the place of City Pages anytime soon.
“When they put a local musician on the front page, people took notice. That’s different from what we do as a radio station,” Safar said. “This definitely leaves a space for a new distinct voice to step in. Who takes that opportunity is yet to be determined. But you can’t take the pandemic out of the conversation. Right now, everyone is struggling.”
In addition to arts coverage, City Pages had a reputation for investigative stories written with sass.
Susan Du, who contributed many of those pieces, doubts any other local outlet is poised to offer that same sort of journalism.
“I think a lot of my pieces could have found a home at mainstream news organizations or other outlets, but they either didn’t have the format, didn’t have the space or they just didn’t do it,” said Du, who recently wrote a City Pages story on revitalization efforts on Lake Street. “We had an edge and a voice that was special. I don’t know if people realize what a loss that is.”
Dylan Miettinen, editor of the Minnesota Daily, believes other journalists need to step up to fill the alt-weekly’s role, and that includes his staff of University of Minnesota students.
“I think that we’ll need to lean into the fact that we’re a college publication going forward and showcase the young voices and perspectives that City Pages historically provided,” Miettinen said. “Will we try to fill the hole left by City Pages? Absolutely. But could we ever replace City Pages? Hell, no.”
The alt-media group Unicorn Riot received global attention for live media coverage of unrest after the death of George Floyd.
“We are a platform that was created for the community,” Unicorn founder Niko Georgiades told the Star Tribune last month. “Mostly for the people who don’t have a voice in the mainstream media.”
Once businesses start reopening, several local outlets may see an increase in traffic. That includes the website Heavy Table, which specializes in food and drink, and Secrets of the City, which is once again sending out regular newsletters about Twin Cities arts and culture after taking several months off. Secrets founder Taylor Carik is even contemplating the launch of a print edition.
He believes City Pages lost much of its edge after 2005, when then-owner Village Voice Media merged with the New Times chain of alt-weeklies.
“Not to take anything away from the folks that worked there, but there was a shift between criticism and elevating voices, which is what it was known for, to becoming a content factory.”
But Jay Boller, City Pages web editor, said his team never got away from its primary mission: being a scrappy voice that kept institutional powers in check. He doesn’t see a successor arriving anytime soon.
“There really is no other place for our sort of irreverent, gleeful skepticism,” he said. “That’s profoundly depressing.”