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Sweet Potato Pied

They were in Madrid, at a little place called Paco and Chano's, trying to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives over bowls of garbanzo bean soup. To Tom Bartel and his wife Kris Henning, Spain was warm, romantic, and stimulating; maybe it was even home. And if not, what next? How to make the transition from this raucous paradise--where a new constitution had just been written, and where Franco loyalists, Basque separatists, and a dozen other political persuasions were grappling for the reins of the country's future--back to carving out a living in the American Midwest?

The only semiplausible answer was to start a newspaper. The atmosphere in Spain lent some luster to the notion; led by Madrid's El País, literally dozens of newspapers were at the epicenter of the nation's political turbulence. On a considerably more mundane level, Bartel had logged time as a staffer for the suburban Eden Prairie News, where he had gleaned some of the joys and travails of operating a fledgling publication. And just before Bartel and Henning had come to Europe, David Wright, their friend and former classmate at Carleton College, had offered Bartel a job working at Sweet Potato, a music-oriented weekly he had co-founded in Portland, Maine.

Even then, at age 27, Bartel knew he wasn't temperamentally suited to be anyone's employee. But taking Wright's Sweet Potato prototype into Minneapolis/St. Paul, where there was an active club scene and where music-industry giants like Musicland and Pickwick were headquartered--well, that was a concept worth the time of day over soup at Paco and Chano's.

Working out of Henning's brother's porch for about a month beginning in mid-May of 1979, the two hatched a business plan and began taking stock of potential resources upon which to simultaneously live and start a newspaper. Wise investments had turned Henning's $10,000 inheritance into $17,000; $15,000 more was borrowed from relatives, and a bank loan was secured to purchase a car that would double as a delivery truck. A two-room office at 711 W. Lake St. was leased for $250 a month, stocked by furniture from rummage sales. With Bartel as publisher and Henning as sales manager, it opened June 15.

"The initial capital to start the business, I think, on the [accounting] books, was $10,800," Bartel remembers. "When we left [nearly 18 years later], that would have run City Pages for all of three hours."

The August 1, 1979 debut of Sweet Potato benefited from impeccable timing: Prince, the Replacements, and Hüsker Dü were all on the verge of churning out incandescent records and unforgettable live shows that would make the Twin Cities a music nexus in the early Eighties. But the talent, sweat equity, and hardheaded business sense behind the publication ensured that no paper was better poised to take advantage of this cultural windfall.

"The economy was crappy but the music was good," Bartel says. Adds Henning: "And both of those things were in our favor, because we were a music publication that was inexpensive to advertisers. Of course, until we came back to town, we didn't know there were four other music and entertainment papers"--Nite Time, the Musician's Insider, Skyway News, and the Twin Cities Reader.

Bartel and Henning began distinguishing Sweet Potato with their very first outside hire, tabbing Martin Keller as editor and primary writer. Keller's broad-based knowledge of rock, blues, and reggae fit the paper's catholic mission, and he had extensive connections among writers and musicians throughout the Cities. (He'd already scored a rare interview with Prince two years earlier, when the wunderkind was a shy teenager about to cut his first record.) During the paper's first year in business, Keller pounded out copy under a variety of pseudonyms (Shelly Barker, Frank Schwartz, Martian Colour) and joined with art director Marcia Wright (David Wright's sister), Bartel, and Henning in a yeoman effort to put out the paper. Literally.

Each week the printer would deliver Sweet Potato's press run to a garage behind Bartel and Henning's south Minneapolis home, where the four divvied up the stacks and personally distributed them to locations around the Cities. Such labor-intensive savings strategies were in keeping with Bartel's oft-stated axioms for business survival: Take in more money than you spend; and The essence of a free press is having enough money to tell anybody to go to hell. "We never had any crises that really threatened the life of the paper, just little things like forgetting something on the way to the printer or pulling all-nighters to get something done. That happened pretty regularly," Henning recalls.

Bartel says that he and his wife rarely drew a paycheck in those early days, were never the paper's highest-salaried employees, and never took a bonus until the year before they sold out to Stern. As a result, the paper never missed a payroll and paid off the initial loans from relatives and the bank within two years.  

Meanwhile Sweet Potato was inexorably enhancing its public profile, going from a monthly to a biweekly publication schedule in October 1980 and ratcheting up again to become a weekly in the summer of 1981. Earlier that year Bartel had founded the Minnesota Music Awards; during the early to mid-Eighties he helped sponsor a series of memorable annual awards shows that often featured Prince headlining a bill that included respected ensembles like Koerner, Ray & Glover and local club stalwarts such as Lamont Cranston and the Flamingos. By the fall of 1981, Sweet Potato had established its music franchise and solidly wedged its way into the crowded marketplace.

