(Monika Bauerlein has been managing editor of City Pages since 1990.)
What I know so far: That it's possible to do what you love and love what you do. That the bad guys don't always win. That sometimes they do. That the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That sometimes a first draft is better. That all the whining about people not wanting to read is crap. That everyone has a story, though not everyone tells it. That all the whining about the state of journalism is just so many excuses from people who have no interest in trying. That it's about asking questions and poking holes and deflating every balloon. That if you smell it, feel it, have it in your gut, it's probably there. That people can tell when you're bullshitting.
That lies are just stories in disguise. That there's no greater rush than a whiff of truth. That a second's instinct is worth more than three weeks of research. That three weeks of research can uncover most secrets. That some secrets will stay. That music, as Miles Davis says, is in the spaces between the notes. That "family" is more than the people you're related to. That you're never as smart as you think you are. That resentment is a waste of time, but fury bears fruit. That the real heroes are never sung.
(David Carr, who edited the Twin Cities Reader from 1993 till 1995, is editor of the Washington, D.C., weekly City Paper.)
In the early Eighties, I would be chewing through the darkest part of the night on the sixth floor of the 600 Building on First Avenue, ostensibly crashing on a deadline for the Twin Cities Reader. There'd be some writing, much swizzling of beverages copped from the display window of the Haskell's on the main floor, and, if colleagues were about, abundant trash talk about Those Rat Bastards Across the Street.
Who did they think they are, those punks at City Pages? We were clearly the dominant paper and preoccupied conversations in every part of the community--except music, and who gave a damn about that? And yet, as I'd work later and later into the night, I'd look down on the third floor of the Butler building, and peering through the window I'd see Tony Schmitz or Phil Weiss busting their asses deep into the night. What kept them going? Did they know, somewhere in their incredibly large craniums, that 20 years later the floor I worked on would be section 222 of Target Center and the paper I worked for would end up existing only in the archives of the Minneapolis Public Library?
Back then it was a death match, with City Pages' Tom Bartel vs. the Reader's Mark Hopp. They were both mean as hell, but Bartel competed as if he'd been dispatched as one of Beelzebub's own Hounds of Hell. He leveraged his paper's street cred on music and found a smarty-pants editor named Steve Perry who had a mountainous chip on his shoulder and a raw, visceral hatred of The Man to go with it. Years later, when City Pages emerged from Stern's foray into the market as the far more viable title, Perry's ugly superciliousness in victory obscured the fact that he and Bartel did an amazing thing. Nowhere else in the nation did an upstart alternative overtake the dominant paper. While the Reader was busy relocating to the suburbs and resting on nonexistent laurels (remember "A Civilized Alternative"?), Perry found and cleared a path for the likes of Will Hermes, Monika Bauerlein, Jennifer Vogel, Britt Robson, Terri Sutton, and a legion of other talented writers who were more than happy to join him and Bartel in their endless jihad against the Reader.
After my tour as a writer in the Eighties, I returned in 1993 as editor of the Reader to lock horns anew with Perry et al. I never had so much fun in my life. The newspaper war is a relic of a different media age, but nobody told us that. We'd jog to the rack to see what Those Rat Bastards had come up with on a particular week: a need to keep cognitive dissonance at bay left us focused on the lefty cant of our competition (there was plenty of it) and obscured our view of their news enterprise (there was plenty more of that).
City Pages held a rigorous, steadfast mirror to all aspects of Twin Cities culture, arts, and politics, business, and nonprofits. And if they canonized Ron Edwards along the way, who could blame them? Edwards can talk more shit than a landlord on rent day.
The Reader, in spite of hosting a like corps of talented writers, attenuated through years of neglect from out-of-town nincompoops who had no idea what to do with the paper. Stern came in, bought both, closed the Reader, and in time Bartel and Perry were gone as well. Once the sting of the loss faded--I felt it even though I was 1,000 miles away--I was thrilled that some of the bylines I loved sharing an office with showed up in City Pages, which was bulked up and invigorated by monopoly.
So is the Twin Cities better served by a single, strong alternative paper? Not really. But the one that remains well reflects the city it inhabits and purports to cover--I've always been a City Pages reader and still am.
