Literature 1-26-2006

R.I.P., Ripsaw

Julia Durst writes an account of the life and death of the Ripsaw News, a great arts paper that had a big role in creating Duluth's art and music scene over the past few years.

The ripsaw

The Ripsaw’s demise conjures up the last lines of T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”: “This is the way the world ends/ not with a bang but a whimper.”

After months of whimpering, the newspaper fell silent this past December. I am hardly the authority on all things Ripsaw, as my association with the paper spans only two of its six-plus years. Nonetheless, here’s the tale of my tenure as I bid it farewell…

I joined the Ripsaw as a contributing arts writer in June 2003. I had just returned to the Twin Ports after living in Madison. The Ripsaw, to me, was Duluth’s younger, sassier version of Madison’s Isthmus.

Working under art editor Christopher Selleck, I occasionally penned reviews of local exhibits and performances. The Ripsaw News (its official name) was churning out free weekly issues with a circulation of about 11,000, and I happily wrote whenever Chris called. My assignments provided a crash course in Duluth’s art scene, learning names and styles and fragments of gossip. Duluth’s talent genuinely impressed me– from painter Scott Murphy’s deliciously strange imagery to Renegade Comedy Theatre’s spot-on holiday revue. For my work I was compensated sporadically, always in the form of Fitger’s Brewhouse gift certificates. This was dandy; I would’ve written contentedly for free.

The Ripsaw remained a scrappy little newsprint rag until the end of 2003, when it morphed into a slim and glossy monthly magazine. Many talented writers who had come to define the paper left, including Mary Tennis and her incomparable “Hot Dish” column. Others stayed, like bar scene critic Slim Goodbuzz. But his boozy musings didn’t quite read the same on expensive paper.

There were goals I guess– new, ambitious intentions for the shiny new Ripsaw (henceforth to be referred to as the Ripsaw, NOT the Ripsaw News, as per instructions by the Higher-Ups. I secretly wondered what to infer from that.) The magazine format would, I guess, appeal to a broader demographic and afford writers and designers more time to produce a truly well-crafted publication. It all came at the price of contemporaneity, since we could no long publish a truly up-to-date calendar or fresh news stories.

At this time Chris Selleck departed and I ascended to the vague but important-sounding post of art scene editor. The position meant choosing my own stories and receiving occasional payment for my writing. The amount of the checks correlated not to the number or length of articles published, but rather the strength of advertising sales. This struck me as unusual, but I didn’t mind. I was out of gift-certificate purgatory and felt validated.

Brad Nelson, a well-known local musician and the Ripsaw’s publisher, stepped away from the editor post he had long occupied and hired someone with professional experience in the field. Tony Dierckins, owner of Duluth publishing house X-Communication, came on board armed with a firm set of expectations. He insisted on (dramatic pause) actually reading and (gasp) editing articles before they went to print. Not everyone loved this.

Tony requested that, unless totally necessary, writers abandon the use of first-person voice and adhere to AP style. He discouraged gratuitous use of expletives and had a strong bias against “be” verbs (is, was, were). “Be” verbs sounded weak, he said, and could almost always be replaced by another verb for more effective writing.

I felt the whole tone of the Ripsaw changing. Appearance aside, the stream-of-consciousness jabber that rambled through the pages faded with the newsprint. I resisted evaluating this as a good or bad development, opting instead to ride out the evolution and take Tony’s comments seriously. Ultimately (Ripsaw and its identity crisis aside) Tony helped me improve as a writer. The single greatest change: he made me feel accountable for every word I wrote. As a writer, that is scary. No room for error; every phrase becomes more potent.

The Ripsaw, magazine-version, debuted and perished within the same year. For most of 2004, the staff turned out a colorful, ever-improving issue each month. Circulation (still free) reached about 20,000.

During this time a few writers’ meetings were held at the Ripsaw’s ninth floor office in downtown’s Torrey Building. Everyone sat in a circle and hammered out story ideas. I always felt mildly out of place, not belonging to the posse of friends who started the paper long ago, not part of the social club who frequented the Brewhouse and Pizza Luce. Usually I sat in quiet admiration of a few of my colleagues. I was, in my warped imagination, the social-recluse art-nerd sitting in with the cool kids. Maybe that’s why I had such a strong fondness for and loyalty to the Ripsaw– it made me feel cool, if only by association.

