Heaston dies months after closing book on The Reader, Omaha’s longtime alternative newspaper

In a tumultuous media climate, The Reader outlasted many. Now it’s winding down after three decades.

Editor’s Note: John Heaston died Friday, May 31, 2024, of leukemia. He was 53. He died hours before the Omaha Press Club honored him with a Face on the Barroom Floor, a top recognition for local newsmakers. Heaston leaves behind his partner Lori Umstead, mother Dorris, brother Ben and sisters Rita and Eileen as well as countless friends, supporters and readers. Before his death, Heaston sold his newspapers, The Reader and El Perico, to Nebraska Public Media.

“I feel like I haven’t worked a day in my life,” Heaston said in the Omaha Press Club’s May newsletter. “I was able to do something that matters.”

Here’s our 2023 story on Heaston’s life and career, when he decided to shutter The Reader:

John Heaston opens the door to a brick warehouse next to Johnny’s Cafe in South Omaha and walks through rooms holding his life’s work.

“It’s kind of a hot mess,” says the 52-year-old longtime publisher of Omaha’s alternative newspaper, The Reader.

Here’s a garage bay holding  two dozen empty green newspaper boxes emblazoned with the word, “FREE.” Here are floor-to-ceiling shelves stacked with yellowing copies of The Reader and El Perico, a separate publication that Heaston owns and has, since the pandemic, co-published in the same tabloid-style product as The Reader. 

Sticky notes scribbled with years like 1998, 2012 and 2016 aim to bring some order to the chaos of the last three decades. Headlines about the latest “CD” review or Ranch Bowl show or wacky trend or controversial city issue take a visitor through Omaha history. The J. Doe civic art project statues. A then-new album by Modest Mouse. The band 311. Dubious landlords. TIF.

Heaston had spent months organizing and preparing to end an effort that began in the halcyon Gen X grunge days of the early 1990s, when he was a college student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. 

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Heaston had wanted to shine a light on Omaha culture, nightlife, and issues he felt were ignored. He had wanted to give voice to a host of writers outside the mainstream press, and, later in his career, focus on communities that wanted their own news coverage. (I was one of those writers when Heaston’s newspaper was called Sound News and Arts. Heaston, the older brother of a high school friend, let me get my first Omaha byline in an embarrassingly overwritten piece on alternative theater. Heaston is currently consulting for Flatwater.)

Like the fading copies before him, Heaston had considered his own body’s wear. A leukemia diagnosis in 2020, a bone marrow transplant in 2022 and a prognosis of more future treatment made him announce in late May that the monthly Reader/El Perico was ending. Its last issue printed Thursday.

Unless someone buys the operation — Heaston said recently he was “still talking” to a prospect — this marks the end of an era of alternative news for Omaha and a mainstay on local bar counters and coffee shop tables. The Reader archives will live on at its website and, eventually, the Omaha Public Library.

Heaston and his flagship publication have faced the same headwinds battering legacy news outlets. Like them, The Reader changed. It moved partly online, shrunk in size, went from a weekly print edition to monthly, figured out how to scrape by as print advertising and classified ads disappeared.

The public is consuming news in kaleidoscopic fashion, grabbing bits and shards from online outlets as newspaper corporations slash their newsrooms and cable TV falters. Alternative newspapers that sprang up in the 1960s have shrunk and some big names have disappeared or, like the Village Voice, are a shadow of what they were. 

But the Army brat who was born in Germany and raised in four other states until landing in Omaha to attend Creighton Prep had found a way to keep The Reader going. 

It’s his health, he said, not the topsy-turvy industry, that has led him to stop the presses.

“I’m feeling good. Right now I’m fine,” Heaston said in late July. “The thing about cancer is, you never know. In my case, there’s definitely going to be some heavier treatments coming.”

Later this month, he will travel to New York City to speak with the foremost expert in his type of cancer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Those who have worked with Heaston describe a hard-driving ideas man who both charms with a buoyant charisma and frustrates with a constant on-switch that makes keeping up difficult. Even so, he has an uncanny ability to mobilize support around the mission of journalism.

