© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Riverfront Times sale and layoff of news staff signals end of 46-year era for St. Louis alt-weekly

A Riverfront Times newspaper box on Lindell Blvd in Midtown. The alt-weekly has been sold to a new owner, and all of the newspaper's staff have been laid off.
Theo R. Welling
St. Louis Public Radio
A Riverfront Times newspaper box on Lindell Boulevard in Midtown. The alt-weekly has been sold to a new owner, and all of the newspaper's employees have been laid off.

The Riverfront Times, St. Louis’ alt-weekly newspaper, is no more, at least in its current state.

Big Lou Media has sold the paper to an undisclosed buyer, Sarah Fenske, the alt-weekly’s former executive editor, said Wednesday.

“It’s devastating for St. Louis,” she said. “We were breaking a lot of news, and that goes away as of today.”

Fenske said her first indication of the sale came Tuesday night when Big Lou Media owner Chris Keating asked to have a meeting Wednesday morning.

Sarah Fenske and RFT founder Ray Hartmann join 'St. Louis on the Air'

“I’ve been in journalism long enough to know that’s not good news,” she said, adding that the meeting revealed the entire writing and editing staff had been laid off.

“While somebody has purchased the RFT, it’s not going to be what the RFT was,” she said. “My best guess is that this is just going to be one of those websites that is a shell of its former self. That’s devastating for St. Louis journalism.”

Big Lou Holdings LLC, owned by St. Louis-based Chris Keating, purchased the Riverfront Times in 2023. The LLC bought the paper from Euclid Media Group, taking control of it, the Detroit Metro Times, Cincinnati CityBeat and LEO Weekly in Louisville, Kentucky.

Big Lou Holdings continues to own a few alt-weeklies in other cities as well as Sauce magazine in St. Louis. Fenske said the company is looking to retain a couple of the laid-off RFT staffers at those other outlets.

“The hope is maybe there’s an RFT employee or two who might be able to land with them,” Fenske said. “But the RFT is not retaining anyone.”

According to an August Riverfront Times article about the purchase, Keating worked in the industry as a newspaper publisher for 25 years, helping form the Euclid Media Group that later sold the paper to Big Lou Holdings.

“The Riverfront Times has a long tradition of excellence, and I plan to continue that,” Keating told the RFT.

Later that year, Keating brought food- and drink-focused Sauce Magazine into the fold with its full staff.

The RFT's first print edition hit the streets in November 1977 and for decades, the alt-weekly served as a catch-all for stories featuring the people, food and music of St. Louis, as well as long-form stories focusing on and often exposing issues in St. Louis.

Several staff members announced on social media that they had been laid off and that the paper would cease production.

The RFT "is officially dead,” wrote staff writer Kallie Cox on X. “I can say this is the best paper I’ve ever had the pleasure of working at.”

Cox declined to comment further when asked.

Doyle Murphy, who worked at the paper for six years beginning in 2015 and served as its editor-in-chief for nearly three years, said the paper covered voices in St. Louis that often weren't by other media.

“It’s a huge loss for St. Louis. There’s absolutely no voice like the RFT. It just covered so many things that nobody else covered,” Murphy said. “I think it was a real voice on a lot of social justice issues that either didn't get covered or weren't going to get covered in the kind of depth that the RFT was going to put into it.”

Fenske agreed, adding that people often called her with a story “that only the RFT could do,” because it was quirky, bizarre or contentious.

“Many other times it would be because the story was tricky and complicated,” she said. “It was something someone in power didn’t want to get out. It was a story that made people uncomfortable.”

Murphy noted that the RFT often gave small businesses and restaurants coverage that other media outlets wouldn’t.

“Walk around the city and duck into restaurants and see how many restaurants have a framed copy of the RFT up on their wall because it was the first real review of the restaurant,” Murphy said. “It was a huge boost for them that brought people into their shops or their restaurants.”

Mark Vittert and Ray Hartman founded the weekly in 1977. They sold it to what would become Village Voice Media in 1998.

Over the years, the alt-weekly would change ownership several times, even ceasing print production during the COVID-19 pandemic before being revived by staff members who worked for little to no pay during the shutdown.

“I know people on that staff — who are still there and people who have gone on to other places — who fought for that place, even without taking a paycheck for a while,” said Murphy of the RFT during the pandemic. “I don't think there's a whole lot of businesses where if you laid people off they come back the next day.”

St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists President Elizabeth Donald told STLPR the Riverfront Times closure is another blow to the industry. She noted since 2005, more than 2,900 newspapers have closed their doors.

“This is bad for journalism, bad for the community, and bad for democracy. The public needs to understand the crisis facing journalism and support their local news outlets,” Donald said. “Our society functions best with a diversity of voices telling the stories of the human experience, and the RFT was a major voice in that chorus in St. Louis.”

Editor's note: Sarah Fenske is the former host of St. Louis Public Radio's daily talk show, "St. Louis on the Air." She continues to host the show's monthly Legal Roundtable program.

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.
Kavahn Mansouri is the Investigative Reporter for the NPR Midwest Newsroom based in St. Louis.