The Star Tribune’s purchase of City Pages is surely good news for the long-term viability of CP, and it’s also a positive development for all the editorial staffers there who weren’t laid off and will now get a raise and more job security thanks to their liberation from Voice Media Group and membership in the Strib’s union.
Strib execs say they aren’t planning to make major changes to the alt-weekly, but the layoff of Ben Johnson — a good buddy of mine and the guy who had been writing CP’s news blog, Blotter, since I left last fall — signals the end of an era.
Assuming Strib higher-ups aren’t planning to fill the huge online void created by Johnson’s departure — at present there’s no sign they will — the essentially one-person news blogging operation that Blotter has been for well over a half-decade is on life support, and so is the notion that monetizing local news web traffic is a viable business model for Twin Cities media outlets.
Though I loved most every second of my three-year tenure at City Pages, the monthly page view goals were a constant source of anxiety and job insecurity. Toward the end of my run, Voice Media Group execs were expecting Blotter, the vast majority of which was written by a single person, to bring in more than a million views a month. Even on occasions where that lofty goal was somehow met with the help of a handful of viral posts, the target number would just go up the following month. And if you fell short, you felt the game was rigged for you to fail and to be shown the door.
The lesson seemed to be there was no number of page views that could make VMG enough money to justify paying my meagre salary. Meanwhile, traffic goals for the food, music, and arts blogs were much lower, in part because it’s so much easier to monetize clicks in those areas . Venues make natural advertisers for music content, restaurants for a food blog, galleries for art, and so forth, but what business wants to advertise alongside a story about crime in relatively underdeveloped areas of the metro?
Economics of online journalism aside, there’s another, more simple explanation for Blotter’s demise. Maybe the Strib just didn’t want to sully its reputable brand with the sort of controversial and occasionally salacious stories Ben and I made a living covering. It’s possible the CP news blog indeed turned a profit, but the Strib’s cost-benefit analysis led execs to conclude the revenue isn’t worth keeping the hardscrabble Blotter brand alive.
But if that’s the case, why not keep Ben and simply instruct him to tone it down a bit? He was doing a great job reporting talkable stories different from the ones you’d see in more straight-forward Strib, so I don’t buy the rationale he’d be redundant with existing staff, especially when you consider how many other more clearcut redundancies will be created the Vita.mn staff being incorporated with City Pages’ under the umbrella of the Strib.
So, on some level, Strib managers must’ve concluded it wasn’t worth keeping around Ben and all the clicks he brought in. Apparently their criteria for success is very different than the ones we grew accustomed to during the VMG era.
Whatever the reasons, the loss of the City Pages news blogger is a loss for news consumers. What other outlet will cover Minnesota politics with a voice that speaks to young people who don’t relate to local TV stations and dailies? What other blog will make you laugh out loud in one post and shake your head in indignation the next? Perhaps more significantly, who’s left to criticize the Star Tribune? (On that note, I want to tip my cap to MinnPost’s Brain Lambert, who reported the best story I’ve seen about City Pages’ sale.)
It’s notable that the only person with a byline who lost their job as a result of the Strib purchase was the news blogger, who at City Pages was the most recognizable and widely read writer on staff. There’s something ironic about that in a day and age where we’re constantly reminded print is dying and the future of journalism is online. That may be the case, but the end of Blotter in the form we’ve come to know it is more evidence the dollars haven’t followed the content into the digital sphere, at least with respect to news coverage.
On the bright side, City Pages staffers woke up today in a new world where trying to bring in a certain number of page views is no longer a daily source of anxiety . That has to be a weight off many shoulders, even if there are crazies like me who got a rush watching the click numbers on Chartbeat spike when a story went viral.
So rest in peace, Blotter. We laughed, we cried. It was a good run, and take comfort in the fact Ben and I commemorated your passing in the most fitting way we could think of — sharing a toast of an adult beverage amid conversation about how the powers that be keep on screwing the little guy.
— Welcome to my new blog project. To begin with, each week I’ll be publishing a couple pieces spanning the gamut from columns like the one above to short nonfiction stories to the occasional sports hot take. I’m also planning a weekly podcast hosted by yours truly and featuring topical interviews with notable Twin Citians, so stay tuned!
As always, thanks for reading, and your feedback is appreciated.