 

But Bartel had grander designs. As early as 1980, Sweet Potato had begun running some news features, with Randy Anderson, and Dick Dahl (an old Eden Prairie News connection), brought on staff to beef up the publication's nonmusic coverage. In December 1980 Anderson ascended to the top editorial position and Keller was demoted to music editor. To reflect the paper's more serious bent, discussions on a name change for Sweet Potato continued through most of 1981. Bartel wanted Gamut but eventually acceded to a more straightforward moniker, and on December 3, 1981, City Pages made its debut.

The changeover officially inaugurated the paper's often acrimonious 15-year newspaper war with the Twin Cities Reader. Having been in business three years longer than Bartel's venture, it was easy for the Reader to initially look askance at a monthly music rag with an obscure name more rooted to Maine than Minnesota. As David Wright, co-founder of the original Sweet Potato, puts it, "The Reader was first on the scene and took their place in the business ecology for granted. Tom came into the market later, and so he knew who he had to beat. For a long time I don't think the Reader knew what they were up against."

Adds Keller: "There was a galvanizing hatred of the Reader that grew progressively more pronounced as time went on."

Indeed, there is something in Bartel's makeup that craves a competitive rivalry, and in Reader founder and publisher Mark Hopp--a smooth, urbane mover and shaker with a taste for the high life--he'd found a perfect foil. Or foils: Hopp's right-hand person at the Reader was his wife Deb Hopp. Recalls Tom's brother, Mark Bartel: "There was a symmetry there--Tom and Kris on one side and Mark and Deb on the other. Both wives were vital to the operation of their papers. I always thought that intensified the rivalry a little bit."

"[Tom] Bartel used to grumble about the Hopps this and the Hopps that," says Keller. "But when I went over to work for the Reader [in 1983], they didn't grumble. They did wonder about Tom's obsessive badmouthing of them. But it's easy to see how things got heated. Everyone knew the town wasn't really big enough for both papers. There were always bets on who was going to outlast the other, and how long it would take."

In 1983 Bartel purged his staff, firing first Anderson in January ("Randy was prickly, as was I, so there was an inevitable clash," Bartel explains), then Keller and Dahl in rapid succession that autumn. In Anderson's stead Bartel brought in another husband-and-wife team in editor Anthony Schmitz and associate editor Patricia Ohmans, who in turn hired writer Philip Weiss (who has since gone on to become a prominent freelancer for Esquire and the New York Times Magazine, among others). Together they steered the paper in a decidedly more news-oriented direction. Bartel describes the ensuing two years as "the paper's first golden era as City Pages."

Not that there wasn't friction. Many of the paper's music contributors chafed at the newfound prominence accorded to news. Bartel was irritated by Ohmans's left-of-center philosophy toward issues ranging from animal rights to environmental protection to the unfair treatment of immigrants. "Patty could piss off advertisers as fast as we could get them," he says now. But he also has high praise for an Ohmans story about a man jailed for sneaking his mother out of a nursing home after she'd been admitted under suspicious circumstances by a lawyer in charge of her affairs. When the story led to the man's release, he walked out of prison carrying a copy of City Pages over his head: the paper's first-ever news-related publicity coup. During her tenure Ohmans also decried a witch-hunt against parents accused of molesting their children during the Scott County sex-ring scandal hysteria, a principled stand that bucked the tide of public opinion.

Still, Bartel's complaints about "trite liberalism" and "our refugee-of-the-week stories," plus Schmitz's ambiguity about his own duties ("At City Pages I found out what I didn't want to do, which was supervise people," Schmitz says now), made their parting inevitable. A source close to the situation says Bartel eventually demanded that Schmitz rein in Ohmans, but that the pair tendered their resignations instead. Bartel and Schmitz both describe the split in less clear-cut terms, saying only that after two years all three participants were burned out and ready for a change. Schmitz, who now owns and edits a community paper in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood, actually expresses empathy for Bartel's plight, noting that to effectively recruit and reap ad revenues, a publisher has to be "a combo of Gandhi and Genghis Khan."  

 

When it came to his battle with Hopp and the Reader, the Khan side of Bartel's persona remained ascendant, even as the mirror imagery of their competitive jousting gave the rivalry the appearance of an intimate dance. In 1984 Hopp said he wanted to buy City Pages, then made what Bartel considered to be an insultingly low bid. (A few years after that, Bartel says, Hopp scheduled another buyout meeting, only to show up 40 minutes late. An enraged Bartel, who was sick with the flu at the time, never spoke to him again.) In 1983 Bartel had moved City Pages out of its original offices at the corner of Lyndale and Lake to the Butler Square building in downtown Minneapolis--right across the street from where the Reader offices were located. And throughout the mid- and late Eighties, as their papers kept trying new ways to outmaneuver each other, both men became consumed with a flurry of side projects that diverted precious attention and resources away from their dueling publications.

