Troubled City Pages up for sale, again

Max Rust

They say freedom of the press exists only for those who own one. Now full expression of the First Amendment is up for sale in the form of an area chain of weekly newspapers.
New York real estate tycoon Leonard Stern announced two weeks ago that Stern Publications — publisher of City Pages and New York City’s Village Voice — is up for sale, marking the second time in two years that City Pages has headed for a change in ownership.
Stern bought City Pages in 1997 along with its rival, the Twin Cities Reader. Stern immediately shut down the Reader to reduce the City Pages’ competition.
Since then, the paper has experienced several changes, including a new editor, the loss of its Page Three local news section and a national column called “Clinton Watch.”
Many readers say it’s lost much more than that.
“I think they have gone way downhill,” said Dave Stirratt, a senior English major at the University.
Stirratt said since the takeover of the paper, City Pages articles are not as ambitious as they once were. He cited recent stories about a man who collects junk and another about a man who stores chemicals in his basement.
“It’s kind of interesting, but, I mean, what the hell does it matter to everybody else?” Stirratt asked. “It’s not city news.”
When the original sale of City Pages took place and the Reader was shut down, Bill Babcock — the director of the University’s Silha Center for Media Ethics and Law — predicted in a Star Tribune article that the City Pages would lose its “edge.”
Two and a half years later, Babcock said the paper is “not as compelling, despite the fact that they have got some very good people.”
Babcock explained possible reasons for the paper’s nose dive, including his own potential misunderstanding of the content, a lack of competition or an out of town publisher not knowing the Twin Cities market.
City Pages’ publisher Mark Bartel said Stern has indeed been a “hands-off” owner.
He said the paper competes with the Twin Cities’ daily papers, several community papers and Pulse of the Twin Cities, another metro area weekly.
Pulse was started by Southside Pride publisher Ed Felien two weeks after Stern bought and shut down the Twin Cities Reader.
“We did it in absolute defiance of the arrogance of any son of a bitch coming into this town and feeling that they had a right to control what we consider a free press,” Felien said, noting that creativity at City Pages has recently been stifled by what seems to be an “overreaching blandness.”
Felien is an old-school Twin Cities newspaper man. In 1970, he formed “Hundred Flowers” — one of the Twin Cities’ first underground papers — in protest of the Vietnam War.
He said the local newspaper scene has gone from “colorful” to “pathetic,” in part due to corporate maneuvers like Stern’s.
“There used to be room for individual, independent ideas and independent attacks on things,” Felien said. “There were crusading newspapers, and the public was served by that. The public is not served by absentee corporate ownership of the major means of information and media.”
In addition to City Pages and the Village Voice, Stern is selling the LA Weekly, the County Weekly in Orange County, Calif., the Seattle Weekly, the Cleveland Free Times and the Long Island Voice.
Stern is expected to receive $250 million for the group of papers.
In a written statement, Stern said he decided to sell the chain “after consulting with my children and discussing their future career plans.”
Both Bartel and City Pages editor Tom Finkel said they do not anticipate any changes to the paper once it is sold.
“I could spend my time worrying about things like that, but I don’t think it would be very productive,” Finkel said. “I have no reason to believe that anybody would want to come in and change something that works.”
Max Rust covers the community and can be reached at [email protected]