The Short Goodbye

DOWN THROUGH THE years there has been more than a little animosity between City Pages and the late Twin Cities Reader, off the page and occasionally on it as well. During the first years of my tenure here, in the early '90s, we at CP were lucky enough to find ourselves contending with the Reader of Glen Warchol, Holly Mullen, Pudge Platt, and Bill Souder. Now there was a paper one could love to hate--a callow, self-impressed little rag with a frat-boy sensibility that made you want to meet the writers just so you could slap them. It could have gone away without diminishing local journalism in the least.

By the time the final issue hit the streets last Wednesday, no one could claim the Reader didn't matter. Claude Peck and Jon Tevlin made it into a steady, and steadily improving, newspaper that did its share of important stories. It was quite a departure from the underachieving days of Warchol and of David Carr, who hired some good people and never quite seemed to know what to do with them. Under Peck and Tevlin the Reader staff worked hard, and you had to reckon with them. (Only one cavil from me, and that's regarding Peck's claim, repeated by him ad nauseam last week, that the Reader won "way more awards" than City Pages: The last time I checked the 1996 totals, for a house ad last June, CP had won 10 awards, the Reader nine--a fair showing on both our parts, if not exactly worth brandishing at every turn.)

The end came suddenly. Staffers at the Reader did not know when they sent last Wednesday's issue to press that it would be the final one. Neither did we. Stern Publishing's deal for City Pages closed only a day before Stern's purchase of the Reader was announced. It was thus a little surreal to find ourselves at the TCR offices on Thursday morning, talking to shell-shocked staffers. This all began, as I noted in a column last month, when the Reader's owners, American City Business Journals, quietly put it on the block late last year. Obviously any buyer coming to town with deep pockets was going to be interested in acquiring both publications and locking up the market, so City Pages began to get calls from prospective buyers, too.

At that point, there was no going back to the days of home-grown competition. We had discussions internally about proceeding on our own to compete with a chain paper, which the Reader seemed certain to become; realistically, that takes a lot of capital, since its new corporate ownership presumably would have had the means to pour resources into editorial and undercut the competition's ad rates at the same time. CP publishers Tom Bartel and Kris Henning took a hard look at the situation and decided to accept a deal whereby they and the present staff remained in place.

Once Stern's letter of intent to buy City Pages was announced, whatever interest there had been in the Reader dried up. The paper's most frequently mentioned suitor, Phoenix-based New Times, was already fighting hard competitive battles in two cities--with the Stern-owned LA Weekly in Los Angeles and the Bay Guardian in San Francisco--and probably casting its eye toward other acquisitions as well. As an organization that likes to leverage its purchases, New Times may have been daunted by the cash prospects. Other names were dropped along the way (a group from Philadelphia, one from Chicago), but sources at the Reader and Stern Publishing both claim that by the time the deal happened, there was no other buyer on the horizon. ACBJ execs could have opted to put resources into the Reader to try to improve its bottom line before taking another pass at selling it. They did not.

We will be staffing up in the weeks to come, though it isn't clear yet by how much, or how many Reader staffers and freelancers will join us in some capacity. Stern Publishing head David Schneiderman also said while he was in town last week that Stern intends to continue publishing Q, the Reader's monthly gay and lesbian paper. This is good news.

There was no gloating round these offices last week over the fate of the Reader. The greatest show of emotion came in response to a comment in one of the Strib stories about it. Bill Babcock, a UM journalism professor and the author of a lazy, ponderous, and error-ridden 1995 feature about the two weeklies in Law & Politics, told reporter Neal Justin that when a city gets down to one weekly, it tends to be "mainstream" and "watered down," in Justin's paraphrase. "I'd be surprised if it has as much edge" were Babcock's exact words.

Well. It was the most obvious thing to say, so who better than the gassiest of journalism profs to say it? It ain't so. Editorially, we have always measured ourselves against our ability to counter the omissions and distortions of the daily media, and against our own perfectionism for the paper. We know what we do well, and we are very much aware of ways in which we want to be better. And if Stern Publishing treats us the way sources at the LA Weekly say that paper has been treated since Stern acquired it, there seem to be fair prospects that we'll have some help along those lines. As to claims that we'll be slacking off now--well, if any of us were so inclined, we'd be queuing up for jobs at the Newspaper of the Twin Cities.

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