For Bartel, the distractions began with his involvement in the start-up of the St. Paul Law Journal, followed closely by his launch of the local music publication Buzz. Then there were extensive negotiations over the purchase of Skyway News. The papers had been drawn up and all the financing secured when Skyway's publisher suggested a minor last-minute revision, which became the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back: An exasperated Bartel, who says he had already spent $70,000 in attorney's fees, walked away. Finally, there was a disastrous attempt to create a City Pages-like publication in Tampa, Florida.

Bartel and Henning both say that during this period, from roughly 1984 until 1989, City Pages suffered from neglect and, as Henning put it, "wandered" in its purpose. In response to competitive pressure from the Reader, the pair did a lot of cosmetic "futzing" with the paper--a new logo, publishing in two sections, introducing advertiser-friendly "lifestyle" and fashion stories--without attending to more substantial quality controls. "It was easy to get sucked in to try things. You tire of the battle and someone says, 'Oh, you can sell this if you do this.' And one day you say yes and it takes about two months to back up and say no," Henning explains.

With the departure of Schmitz, Ohmans, and Weiss, Phil Davies, a conscientious if somewhat high-strung managing editor, was promoted to the editorship. Bartel would soon name columnist Mike O'Neill as "senior editor," which left the division of duties and chain of command between the two unclear, but in any event O'Neill wasn't a constant presence in the office. Writer Craig Cox was a valuable addition to the staff (and eventually supplanted the Davies/O'Neill tandem as editor), but with another reliable freelancer, Bruce Rubenstein, devoting his energies to the St. Paul Law Journal, Cox was overworked. It is revealing of the organizational chaos that for some time during this period, no one held the actual title of editor.

One might expect that staff morale would suffer under such circumstances, but the truth was quite the contrary, particularly in the arts section, where young, relatively inexperienced hands such as music writer Michael Welch and film and theater reviewer Michael Phillips recall having reveled in the sink-or-swim atmosphere, interrupting their all-night deadline vigils for impromptu games of baseball using balled-up tape and mailing tubes. A lot of that spunk got transferred to the page, not only in the arts, but in provocative columns by O'Neill and humorous pieces by James Lileks. It was also during this period that Cox wrote what Bartel calls "the story I am most proud of having in City Pages"--an exposé of how the Hennepin County Attorney's Office was allowing domestic child murder cases to go unprosecuted.

Despite such highlights, Bartel acknowledges that in the late Eighties, "City Pages was probably in more trouble that at any other time in its history." His absence, and Henning's (she was on maternity leave in 1988), were felt most keenly in ad revenues: By the end of the decade, the despised Reader was clearly the more successful publication, running an average of 12 to 16 more pages each week.  

 

Then a series of events abruptly reversed the trend. In September 1988 Bartel returned from another unproductive stint in Tampa determined to cut his losses and refocus his priorities. In December City Pages again moved its offices, from the relatively swank Butler Square location to less fashionable but equally serviceable digs just north of downtown Minneapolis (where it remains today). Within weeks of the move, Bartel, who says now that the paper "needed a shock treatment to get us back on track," fired nearly the entire editorial staff (excepting Cox, who had already given his notice and was headed out the door). "It was a massacre that got reported in the [daily] papers," Bartel notes wryly.

Like Bartel, Mark Hopp had spent much of the mid- to late Eighties plunging into other ventures; unlike Bartel, he didn't extricate himself in time. To finance a string of business publications around the U.S., Hopp had formed a partnership with a Boston-based venture-capital firm. When the publications didn't perform up to projections, he ultimately had to cede operational control of those properties--including the Reader. (Tragically, Hopp died of cancer in 1993 at age 43.) Suddenly the Reader was controlled by an out-of-town company that considered it something of an odd duck among its portfolio of business journals. Put simply, the Boston firm wasn't intimately familiar with the idiosyncrasies of either the Twin Cities market or the alternative-weekly format.

