City pages provides no alternative whatsoever

TBy Pete Wagner The July 16 City Pages’ cover story attacks the St. Paul Pioneer Press for being owned by a large, nonlocal corporation. This is the height of hypocrisy considering that City Pages was itself bought out by a large, nonlocal corporation a number of years ago. But hypocrisy is what City Pages is all about.

The firing of the Pioneer Press’ editorial cartoonist is held up as proof that the Pioneer Press has lost its journalistic soul and its legitimacy as a local newspaper. While I lament the decline of the political cartoon as a journalistic medium and certainly agree that consolidation, corporatization and over-commercialization are at the root of that tragic loss, it is laughable for City Pages to criticize the Pioneer Press. The City Pages dumped me as their editorial cartoonist over 11 ½ years ago, citing downsizing and the exorbitant $50 per week fee they paid me as the reasons, and have been running nothing but generic syndicated comics ever since. At the time I was fired, I was approaching my 10th anniversary as staff cartoonist, had won six consecutive Society of Professional Journalists awards for best cartoons in Minnesota and was syndicated statewide. I was told at the time of the firing that my cartoons, at 48 percent readership, were one of the highest-rated features in the paper. Given that the City Pages is basically picked up by people who only want to look at the sex ads and music bar listings, this statistic was fairly surprising.

City Pages started out in the late 1970s as a small music newspaper and became more of a traditional newspaper in the early 1980s. By 1990, as in most every “alternative” paper in the United States, it has been reduced to a fat yuppie advertising venue pretending to be a newspaper. Over the years it has been run by whiny, cynical Gen X-ers who pandered to politically correct contrarians and pumped up their salaries by firing entire staffs anytime the word “union” was breathed. Regular housecleanings to intimidate against union organizing began with the removal of editor Randy Anderson and company in 1982 after a meeting at his apartment explicitly calling for unionization, and continued five more times until the current editor’s installment in 1989. I survived the firings of six different editors and their regimes and witnessed the fear and cowering which resulted from the carnage every time this “progressive” tabloid got any whiff of a union on the horizon. By the end of my decade at City Pages, most full-time workers had been replaced by slave laborers – temp help and underpaid interns with no health insurance, no paid vacation, no benefits and no future of any kind.

City Pages demolished my dream of a viable alternative press, which I had worked assiduously to help establish in the late 1970s and 1980s and argued for in my first book and articles I wrote for Alternative Media magazine out of New York. I abandoned a promising career in the “big time” to take risky, low-paying jobs as cartoonist/designer/editor with fledgling papers like City Pages because I truly believed in the goal of establishing a real alternative to the mainstream corporate media. I reveled in the relative artistic freedom it initially provided to a political artist. I chucked the opportunity to work for more mainstream dailies in favor of more exciting activist journalism, political theater and organizing, and never even applied for cartooning openings at the Star Tribune or Pioneer Press. I got away with a lot more than I would have at the dailies and don’t regret my efforts.

But at this point, City Pages deserves to die. It and papers like it, based on phony, self-serving posturing and snotty self-indulgence rather than activism, actually do more harm than good to the cause of alternative media. It is no longer in any way an alternative newspaper and hasn’t been for a long time. It is merely another corporate rag which panders to vapid bar-slogs and clawing subcultural wannabees who are so devoid of any social, cultural or political consciousness they don’t even qualify as nihilists, much less progressives. And it has a long history of doing so in the most hypocritical way possible, on the backs of underpaid workers systematically terrorized by unwarranted surprise firings, under the thumb of an unbroken string of all-white, all-male editors in chief ever since its inception. At least the Pioneer Press is honest about its corporate nature, and has, unlike City Pages, had women editors – and for the present at least, unions.

Pete Wagner is a former Minnesota Daily political cartoonist and now teaches political cartooning at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Send letters to the editor at [email protected]