“John has a million ideas, so he’s like, ‘Oh, I‘m going to be dealing with a bone marrow transplant but also trying to start a new nonprofit and program,” said Chris Bowling, a 27-year-old news reporter first hired on at the The Reader part time with this wage supplement: Heaston offered a low-cost rent in a house his great-great-grandparents built on South 12th Street.

Bowling, who had worked as investigative reporter, ad copy salesman and as The Reader’s likely final news editor, said Heaston “saddles people with a lot of work. … But he really has this unbridled belief that if we work really hard we can get this done.”

The payoff, for Bowling, was investigative projects like one he’d done on landlords running afoul of city housing codes. He was proud of the reaction it garnered, which told him the story mattered.

Terri Sanders, owner and publisher of the Omaha Star, had served on a board named for the newspaper’s late founder, Mildred D. Brown, with Heaston. She respects him despite clashing with him on a couple issues – like publication schedule.

“Just lately John called me,” she said. “He said, ‘I owe you an apology.’ I did appreciate that.”

In an essay he wrote for Editor & Publisher in March, Heaston gave a similar account.

“When MAWGs get out of the way,” he wrote, using an acronym for middle-aged white guys, “great things can happen … Publisher Terri D. Sanders has opened a number of new revenue streams I couldn’t have imagined. Again, I’m the one learning.”

Heaston had not planned on becoming a journalist. He’d partied away a scholarship at a private university in Texas, tried “the ski bum thing” in Colorado and wound up at UNO, where he became director of student programming. 

He loved events, and Omaha’s alternative music scene in the early 1990s was on the rise with the seeds of what would become the Saddle Creek Records explosion. Bright Eyes. Cursive. The Faint. 

“There was, like, this cultural moment in Omaha where there was a lot of music that had no place to go,” Heaston said. “There was just no place for local bands to play back then.”

Heaston became familiar with smaller venues. When the audience grew, he tried booking the 1,400-capacity Sokol Hall for New Year’s Eve 1990 and was turned away. The reason? It was closing. 

He was told the building, dating to 1926, had fire hazards and needed over $1 million in repairs. Rumor had it a McDonald’s was going in.

Heaston couldn’t believe Omaha would lose such a landmark. He called a tip into the Omaha World-Herald.

In 1991, the newspaper ran a story proclaiming that the old Bohemian-built polka hall and gymnastics venue was “Czeching out.” It seemed like an obituary.

Heaston complained to anyone who would hear. 

Someone said, “You should do your own paper.” This was the seed. 

Heaston was aware of the alternative press (courtesy of a Grateful Dead show), and got help from a couple Creighton University student journalists. 

In 1992, he produced his first issue of a first alternative newspaper, Sound News and Arts. It was a nonprofit, volunteer-run collective that printed monthly.

Meanwhile, Heaston had gotten a second fire inspection at Sokol Hall, and it turned out the venue didn’t need expensive repairs. It stayed open and today operates as The Admiral.

Sound was successful, but the all-volunteer-staff started graduating from college and disappearing.

Several businessmen approached Heaston about keeping the effort going because they saw an advertising winner. Omaha, at the time, was among just two major U.S. cities without an alternative newspaper. 

John Heaston, longtime publisher of The Reader, speaks at an Earth Day event in Omaha. Provided by Lori Umstead

In 1993, Heaston wrapped his fall semester at UNO and dropped out of college, nine credits short of a finance degree with a black studies minor. 

In 1994, the group launched The Reader.

“At the time all of a sudden we were this print media that would reach the young people,” Heaston said. 

Ad sales were brisk. 

“We just took off,” he said. “As the music scene started taking off even more, the culture scene started taking off even more.”

For two years, Heaston worked overnights at a group home for developmentally delayed adults to pay the bills. He did the newspaper’s operation work during the days. By 1996, The Reader could stand alone as a weekly alternative newspaper. Heaston started taking a paycheck. 

The Reader began attracting trained, professional journalists who weren’t fitting into other legacy outlets. Heaston’s role was Swiss Army Knife: news reporter, editor, publisher, owner.