In February 1989 Bartel would make a hire that would prove crucial to the ascendance of City Pages, naming Steve Perry as editor. Perry had contributed music pieces to the paper and more recently had edited Buzz, but it soon became apparent that his interests extended well beyond the latest Madonna disc. Almost immediately he began to establish a feisty political identity for City Pages that hadn't been present since the days of Schmitz and Ohmans. Local reactions to the influx of Hmong and African Americans into an effectively all-white society became a pervasive theme of news stories and editorials, as did chronicles of police brutality and governmental duplicity. Readers quickly learned that Perry had at least as much contempt for muddled "liberal" attitudes as he did for knee-jerk conservatism. (For the purpose of full disclosure: Perry and I are friends; he hired me as associate editor of this paper in 1993.)

Perhaps even more important, Perry raised the ambitions of the paper, by persuasively agitating for a larger staff. Recalls Bartel: "We were economically recovering from my idiotic late-Eighties moves like Tampa, and so we decided to go with a two-person staff with a lot of freelance [writing]. But it quickly became apparent to Steve, and then to me, that that wouldn't work. Every fucking day he was in asking me for more money to hire more people to do more stories and add more pages. And when he got it, he began hiring some pretty exceptional people."

Never one to suffer fools--or questions he considered foolish--gladly, Perry presided over Tuesday-afternoon story idea meetings that were at once rambling and rigorous, dwelling on various topics that might never find their way into the paper, but fostering the sort of critical thinking that he demanded. "Everybody fought with Steve, but I think the tension was good," says Judith Lewis, who left City Pages for the L.A. Weekly, where she remains on staff as a senior editor. "He pushed you to be proud of your work, to have the courage not to believe authority figures. What would come with that territory is that he would tell you straight out if your prose was dumb or sounded like a civics paper." Adds Jim Walsh, who put in four years at the paper and now works as a music columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, "You had to fight for your ideas, and it gave you a better sense of where the holes and strengths [in your thought process] were."

"I was probably less involved with Steve editorially than I was with any other editor, for two reasons," Tom Bartel recounts. "One was that I trusted Steve perhaps more than other editors, and the other was that he was Draconian enough that he didn't need me to come in and be a backup."

In 1989 City Pages printed an issue that had more pages than that week's Reader for the first time ever (with the exception of special issues). By 1991 it had clearly established itself as the dominant paper--marking the first time in the history of alternative weeklies that the underdog has risen to number one in the market. But despite its growth and editorial resurgence, when it came to wooing mainstream retail advertisers, the paper had trouble shaking its early reputation as a music-and-entertainment publication.  

That all changed in 1992, with the opening of the Mall of America. In the year leading up to the Mall's first day of business, the sales staff had been working to court the sort of national retail contracts that legitimize a publication in the eyes of smaller advertisers. "The advantage we had was that the Mall's four anchor tenants were all from out of town and judged us on the current product, without being prejudiced by the history here," says Bartel. It didn't hurt, he adds, that when the Star Tribune chose that moment to raise its ad rates (gambling that its market dominance would guarantee it would land the Mall's major ad contracts regardless), he and Henning were able to sell retailers on research that showed how they would capture a wider segment of the market at a lower cost by advertising in the Strib and City Pages rather than the Strib and the Pioneer Press.

 

Despite the work of Reader editors David Carr (who left in 1995 to head the Washington, D.C., City Paper) and Claude Peck, muddled management and constant sales-staff turnover was taking its toll on the paper's profitability. In 1996 the Reader was sold to Charlotte-based American City Business Journals, owned by the Newhouse Publishing conglomerate. As a business-oriented chain, ACBJ seemed just as bad a match for the Reader as its previous owner had been. Though Bartel saw the move as a potential opportunity to buy the rival paper, his overtures were generally ignored. Later that year, however, word surfaced that ACBJ had bigger prospects in mind: Stern Publishing, which had recently begun assembling a chain of weeklies that had come to include the Village Voice and the L.A. Weekly, and New Times Inc., which had been building its own roster of weeklies throughout the Eighties and Nineties.

David Schneiderman, president of Stern Publishing, confirms that he was approached about buying the Reader. "I told the banker that I wasn't interested," he says. "But I did mention that we would be interested in buying City Pages, which was clearly the better paper and number one in the market.

"A couple of months later, Mike Sigman, the publisher of the L.A. Weekly, told me that Tom [Bartel] had expressed an interest in selling to us," Schneiderman continues. "So I called Tom, he came to New York, and we started serious discussions almost immediately."

According to press reports at the time, New Times was pushing hard to buy both the Reader and City Pages, which may have forced Bartel's hand with respect to Stern. Bartel says his desire to sell didn't stem from trepidation about competing against the corporate power of New Times. Rather, it was "a certain amount of boredom, and a desire to be around people I could learn from. My self-education in this business had reached a point of diminishing returns and I thought I could take a different position within Stern. New Times and Stern both approached us very seriously; Kris and I had a price in mind that we would be willing to sell for, and Stern offered us that much money."