I miss the jihad, though.
(Craig Cox was with City Pages from 1985 until 1989, spending most of that time as editor. He is now managing editor of the Utne Reader.)
You can't trust this memory thing. I'm almost 30 years removed from air force basic training, for instance, and I recall none of the horrors of barking drill sergeants, only the surprising frivolity of the obstacle course. Nearly 20 years after my father's descent into cancer and a too-early death, I've pretty much blocked from my memory the months of tortuous uncertainty in favor of the cleansing relief of his funeral. I suppose that's just the way we operate.
So when I have occasion to recall my late-Eighties stint at the helm of City Pages, I'm inclined to forget the dreary midnights, cranking out yet another cynical column or feature, or the volcanic managers' meetings, or the paycheck that never quite measured up to the workload. I'll remember instead the exhilaration of beating the Strib or the Reader to a story, the manic thrill of reporting and writing a cover feature between Wednesday and Monday, and the oddly satisfying knowledge that we were always kind of making it up as we went along (not the stories, mind you).
A lot of it was pretty much an inside joke, of course: the hip jocularity, the Uptown pose, the too-righteous indignation at the first whiff of hypocrisy. It played well at the C.C. Club and First Ave. and other shrines of the tiny New Wave Ghetto, where our only real audience lived, but what it must have meant to the guy who picked up the paper off the bus stop bench on his way home to Columbia Heights on a Thursday night I can't even fathom. In our minds we were providing the masses with a rambunctious alternative to the mainstream media, not a free tabloid full of bar ads.
You've got to learn your craft somewhere, though, and in that place and at that time, I can't imagine having a better vehicle for our collective rant or a livelier classroom for Reporting 101. I learned a lot on the third floor of Butler Square, but my epiphany came three or four jobs down the road, when I finally realized that our grubby City Pages crew wasn't alone in its delusions and misconceptions and hubris, that this business of delivering ideas and information to that little slice of the world we hope is still reading is well-populated with uncertainty, fear, and downright cluelessness. And if that's not some balm to a guy with a lousy memory, I don't know what is.
(Will Hermes, City Pages' arts and music editor from 1993 to 1997, is a freelance writer and senior editor for Spin.)
In these free-for-all days of late-stage capitalism, brand names--of newspapers and magazines, restaurants and radio stations, clothing lines and sports franchises--don't guarantee a goddamn thing. Companies are bought and sold by shadow figures, staffs remade, and "products" remodeled by spreadsheet logic. Whether you get the cookie you'd hoped for, or one of those dog biscuits passed off as Famous Amos after the inventor was pushed out of his own company, is a crapshoot at best.
But when a spirit of shared obsession infects a group of people, it can be a hard thing to drive out. I took a job as arts and music editor with City Pages back in 1992 after working with (and admiring the writing of) editors like Jim Walsh, Terri Sutton, and Helen Antrobus. City Pages arts criticism then, as now, was by turns funny, obnoxious, erudite, pretentious, impassioned, self-indulgent, confrontational, navel-gazing, flippant, and flipped out. When these qualities were balanced, it was a beautiful thing. When they weren't, it still beat the hell out of the neutered, focus-group arts coverage of the mainstream.
As a writer and editor, I was in love. Obsessed. And over time I was surprised to find that my fantasy of the "alternative press" wasn't all delusional. The Chicago Manual of Style was happily chucked out the window whenever appropriate, powerful assholes were called assholes, and lame art was trumpeted as such. I saw some of the subtle and not-so-subtle ugliness that happens when advertisers and publishers try to influence content. But integrity ran remarkably high, and the editors and writers were left largely to their own devices.
They took those devices and ran with them pretty good. I believe City Pages produced some of the bangin'-est political commentary and arts writing penned in this country over the past ten years. Various journalism awards have testified as much, if you believe awards. In his recent "Artist of the Decade" essay for Rolling Stone, Greil Marcus quoted lines from City Pages' Kurt Cobain postmortem cover story, if you believe glossy magazines.
