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Aug. 9, 2021, 1:12 p.m.
Business Models

Racket joins a rising tide of journalist-owned media startups

Minnesota’s City Pages was closed after its parent company said the pandemic had made the alt-weekly “economically unviable.” Now, four top editors are back with something new.

In October 2020, Star Tribune Media unceremoniously closed City Pages, after the alt-weekly became “economically unviable” amid the pandemic’s upheaval. Now, ten months later, the site is being reborn as a new reader-funded, writer-owned digital news startup.

Racket, founded by four ex-City Pages editors, plans to publish “the same fun and fearless journalism CP specialized in since 1979: news, politics, food/drink, music, arts, culture, theater, plus general civic oddities and debate.”

What will be different? Pretty much everything else. City Pages “spoke truth to power, and delivered it to readers weekly for free.” It relied on advertising and was owned by a billionaire. Racket, meanwhile, will be online-only, mostly member-supported, and owned by four founding editors: former City Pages arts and events editor Jessica Armbruster, former web editor Jay Boller, former music editor Keith Harris, and former editor-in-chief Em Cassel. In addition to the founders, all of whom are white, Racket is growing “a diverse cast of freelance writers” to “shape the editorial voice and spirit” of the publication.

“No bosses, some biases,” as their new website puts it. “The Star Tribune is owned by a billionaire. The Pioneer Press is owned by a hedge fund. Racket is owned by four ex-City Pages editors who live in Minneapolis.”

It’s a big change, but Racket is joining a rising tide of journalist-owned media startups relying on reader revenue. Local news outlets like Block Club Chicago and The Colorado Sun have adopted the model, as well as collectives like Discourse, Brick House, and Study Hall. In an age of layoffs, pivots, and a losing battle for advertising dollars, turning to subscribers and a different ownership model has a certain appeal for founders.

As Cassel, who was the first (and last) female editor-in-chief of City Pages, said in a recent interview: “We were in a union position at City Pages. We were in the Star Tribune’s guild. That didn’t save us at the end. I think what is interesting is that now people are like, well fine, fuck it, a union won’t even protect us, we have to own the thing ourselves.”

Racket has been inspired, in particular, by the success of Defector, the sports-centric site founded by former Deadspin writers. Racket editors described the site as one of “the most exciting journalism startups today” and “a blueprint for what we’re doing.”

They even went and hired Alley, the same website developer behind Defector’s launch, when building their own.

“It’s a risk, just because it’s different from what we’ve done previously,” Armbruster said. “But we’ve done our research and we’ve met with people who moved from online ads to subscriptions. It has been very encouraging to hear and read that other places around the country are switching to that model.”

“As for content, the four of us have worked together for five plus years, and we were all in different beats,” she added. “There’s a natural workload. We already know how to run the website at City Pages. We’re hoping a lot of that magic will transfer to our new site.”

The publication is “semi-live” for now — the early landing page allows readers to buy memberships and sign up for a newsletter — and will officially launch on August 18. The membership tiers are plays on the new name, which the editors chose for the sense of “noise and rambunctiousness and disruption” it invoked, Armbruster said.

To be sustainable, Racket thinks it needs to convince about 4,000 readers to become paying subscribers. The exact number, of course, will shift depending on how many subscribers opt for more expensive tiers and how much advertising the site sells, Armbruster noted.

(A side note for those interested in membership trajectories: Defector launched in July 2020 and earned 10,000 subscribers in its first 24 hours. The site had 30,000 subscribers by the end of its second month. Now, about a year after launch, Defector sits with more than 39,000 subscribers, editor-in-chief Tom Ley confirmed this week.)

The Racket also has plans for events, merch, and podcasts. The Walker Art Center is an opening week sponsor but, in general, digital ads will take a backseat to user experience.

“[On the City Pages site], there would be four or five pop ups and it’d be hard for the reader to get past them to the content,” she said. “That was always a minus and, frankly, sometimes my own computer couldn’t handle the pile-up. Taking that away and finding a different way to bring money in to sustain us was pretty important.”

Racket will have a paywall, but the editors are still deciding between enforcing a certain number of articles (Armbruster has floated a 20-article limit) or restricting certain types of content. “We want people to have access to a lot of the content,” she said. “I think that some stuff — like even calendar stuff — will be free and some of the larger features, like what would have been a cover story at City Pages, may end up behind the paywall.”

POSTED     Aug. 9, 2021, 1:12 p.m.
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