Stern bought City Pages in February 1997 for an undisclosed sum. The other shoe dropped a month later, when Stern purchased, then immediately shuttered, the Twin Cities Reader. "It wasn't my proudest moment--going to tell people they are out of a job is not pleasant," Schneiderman says. "But in terms of it being a business decision, we had no choice--not when there was still a chance somebody could come into the market and compete strongly." He wanted to pick up as much of the Reader staff as possible, Schneiderman adds: "Which mostly didn't work--we didn't anticipate the antipathy that existed between the two papers."

In a February 19 editorial, Steve Perry described the mood of his staff as "cheery." "Visions of plenty...dance round our heads," he wrote, adding, "The change looks to be about as bump-free as such things can be." Bartel and Henning seemed sanguine as well, with the former assuming a new position as Web director in July while the latter took charge of City Pages as publisher. Yet before the year was out, all three would be gone.

Perry was the first to go, in August. (A confidentiality agreement precludes all parties from discussing his departure; Perry also declined to participate in any aspect of this 20th anniversary issue.) Next to go was Bartel, who--perhaps inevitably--lasted all of three months in his new position. "It was not my vision in life to answer to some corporate type, and Stern Publishing is extremely corporate," Bartel says of his decision to leave in October 1997.

"I have enormous respect for Tom's intelligence, and I like him personally," David Schneiderman responds. "It is understandably difficult for a [former] owner and boss to work for someone else, and that's what it came down to: Tom thought he was taking a lot of orders, and I thought I was leaving him alone."  

A month later Henning departed, for much the same reason. "After Tom left, I was naive in thinking Kris could stay on," Schneiderman says now. "I didn't see how she was caught between us in that situation. I was surprised and disappointed when she left."

Keeping the publisher's position within the Bartel family, Schneiderman hired Tom's brother Mark Bartel, a longtime sales manager at the paper. The search for Perry's replacement, meanwhile, lasted for months. In late November 1997, Schneiderman announced that Tom Finkel, then the managing editor of Miami's New Times, would take over as editor in February, replacing managing editor Monika Bauerlein, who'd been running the paper in the interim. "Tom had had a lot of experience as ME at a major alt-weekly, so I knew he could edit, but he also seemed to have a probing, curious mind that would want to adapt to the challenges of a new city," Schneiderman says of what impressed him about Finkel.

On the other end, Finkel says he wasn't certain he would accept the job until he met Schneiderman and discovered broad areas of agreement on how to improve City Pages. In particular, both felt that opinion had begun to encroach on reporting, and that the paper had strayed from its local mission with nationally oriented material. Finkel also believed coverage of local music was virtually nonexistent, and that the listings sections were suffering from neglect.

While the trenchant editorials that marked Perry's tenure are gone, City Pages hasn't abandoned passionate reporting, as evidenced by stories like Beth Hawkins's chronicle of racist violence in Anoka County (an article that garnered a top award this year from the National Association of Black Journalists), David Schimke's heart-rending portrayal of a St. Paul school for homeless children, and freelance writer Steve Healey's recent riveting first-person account of teaching inmates in Stillwater. There is also no shortage of more offbeat material--such as Mike Mosedale's against-the-grain defense of unpopular ex-Vikings owner Roger Headrick, Katy Reckdahl's tale of the entrepreneurial rise and fall of the local nonprofit that put green Adirondack chairs on the lawn of the White House, and Burl Gilyard's profile of a crotchety county librarian who agitated himself out of a job. "I have very much liked what Tom is doing with the paper," Schneiderman sums up. "It is relentlessly local, and there is an unpredictable mix to the stories."

Finkel envisions more improvements. "I think there is a void in local coverage of local politics and the municipal infrastructure," he says. "I'd like to see us get inside the way the various municipal governments work, so we can give a context that the daily papers don't provide. I think that is an investment you make, and we are just beginning to do that. Another area I'd like to look at is getting inside the criminal-justice system from both sides. This paper has done a great job of comforting the afflicted, but sometimes at the expense of great stories or investigations of people who are committing crimes."

As Finkel looks ahead, what do Bartel and Henning think when they look back on what they've wrought? "Our legacy?" Bartel responds, seemingly surprised by the question. "I don't think we have one. But someone once asked me who City Pages readers were--they expected me to spout off some neat little demographic niche. And I said, 'I think it is people who read.' They thought I was being a smart-ass. But I said, 'No, no: People who read as opposed to playing softball or watching TV.' That's the way I always imagined our readers. The smart people.'"


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