The editorial staff I worked with were world-class obsessives--among them Steve Perry, Jennifer Vogel, Monika Bauerlein, Britt Robson, Julie Caniglia, Rob Nelson, Michael Tortorello, Josie Rawson, Phil Anderson, Joe Hart, David Schimke, Beth Hawkins, and a busload of mad-talented contributors and interns. Maybe the era was golden; I'd be a poor judge. All I can say is I stayed four years and was sad to leave. As I watch daily newspapers, alt weeklies, and magazines reach what seems like a new nadir, getting dumber and duller by the day, and not expecting Internet salvation anytime soon, I trust the City Pages spirit of shared obsession will continue to produce writing that matters, that lives up to its brand name, that looks from the Twin Cities out to the world and back again, that locates a regional voice that's not parochial, that speaks truth to bullshit, and--when required--bullshits with the best of them.
(James Lileks, a City Pages contributing writer from 1985 till 1987, is the Backfence columnist for the Star Tribune.)
City Pages saved my life.
In the middle of the Eighties I was working the 2:00 a.m. shift at a convenience store, a lone, scowling geek in a green grocer's apron, standing behind a big bright window. Bullet bait. Come on in! Rob me! I'm all alone. The store had a bar rush--happy blurry drunks; dateless, thin-lipped outstate guys with pimply shaved necks and thick glasses; giggly, sauced sorority fillies. But by 1:45 I had the place to myself. Sometimes you'd get a haggard soul who came in for some inscrutable combination of goods (mothballs, popsicles, Brillo pads, butter), and you'd watch him on the cameras, wondering if he was assembling dinner, a bomb, or the courage to stick a gun in your ribs.
Robbery and failure: That's what I thought about on the late shift. Things were not going as planned. I'd done everything right--years at the U, years at the Daily. I'd expected to get a nice little job as an essayist, and if that failed, well, I'd fall back on my art history minor. But now I was out of the Daily, eased out by mutual consensus (there's little that's more pathetic than someone hanging on at a college paper) and no job as a Professional Ruminator had presented itself. So I was working at Ralph and Jerry's Market & Culture Centre, waiting for the night when I stammered Yessir! to a twitchy man with a gun, emptied the till into a bag, and got shot. It would be a lit major's death: expiring on the tile floor of a minimum-wage job, wondering whether to quote the last words of Dylan Thomas or Goethe.
Then City Pages, or rather Craig Cox, called. He wanted an article about late-night convenience-store clerking. Right up my alley: No research required, and I could quote myself. It didn't feel like the big chance; it felt like the last one. I wrote a strenuously unfunny piece, mannered and desperate; he guided me through the requisite revisions and ran it. One piece, one hundred bucks. I quit my job.
Over the next few years, City Pages gave me some of my favorite assignments. I was restaurant critic for a while. Given my asbestos palate, Taco Bell tastes, and utter lack of knowledge about food or cooking, it's surprising we were only sued for libel once. (We won.) I did some features, and ended up sharing a column with Mike O'Neill. He put my alt creds to shame, since I'm about as alternative as Kraft cheese. But this was during City Pages' Happy Period, when it decided to be a spending-and-getting rag--just like the Reader, but ten percent added social conscience. You could write about a baguette store without having to condemn the phallocracy.
If City Pages hadn't called when they did, I might have ended up one of those muttering gray souls who hang around college towns forever, scowling over unsellable work in small cafés, unable to wander ten blocks from the U without getting the shakes. Then again, if they hadn't called, and I'd survived a robbery, I could have sued the owner and used the money to nourish a career as a novelist.
On second thought, thanks for nothing.
(Michael Phillips was with City Pages from 1983 until 1987, most notably as arts editor. Now he is a theater critic for the Los Angeles Times.)
City Pages gave me my first full-time job, which meant a lot more to me than it did to City Pages. No matter. Too late to rescind the offer. I took it. For three years, I took it and took it and took it.
Most weeks it was heaps of fun, and when it wasn't, it still seemed like it was. The paper in the years 1985, '86, and '87 may have been more fun to do than to read, in ways cruelly reminiscent of the end-credit outtakes from the Cannonball Run movies, where Jamie Farr and Adrienne Barbeau and everyone else are laughing their asses off, as if to say: See what sportive glee we brought to ourselves, creating this for you?