In 1999, one of Heaston’s business partners who had a majority stake in the company bought out Heaston’s shares. Heaston was out. 

He started a different alternative, the Omaha Weekly.

Then in 2002, Heaston bought back The Reader and merged it with the Omaha Weekly. 

At the time, according to a World-Herald report, The Reader was a 14-employee operation with a 25,000-paper Tuesday press run then handed out for free. The Omaha Weekly was a five-employee operation with a subscription and handout circulation of 16,000. It published on Wednesdays. 

“Such an era,” said local food writer Summer Miller, who worked there as a writer and editor in the early 2000s.

Miller, now a cookbook author, recalled how Heaston could mobilize a team around a cause and just start things, like the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards. (Correction: This article incorrectly identified the arts nonprofit that Heaston founded.)

“He’s an ideas person,” she said. “Even if he’s only executed on a small fraction of the millions of ideas he had and visions and dreams, they’ve all been placed to make Omaha better.”

Miller covered hard news beats for The Reader including cops, courts and the city. When she pitched a food column, Heaston went with it. Media consumption habits have changed considerably since then, she said.

Miller credited The Reader for lasting so long.

“That says something about our community and wanting that information and John’s grit and desire to provide (it) to people,” she said.

Heaston became more involved in publications that served minority communities. 

In 2004 he purchased El Perico from Marcos Mora, who had launched the Spanish-English publication in 1999 to serve Nebraska’s quickly growing Spanish-speaking population.

“It wasn’t like anybody got rich or anything,” said Mora, executive director of Cinco de Mayo Omaha. “His love for journalism, that’s what resonated with me. Keeping that alive. He’s very sincere in his love for that, getting different people to report and do stories.”

As print ad revenue began to dry up, he diversified funding, buying omahajobs.com, an online jobs board, in 2005 and developed a search engine optimization and marketing consulting business.

John Heaston dressed as the El Perico Parrot and his father Bill at the Cinco de Mayo parade. Provided by Lori Umstead

In recent years, Heaston took on leadership roles at the Association for Alternative Newsmedia, which he led during the pandemic. And he formed collaborations with the national Black and Hispanic press organizations. He was instrumental in helping secure Google News Initiative funding.

Casey Pallenik, news industry relations manager for the Google News Initiative, said Heaston stood out among other national news industry leaders for his creativity in collaborating across publication audiences and for his doggedness.

“He had no problem texting, any time of the day or night,” she said. “He has done everything he possibly can to advocate … and help others.”

Michelle Hassler, associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications, said Heaston epitomizes “what we should be doing” in being innovative and inclusive in journalism.

“Alternative media does have a lesser reach but it was a really important cog in the whole Omaha and even, I would say, Nebraska media (system),” she said. “It was working. He was trying new things, trying new journalism, and really making a mark.”

In 2020, Heaston’s father, Bill, died of cancer. The pandemic hit. Heaston himself, who had been feeling unwell, was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, which is a largely survivable cancer until, for him, it wasn’t. 

His medications quit working in 2021 and he developed a mutation that made his type of cancer aggressive and resistant. He documented this in The Reader, charting an arduous ordeal that at times meant 40 pills a day, weight loss, and having the precarious immune system of a newborn. The bone marrow transplant brought better health but he’s not out of the woods.

Through it all, Heaston remains buoyant despite stepping away from The Reader/El Perico to “future proof my life.” 

He’s bullish on the prospects for local news and alternative news. 

Yes, he said, a massive shift is underway in media production and consumption. He said legacy outlets are likely to keep shrinking. But this opens room to different forms of storytelling — by training journalists to serve as moderators and referees.

“Where journalism is going — the biggest stories of our life are broken with someone with a phone on the street,” he said. “Why can’t we help people tell their own stories? When we have a process to verify them, we can elevate them and make it a lot more useful for an audience, then we’ve got a pretty bright future.”

John Heaston is ending The Reader. But he is not out of ideas. 

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.

By Erin Grace

Erin Grace works in strategic communications. Prior to that, she was a metro columnist at the Omaha World-Herald, where she spent 21 years. She is a former Teach for America teacher and an Omaha native.

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