Your local alt-weekly: putting the “sex” back in sexism


Let me be the first to admit: Media stories about other folks in the media tend to be self-aggrandizing, self-referential, and just plain self-absorbed. This isn’t to say that I don’t think there are important media stories to be had out there. The corporatization of media makes it more important than ever that the public is made aware of how stories are gathered, created, and reported.

But the insularity of the media business also often creates journalist-as-local-celeb stories that are less actual news pieces than they are colleague knockdowns or knightings. No matter how you slice it (and as much as they hate to admit it), journos will always be way less important than the stories they cover. And that’s a good thing.

That caveat in mind, David Brauer’s MinnPost piece on Thursday, “What if City Pages Doesn’t Suck?” held a suspicious and simpleminded response from CP editor Kevin Hoffman that was so dubious it deserves a serious second look.

When asked about the continuing and ever-obvious gender disparities at CP, Hoffman responded that A-List editor Jessica Armbruster and copy editor Bridgette Reinsmoen are veteran female employees with responsibility. As a former CP staff writer, I had the pleasure of working with both Armbruster and Reinsmoen, and both are fantastic, especially Reinsmoen, who often put in more hours there than anyone else, poring over pages with a fine-toothed comb and a grimy, old style guide.

However, Reinsmoen and Armbruster hardly have the authority to say what feature stories the paper covers. That’s left up to the almost-all-male news staff, which, minus Paul Demko (who is now here at Minnesota Monitor) now consists of five males and one female. Up until a few months ago, with the hiring of staff writer Beth Walton, the paper’s news-feature writers consisted of six men and zero women. A male-only news regime was in place at CP for more than a year.

While I am an admitted big fan of Brauer and his work, I was ruffled that he mostly glossed over Hoffman’s comment, a poor attempt at inoculating the gender-gap criticism, in favor of detailing CPs’ highest-traffic-producing blog posts. Outlined instead are slide shows and quick-hit “winners” about things like naked sushi and Ms. Pac Man in Hustler, dude-centric topics that have become a standard at City Pages under Village Voice Media’s thumb. Hits, it would seem, have outpaced quality as a defining measurement of success.

Compounding the palpable sexism in CP’s print pages, Hoffman is known to staffers as a “frat boy” around the office. While that’s an admittedly small-minded and overly simplistic stereotype, some former (and current) staffers describe Hoffman as a single-minded editor hungry for dude-centricity: There’s a not-so-subtle push to bring in city-gritty, dirty-underbelly, sexed-up stories that can be neatly packaged for web hits. (Web hits have become the fool’s gold of the Internet. The Maxim-ization of the media helped create the current Fark-ization of the media, which has served to turn stories into flimsy currency traded for page views. But that’s a whole other story that reveals another layer of dumbing down altogether. And while I’m at it: SEX. SEX. SEX!)

Former staffers I’ve talked to say there was an uncomfortable and juvenile, slap-on-the-back atmosphere created by the heavily male masthead. Hoffman allegedly told one staffer that, since the A-List (the paper’s picks for best events each week) was being edited by females, it was necessary to make sure it wasn’t too, you know, girly. Testosterone-driven stories are acceptable, apparently, but anything with too much estrogen doesn’t pass the CP sniff test.

City Pages isn’t the only Village Voice Media paper to have a mostly-male masthead. In fact, of the 16 VVM papers, there are only five female editors, although one of those is Patricia Calhoun, who co-founded Denver’s Westword paper before VVM snatched it up.

Even more egregious? Of the papers’ 33 managing, senior, associate editors and senior writers, only 9 are female. In other words, females make up only about 25 percent of all of VVM’s editorial-decision makers. And males consistently outnumber females in the newsroom at all but one (LA Weekly) of VVM’s 16 news newspapers. All hirings go through the corporate office in Phoenix.