In early 2005, the Ripsaw offices moved from the Torrey Building to a smaller yet adequately hip space above the Electric Fetus about four blocks away. I learned the lease at the Torrey Building had ended and the Ripsaw now needed less space.

The magazine took a break in January, which was historically a slow month for ad sales. But plans for a February issue went forward. Around this time editor Tony Dierckins left, needing to redirect his energies to his own business. Longtime contributor Charlie Mahler chose (courageously or foolishly, or both) to take on the position.

In January, a writers meeting was planned to hash out the upcoming issue. In hindsight, it was a sign of things to come. Only three people were in attendance: Brad Nelson, Charlie, and me. We talked through goals and changes for 2005. None of it would come to fruition.

After writing and submitting my two art stories for the February issue, I got a mass e-mail stating that due to low ad sales and the high cost of production, the issue wouldn’t go to print. After that, communication lapsed and I heard nothing for several weeks. The word on the street was Charlie left (who could blame him?) and the Ripsaw, though gasping like an asthmatic second-grader, was not proclaimed dead just yet.

Come summer, the Ripsaw suffered yet another personality change– back to newsprint, now bimonthly. I heard a lot of complaining from readers about the gap between monthly issues and predicted bimonthly would surely piss them off more.

But a sporadic Ripsaw is better than no Ripsaw, I reminded myself, blinded by uncharacteristic optimism. I hoped this wouldn’t be a half-assed effort though, preferring that (when necessitated by circumstance) the paper die with dignity rather than scamper and pant, groping for an audience and advertising dollar. Meanwhile the Reader Weekly, Duluth’s other free alternative publication and the Ripsaw’s prime competition, clunked steadily along with a consistent presence and improved writing and design.

The bimonthly format lasted a couple issues. Then it just sort of stopped, without notice. In early December, Brad Nelson sent an e-mail announcing the official shutdown. He outlined the paper’s accomplishments, noting that the Ripsaw “…wrote about and influenced the art and music scenes; local elections; the Spirit Mountain golf course debate; the Clayton, Jackson, McGhee Memorial; the Soft Center debacle and DEDA funding issues; eminent domain use; historic preservation; the crusade to end homelessness; GLBT rights; the buy-local movement; and many many more issues and things…” I whole-heartedly admire and commend Brad– and everyone else– who sank his or her time, money, and talents into it.

The Duluth News Tribune’s business section acknowledged the news with the headline “Ripsaw shuts down for good.” It outlined the paper’s six-and-a-half year history. Brad didn’t provide comment for the story but Bob Boone, publisher of the Reader Weekly, had plenty to say. He praised the content of the Ripsaw and said Brad’s “heart is in the right place,” but insisted “there simply isn’t room in Duluth for two alternative weeklies. It was either them or us that had to go.”

Bob Boone could likely argue his case well. But I believe that the Ripsaw engineered its own demise. Everyone involved had other interests (jobs, school, music, whatever) competing for his or her time. Plus, a mixed herd of artists, activists, comics, musicians, humorists, and writers ran the show. This meant an awesome and unpredictable product. But (based on my own admittedly limited observations exclusive to this situation), no one was exactly a Type-A robot when it came to deadlines and business, particularly those at the helm. While Tony brought more structure and rigor to the writing side of things during his reign, the newspaper was also a business venture and needed to be managed as such.

In its heyday, the Ripsaw helped cultivate and define youth culture in Duluth. I’m grateful for that. I’m also grateful as a writer. It afforded me the opportunity to sling words in a public, printed forum and drew me– an occasional recluse– out of my hermetic cocoon and into cluttered artists’ studios and crowded dress rehearsals.

On a more solemn and personal note, my relationship with the paper incidentally commenced just days before a tragic event, inevitably linking the two unrelated events in my memory. On a quiet Tuesday morning in late June 2003, for reasons science doesn’t fully explain, my dad died while sitting at his desk in his office. Five days earlier he had waved a Ripsaw in my face, clearly excited to see my first article– a horrid, verbose review of the Canadian Mounties show at the Tweed.

By the accident of timing, writing reviews for the paper became one of many memories tethered to my dad’s death in a sticky web of grief. Losing someone does that; it tangles up life’s meaningful and meaningless moments. It separates the world into things living and things dead. The Ripsaw existed somewhere between those two categories for some time. It is with relief and thanks that I bid it farewell.