“Lifestyle journalism” sounds featherweight and inconsequential, but when you dust away the uninformative blurbs (of which I’ve written more than my share) and sexy latte-art photos, you remember that “lifestyle” includes the word “life.” This stuff is our lives: what we see, what we eat, where we go. When done well, lifestyle journalism can help make us aware of the rich textures of our communities and enrich our lives by helping us to make smart choices about how to spend our precious leisure hours.
METRO magazine was indeed, as its editor-in-chief Dana Raidt said in the announcement that the magazine is ceasing publication, “the best lifestyle publication in the Twin Cities.” What exactly constitutes a “lifestyle publication” is hard to define, but METRO‘s most obvious competition has always been the two other major local monthly magazines, Mpls.St.Paul and Minnesota Monthly. Both of those magazines are superb in their respective ways (I should note that I served as an intern and, later, freelance writer for METRO; and have contributed several articles to Mpls.St.Paul on a freelance basis), but METRO was a bold and largely successful—in terms of content, if not profit—attempt to reinvent the monthly lifestyle magazine for what, locally, might be called “The Current generation.”
There are ongoing debates about the importance of the “creative class,” but the success of The Current—Minnesota Public Radio’s station for contemporary indie music—has made clear that there’s a rising tide of local Gen-X and Gen-Y adults who would rather go to Rock the Garden than the Basilica Block Party, who want to keep hearing challenging new music instead of easy-listening “adult contemporary,” and aren’t going to quit their bands just because they have kids.
That may seem a subtle demographic difference—especially given that Minnesota Monthly began its life, decades ago, as an MPR member premium—but I know I wasn’t the only Twin Cities resident who found it refreshing to be able to read a monthly magazine that was more likely to interview the organizer of the Minneapolis Indie Xpo zine show than to stick its nose into the Minnetonka home of a retired news anchor. Again and again, I’d open METRO and find myself happily reading articles about the sort of people and places that usually only attract press from labor-of-love blogs, not from the kind of press that actually uses a press.
The problem, though, is one we’ve encountered at the Daily Planet as a nonprofit publication dedicated to giving voice to Minnesota’s diverse residents: undercovered stories are usually undercovered for a reason, and the most frequent reason is because covering those stories doesn’t fill a publication that the Twin Cities’ best dentists are interested in choosing for their advertising supplement.
I want to be clear that I don’t mean this as any kind of swipe against my talented and hard-working colleagues at Mpls.St.Paul and Minnesota Monthly, who consistently produce some of the smartest and best-informed local lifestyle journalism. (See, for example, Tad Simons’s long and insightful Mpls.St.Paul post on the Guthrie’s controversial anniversary season.) Nor do I want to suggest that there’s a direct connection between a publication’s content and its financial success: behind-the-scenes business decisions are hugely consequential, and it’s impossible for outsiders (even, sometimes, insiders) to know exactly why any given enterprise failed to succeed.
Rather, I’m observing that right now, for-profit journalism is a flagpole wobbling in the wind, and there’s only so much room at the top of that flagpole. After the demise of The Onion‘s local A.V. Club, METRO becomes yet another example of high-quality lifestyle content aimed at a young(er), (relatively) adventurous adult demographic failing to gain enough commercial traction to succeed.
What does the future hold? No one knows, but though I’m sorry to see METRO go, I don’t see its demise as a harbinger of doom. It’s no secret that for-profit journalism has become one of the most dangerous games to play with your time and money; the only publications that have any hope of viability right now are those providing consistent value to a well-established audience that contains enough well-heeled people to support significant revenue from advertising or other sources. I can’t say whether METRO publisher R. Craig Bednar made any decisions that he now regrets, but clearly this is a field where there’s very little room for error.
What keeps me optimistic is the fact that though for-profit lifestyle journalism is hurting, information about life and how to live it well is now available in greater profusion than ever before. The rise of the DIY blogosphere is making it harder to earn a living in journalism, but at the same time it’s making it easier to find and stay connected with people who share your interests and have worthwhile things to say. What counts as “worthwhile”? That’s increasingly a matter for you, not the Twin Cities’ best dentists, to decide. My dentist does a great job with my teeth, but I sure wouldn’t follow him on Twitter.