To be sure, CP has done some intriguing stories in the last year, such as the one Brauer noted about the shrinking sex-crimes unit at the MPD. And those great stories don’t deserve to get lost among the big-muscled and even bigger-boobed cover packages. But excusing the current macho ideology of VVM based on a handful of well-reported pieces is like reasoning Bravo doesn’t suck because it also occasionally airs a provocative documentary in between endless hours of “The Real Housewives of Orange County.”

So when we’re talking about whether a newspaper “sucks,” perhaps it’s best not to judge a paper’s weight in fool’s gold (web hits), but whether a weekly paper whose mission is to be a “bastion of progressive thought” (VVM’s words) actually achieves said mission, versus continuing to breed and feed chauvinism and prejudice through its hit-hungry story coverage and regressive hiring practices.

Glossed over?
comment by David Brauer

Did I gloss over the gender imbalance at CP? It was the third section of the six-section piece, and at 200 words, wasn’t an inconsiderable part of the text.

And while, I’m a big fan of Molly’s work, I think she misunderstood my deployment of web hits. Then again, it might be my writing. More on this in a sec.

After the Hoffman quote Molly highlighted, here’s what I wrote:

“But such strong yin desperately needs a yang. Who looks out for young women? Dude-rich topics have crested precisely as CP lost an exceptional aspect of Perry’s exceptional tenure: strong and senior female editors.

“Monika Bauerlein, Jennifer Vogel, Julie Caniglia, Hawkins – there’s no equivalent at the new CP. The two most recent hires – staff writer Beth Walton and music editor Andrea Myers – are simply too new to claim such influence.

“Hoffman points to copy editor Bridgette Reinsmoen and A-list editor Jessica Armbruster as veterans with responsibility, but neither has the status to undo any editorial imbalances.”

Without nice VVM context Molly provides (not the narrower focus of my piece, which was already too damn long as it was), I think I hit on most of her points. She probably said them with more depth, feeling and personal experience than I did, but in this sense, the Internet is a meritocracy and this is one of many places where a Steve Perry title shines.

About web hits: are they fool’s gold? Sure. But they are an objective datapoint (or at least a more objective one), something sorely missing from the CP debate.

I used them precisely to show that the culture/dude stuff was popular, and deeper topics like politics/investigations were trailing, and in fact used web hits to underscore my criticism that substance in these areas is malnourished.

Here’s just a sample:

“Tellingly, there were no political stories in the Top 10. Such coverage has fallen far under Hoffman. Aside from episodic forays, CP has abandoned the legislative beat and the paper’s traditional City Hall haunts. Hoffman keeps up the site’s GOP convention blog, “Elephants in the Room,” but there’s little to distinguish it. … political anorexia in these keenly political times imperils CP as a must-read.”

I’ll admit I might’ve led folks astray with the word “vindication” in introducing the web section, but there’s a little bit of archness there that hopefully is recognizable to alt-weekly fans.

The reason for including the sidebar on web hits was to give people an objective look at how the site generates traffic – which I think was revelatory and I specifically tweaked:

“Comparing Steve Perry’s last month – February 2007 – to the same month this year, City Pages’ web traffic has grown smartly by most measures. A big reason: pop culture tales (real-life superheroes, living at the Mall of America for a week, Diablo Cody), slideshows of naked or nearly naked people, and blogs about unclothed dining and porn.

“Such is life on the web, where the mere mention of S-E-X sends page views soaring. (The most popular thing I’ve yet written for MinnPost was about sex ads in the Star Tribune.) The new-era CP seems to, umm, beat the drum regularly.”

I acknowledge the title of my piece was a sharp stick at the prevailing wisdom, perhaps my own tabloidish bid for attention, so I’m wide open to the forceful and thoughtful critique Molly delivers. I guess, in the end, I’m trying to encourage better stuff (like this week’s CP scoop on St. Thomas’s bullying a pro-choice law student) by highlighting it, and I think there’s more there than the paper’s critics feel.

Thanks, unironically, for the critical look at the story.