And look how well those movies turned out.
The luckiest and most-pretty-good thing I remember as a writer in those years was a profile of former St. Paul playwright August Wilson. The story entailed a trip to New York, on a wee budget, and hanging out with Wilson (much barrel-bottom wine, in his room at the Hotel Edison) one night during preview week of his play Fences. The story came out and Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize a week later. Cause and effect, obviously. Or at least the timing made us look like we knew what we were doing. Which we didn't. But sometimes we did. I miss the making-it-up vibe of the City Pages. I even miss the survival paranoia, which turned out not to be justified, but did turn out sadly anyway, since the war between the Reader and City Pages killed the Reader.
Competition remains better than no competition, or less of it.
(Britt Robson, a City Pages associate editor and staff writer from 1993 until 1998, is a Minneapolis freelance writer and remains a frequent contributor to the paper.)
Murray Tate was losing his mind. He'd sit through long conversations with old friends, waiting patiently to remember who they were. He'd fight back panic-stricken tears when he lost track of his wife at the mall. He'd learned to walk through the nine-foot apparition at the top of the stairs, and to ignore the little people he saw out in the back yard. He told me these things when he was lucid, between stories that rambled or hopped off the tracks when his brain betrayed him. He and his family let me into their lives, then thanked me after I wrote about it.
Kevin Garnett was reading a promotional spot for a Mankato radio station. All day long, he had flawlessly fielded the same questions, over and over again: At age 18, was he mature enough to handle the responsibility of playing professional basketball? Was his mother in town? Who would take care of him? Now, reading the radio copy with the media's well-meaning, yet condescending queries preying on his mind, Garnett kept stumbling over the same line. The man-child who would become perhaps the most charming and certainly the highest-paid player in all of team sports was as rattled as I would ever see him. "Could happen to anybody," I said after another failed attempt. He looked up, tapped the top of my shoulder with his fist, and nailed the line within the next two takes. Before spinning away to his next stop on the media gauntlet, he winked at me.
Greg Johnson was wracked with AIDS. In the spring of 1996, he had lain in bed for weeks with barely enough energy to walk to the bathroom, while his partner of eight years withered and died. He had updated his will, sold his house, and determined what music would be played at his funeral. But a new cocktail of anti-AIDS medication seemed to be working. After coming to terms with his own death, at the time I met him he was tentatively imagining the unthinkable: survival. He spoke of mundane, life-and-death decisions: A new dining-room table, he decided, might be a good investment if he lasted another two years. One night at the Leaning Tower of Pizza, he raised a beer mug with an emaciated arm, and we toasted his health.
Being with City Pages put me in touch with Murray Tate, Kevin Garnett, Greg Johnson, and dozens of other people I'll never forget. And I got paid for the privilege.
Last spring I heard two local writers reminiscing about irreverent, pugnacious times at the late alternative weekly, the Twin Cities Reader. I confess I was startled. When I arrived in Minneapolis, around 1987, the Reader struck me as the safe, suburban choice. The paper with its fists up, the paper with punk-rock attitude and grounded political smarts, was City Pages. I had been riding out (hiding out from?) the Reagan-Bush years within the scruffy tribes now known as "alternative rock." Discovering the yaps of another unsatisfied, undernourished underdog--published weekly!--fed a hunger for a stronger community that might accomplish more than a few nights of drunken bliss. I still read the music articles first, of course.
When I started contributing rock criticism to City Pages, my (suburban) relatives would tell me, "Oh, you're writing for the Reader now, aren't you?" This was maddening, but good. It made me want to write even more true to the pissed-off, feminist, anarchic self that concealed itself at family gatherings: leave that "fuck" in the text, shock the readers, help fashion an identity that even casual grazers can't ignore. City Pages printed anything I threw at it, including--to at least one reader's disgust--personal revelations about menstruation and abortion. The paper became a place, whether physical, in the Third Street offices, or virtual, on the page, where we could frankly argue the worth of everything from Ebonics to Nevermind, the war on drugs to the Guthrie's latest. It lived its name.
