Racket joins a rising tide of journalist-owned media startups ”Nieman Journalism Lab
In October 2020, Star Tribune Media unceremoniously shut down City Pages, after the alternative weekly became “economically unsustainable” amid the turmoil of the pandemic. Now, ten months later, the site is reborn as a new reader-funded, writer-owned digital news startup.
Racket, founded by four former City Pages editors, plans to publish “the same fun and fearless journalism that CP has specialized in since 1979: news, politics, food / drink, music, arts, culture, theater, as well as quirks and general civic debates. “
What will be different? Pretty much everything else. City Pages “spoke the truth to power and delivered it free to readers every week.” It relied on advertising and was owned by a billionaire. Racket, meanwhile, will be online-only, primarily supported by members, and owned by four founding publishers: the former City Pages arts and events editor. Jessica armbrust, former web editor Jay boller, former music publisher Keith harris, and former editor-in-chief Em Cassel. In addition to the founders, who are all white, Racket is developing “a diverse cast of independent writers” to “shape the editorial voice and spirit” of the publication.
âNo bosses, some prejudices,â as their new website puts it. âThe Star Tribune is owned by a billionaire. The Pioneer Press is owned by a hedge fund. Racket is owned by four former City Pages publishers who live in Minneapolis.
It’s a big change, but Racket joins a rising tide of media startups owned by journalists and relying on reader income. Local media like Block Club Chicago and The Colorado Sun have embraced the model, as have collectives like Discourse, Brick House, and Study Hall. In an age of layoffs, pivots, and a losing battle for advertising money, turning to subscribers and a different ownership model has some appeal to founders.
As Cassel, who was the first (and last) female editor-in-chief of City Pages, said in a recent interview: âWe had a union position at City Pages. We were in the Star Tribune Guild. It didn’t spare us in the end. I think what’s interesting is now people are thinking, well, shit, a union won’t even protect us, we’ve got to own the thing ourselves.
Racket was notably inspired by the success of Defector, the sports-focused site founded by former Deadspin writers. Racket editors have described the site as one of “today’s most exciting journalism startups” and “a role model for what we do.”
They even went to hire Alley, the same website developer who launched Defector, when they created theirs.
âIt’s a risk, just because it’s different from what we’ve done before,â Armbruster said. âBut we did our research and met people who have gone from online ads to subscriptions. It was very encouraging to hear and read that other places across the country are moving to this model. “
âWhen it comes to content, the four of us have been working for over five years and we were all in different paces,â she added. âThere is a natural workload. We already know how to run the City Pages website. We hope that much of this magic will carry over to our new site.
The post is “semi-live” for now – the first landing page allows readers to purchase subscriptions and sign up for a newsletter – and will officially launch on August 18. Membership Tiers are games on the new name, which the publishers chose for the feeling of ânoise and turmoil and disruptionâ he invoked, Armbruster said.
To be sustainable, Racket thinks it has to convince around 4,000 readers to become paying subscribers. The exact number, of course, will vary depending on how many subscribers opt for more expensive tiers and how much advertising the site sells, Armbruster noted.
(A note for those interested in membership trajectories: Defector launched in July 2020 and gained 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 its launch, Defector sits with over 39,000 subscribers, editor-in-chief Tom ley confirmed this week.)
The Racket also has plans for events, merchandise, and podcasts. The Walker Art Center is a sponsor of the opening week but, in general, digital advertising will take precedence over user experience.
“[On the City Pages site], there would be four or five pop-ups and it would be difficult for the reader to go past them to access the content, âshe said. âIt was always an inconvenience and, frankly, sometimes my own computer couldn’t handle the stacking. It was important enough to take that out and find a different way to bring in money to support us. “
Racket will have a paywall, but publishers have yet to decide between imposing a certain number of articles (Armbruster has set a limit of 20 articles) or restricting certain types of content. âWe want people to have access to a lot of the content,â she said. “I think some things – like even calendars – will be free and some of the more important features, like what would have been a cover story on City Pages, could end up behind the paywall.”