Essay: St. Louis longstanding alt-weekly dies

The Riverfront Times 1977-2024

By Kallie Cox

The heart of St. Louis, and its sole alt-weekly newspaper, The Riverfront Times, died on Wednesday, May 22.

My colleagues and I logged on to our weekly staff call at 9:30 a.m. and instantly I started to panic. Our executive editor, Sarah Fenske, was one minute late, and she was always, exactly, two to three minutes early.

All of us were already on edge.

Two weeks ago, the weekly meeting was pushed back an hour, and Fenske had logged on in tears with bad news: Two of our colleagues — the arts & culture staff writer and the paper’s audience engagement manager — had been laid off effective immediately that morning. 

This time, all of us were shown the door. The paper’s owner, Chris Keating, asked Fenske to come in for a meeting at 8 a.m. on May 22. As she pointed out to us on the call, this is never good news in journalism.

At that 8 a.m. meeting he informed Fenske that he had sold RFT, and that none of the editorial staff would be kept. We were sacked immediately and told we’d receive our last paycheck in the coming days.  This is the same situation that happened to the first professional newspaper I ever worked at, the Southern Illinoisan. Lee Enterprises sold the Southern in 2023 to Paxton Media Group who fired the entire staff. 

Keating was not even present on the call. Instead, Fenske informed us an hour and a half later. 

Some staffers broke down with her, and others were angry. None of us was truly shocked. Keating didn’t have the funds or business planning to offer severance or even a full paycheck to the staffers he sacked second hand. 

A few weeks prior to the sale of RFT, Keating fired Laura Bassett who he had just hired on Feb.1 as the executive vice president of his company, Big Lou Holdings. Big Lou Holdings also owns and operates Out In STL, Sauce Magazine, the Detroit Metro Times, the Cincinnati CityBeat, and LEO Weekly, which is based in Louisville, Kentucky.

Bassett, the former EIC of Jezebel and an election columnist with the Cut, is based in New York and was an exciting addition to the company. She didn’t make it 90 days under Keating’s leadership. Keating purchased RFT in August 2023 as owner of Big Lou Holdings LLC, according to RFT. Prior to this, he had been the chief operating officer of Euclid Media Group, the paper’s previous owner.

At the time, Keating said as reported by RFT:

“The Riverfront Times has a long tradition of excellence, and I plan to continue that. Whether it’s great restaurant criticism or a deeply reported story that explains the most important issues facing our communities, people rely on these publications. I intend to make sure they not only survive but thrive in this new era.”

After leaving the company Bassett started her own Substack called “Nightcap.” In one of her first posts to the platform she explained her departure from Big Lou. In this post, which can be viewed here, Bassett spoke of potential layoffs and of a job offer to an editor that was allegedly rescinded.

“Twenty days into the job, I woke up to an email from Keating threatening to fire me if I was uncomfortable ‘making staffing changes,’ aka firing the entire staff of a beloved local newspaper. I managed to talk him off the ledge for a few more weeks,” she wrote. “But he laid me off anyway in mid-March, citing severe budget woes. He said he’d hoped to see a bigger jump in traffic across his portfolio sooner, that 90 days just wasn’t fast enough.”

So far Keating has declined to comment on the sale to news outlets. In an email to GJR Keating declined to say who the new buyer is but said: “I do not have a comment about the sale specifically as my priority is doing all I can to help as many former RFT employees land jobs elsewhere at Big Lou or other employment opportunities.”

On the call, Fenske told us what she could and was kind to all of us, even while breaking down herself from the news that she too is now unemployed. She called us afterwards offering to be a reference, and she has maintained our company Slack channel – which she and the managing editor administrate – sending opportunities and jobs to all of us.

We don’t know who the new buyer is, and we don’t know what they plan to do with the website. We lost our email access the next afternoon.

Before these layoffs, I debated reporting a story about  the merits of alt-weekly publications and why I believe they have the power to revive journalism and local news. Despite everything, I still believe this is true.

RFT is the first (professional) publication that valued my voice as a reporter, and that valued my ideas. 

Before working for the alt-weekly, I worked as a general assignment reporter for Lee Enterprises and as a public safety reporter for McClatchy. These publications canned important stories for the sake of pageviews, and at McClatchy, used the term “accountability” only as a quick buzz word when talking about pageview metrics and corporate goals.

At the RFT, accountability was prized above all else and was something all of us chased daily. 

This idea of chasing accountability was also implemented behind the scenes at our own newspaper. Fenske made sure that no matter how small they were, any extra edits or corrections after publication would be noted to the reader with an editor’s note at the bottom of a story. This promoted a level of trust and transparency with our readers that many newspapers are lacking.

Fenske is one of the best editors I have ever had the pleasure of working with. She knew how to provide mentorship on a deadline, enhance a complicated policy story, write a killer headline, and most importantly to our coverage, how to listen. 

She never pressured me to run a mugshot in my stories — something I am adamantly opposed to in most cases — and she allowed me to direct much of our coverage regarding protests against Israel’s brutal onslaught of Gaza and the Palestinian people. She never pressed me to use terms I felt didn’t do the situation justice like calling it the “Israel-Hamas war” as other St. Louis outlets do, following guidance from the Associated Press. She allowed me to use the term “genocide” with attribution in paraphrases and quotes — small things that allowed us to cover the situation in an empathetic and thoughtful way. This gained us more trust and sources in the community and led to better coverage. 

We were one of the publications that, despite our lack of funding for any kind of legal support, stayed at Washington University as police began to violently arrest peaceful protestors, shoved a bike in the face of a presidential candidate, and injured an elderly professor standing off to the side filming the scene. The local TV stations left. 

Alt-weekly publications are the future of news and hold the key to revitalizing trust in local media because they are run by locals, not soulless corporations and hedge funds too caught up in their own bureaucracy to recognize the needs of their community. And perhaps most importantly, they are free.

At 24, I no longer know a single person my age who has a subscription to a local newspaper. I knew a few fellow journalism students in college but with the return of student loan payments, jumps in inflation, and mass layoffs, one by one they canceled. 

We were one of the only free newspapers in St. Louis that had coverage of the arts, local politics, and that put police accountability at the forefront of our paper. Now that is gone and the community is worse off for it.

The Riverfront Times told stories other outlets wouldn’t touch, scooped major accountability stories that left legacy media scrambling to follow, and featured communities, artists, and activists who otherwise would not have received media attention in the city. 

Just recently, my colleague Ryan Krull covered the fact that a racist church leader is helping to vet GOP candidates in Vernon County, contributor Mike Fitzgerald reported how COVID-19 relief dollars fueled an illegal rooming house operation, and the paper recently ran my cover story that a McClatchy paper had previously turned down about how abortion doulas are filling care gaps in a post-Roe world.

The competition we helped foster pushed other outlets in the city to do better as well — and this competition is good for everyone. When reporters are scrambling to scoop each other and to get to the heart of a story in a way that is unique from their peers, the public benefits. Now with one less competitor, St. Louis will have a less informed populace and especially in an election year, that’s a damn shame. 

Kallie Cox is a freelance journalist who previously worked for the Riverfront Times. They can be reached at 

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