Like any city, the paper did have its uglier aspects. The "we" that argued in City Pages was not very diverse: Despite various roundtables, interviews, and freelancers peppering the mix, the news and arts editors were (and still are) uniformly white, college-educated, and under 45. Political savvy notwithstanding, I think that imbalance did show up in what we covered and how. Some of the business-as-usual "office politics" that went on in those days I would now call emotional harassment. (Do all small businesses drift into nasty family psychodynamics?) And sometimes, reaching for radical viewpoints, we ended up merely sensationalistic or, worse, exploitative (mea culpa, as much as anyone's).
A more subtle problem was that City Pages had less and less claim to the title of "underdog." As the paper grew, the Reader diminished. There was little of substance anymore to define oneself against. The City Pages arts sections upped the ante by taking on a more national and intellectual focus. The news section seemed to stagnate, awash in the ambiguities of the Clinton reign. And then, suddenly, the Reader was eaten up, and City Pages, by default and purchase by a major media chain, turned into the fat, self-satisfied bully, the establishment we'd always loved to hate. It was all just a little disconcerting.
Today when I look at City Pages, I see a struggle to create a well-rounded and responsible, if still eccentric, identity as top dog. What wasted limbs can be strengthened now that the paper is not pushing against the Reader's mushier fare? What are the limits of freedom before the corporate hand slaps it silly? I should mention that City Pages is still printing whatever I throw at it--although what I'm throwing has changed, as the paper has: fewer cluster "fuck" bombs, more questions, less certainty. I've learned something about inviting the subject and the reader (urban and suburban) inside an article, rather than just trying to blow shit up. I think the paper in general has begun capturing the spirits of its place (people, plants, buildings) better than ever before.
Some readers may mourn the loss of City Pages' outspoken political edge; I'm not unsympathetic. But it seems to me obvious that the political analyses editor Steve Perry encouraged at the paper remain bedrock in much of the current paper, from Rob Nelson's striking film reviews to Dara Moskowitz's penetrating food columns. It only appears not-in-your-face if you're taking it for granted (by the looks of the Letters column, City Pages is attracting quite a few readers who aren't yet aware that entertainment is never simply entertainment).
Beyond this foundation, the greatest pleasure about the paper right now is its unpredictability. As an avid reader for 12 years and counting, I can't express how wonderful it is not to know what to expect. Those who were taught to expect nervy, fists-up attitude from City Pages might do well to track down this city's new weekly, Pulse. Or, better, start your own. Because the Cities always benefit from a discontented underdog.
(Jim Walsh, City Pages' music editor from 1989 to 1993, is the pop music columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.)
I love newspapers. I love seeing them tucked under people's arms on the street. I love seeing noses buried in them on buses, and used ones scattered in coffee shops. I love how they feel and sound; the clank of the single-copy box, the fwump of delivery against the doorstep in the morning. I love how old ones smell. I even love them as litter, kindling, rainwear, and, yes, fish-wrap. And while this romance has been on for quiet some time, I know exactly when I fell in love with newspapers for good: while standing in front of the boards in the City Pages offices every Tuesday afternoon for almost four years in the early Nineties.
The boards were where all the pages were clipped up on a wall for inspection before being sent off to the printing press in Shakopee on Tuesday nights. I can still hear the murmur of my fellow workers lolling around those boards, proofreading stories, cutlines, and headlines. Nowadays as I write, there are certain words I can't use without thinking about the energy the boards threw off, and some of my former City Pages colleagues. We constantly bugged each other for better words, for definitions, for the perfect words. When we found them, as it approached four o'clock on Tuesdays, we'd sign off on our pages and get on to the next week's issue. That was the single most thrilling office moment of the week: The paper was almost to bed, the Tuesday brainstorming meeting-slash-encounter group session was pending, and for the most part, everyone was exhausted but excited. We were a small staff, ink in our blood, and even though nobody ever said it out loud, what we were trying to do was change the world. And maybe spread a little love.
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