Twenty-five years is a long time to do anything, let alone publish a newspaper.
When people ask me what I know about John Heaston — the publisher of this here rag you hold in your hands, a publication that’s celebrating its 25th year — the first thing that comes to mind is his tenaciousness. The next is that he has a good heart. Always has. He’s always done what he does — and does so well — for the right reasons.
As long as I’ve known him, John’s never compromised his integrity, especially when it comes to The Reader. He does this because, god help him, he believes in it. More than anyone I’ve ever met at any news organization — whether it was a reporter at the Omaha World-Herald or the Washington correspondent for U.S. News & World Report — Heaston believes in the power and necessity of the free press.
I say this as the recipient of that belief. John’s always stood by my words, even when it cost the paper readers. Let’s face it, for every one of you reading my words because you’ve grown to appreciate my opinion, there’s someone else who’s wadded up a copy of The Reader and tossed it in the round file.
John has always realized that what differentiates his paper from the rest of the pack of Omaha publications is that his writers are free to voice their opinions without fear of recrimination and certainly without consideration of the advertisers.
Let me give you one example. In the summer of 2014, I wrote a column about Horsemen’s Park, the racetrack off 72nd and Q that had just begun to host horse races one weekend a year as part of meeting a state legal requirement concerning pari-mutuel betting establishments.
I love horse racing. In fact, I spent too many summer days in my youth playing Frisbee in the Aksarben infield between races, gambling on $2 “sure things” with my college pals. So, when Horsemen’s Park opened, I jumped at the chance to write about it. The column was a “slice-of-life” sort of thing, in which I described the folks enjoying a day at the races. An excerpt:
There were kids everywhere — since when is going to the track a family affair? Children ran around on the hot white rock, slapping each other with rolled-up racing programs and running absentmindedly into angry beer-soaked strangers. There’s nothing like seeing a young, goateed father in Nascar gear bully his way to a betting window with a stroller, cigarette in the one hand, telling his five year old to “Find your mother. I’m out of money. Go!“
There was more. Lot’s more. Heaston knew when he read the column it wouldn’t exactly thrill the folks who ran Horsemen’s Park, who were trying to make a go of it in a community that has its share of anti-gambling fanatics. John could have asked me to rewrite it. Hell, he could have held it altogether. But he ran it anyway. And sure enough, after the paper hit the racks, the track pulled its advertising.
Heaston could have flipped out. Instead, I found out what happened weeks later, in a sort of a matter-of-fact way. It very likely wasn’t the first time John had apologized for something I had written, nor was it the last. I’ve been writing for The Reader since around 1997 and writing this column in one form or another since December 2004. I’ve put down a million words for The Reader, and Heaston has never once told me to change one of them.
Think about what it takes to continue publishing a printed newspaper in this time we live in. Every day we hear a story about another publication that’s either folded or “gone digital.” Blame it on technology. People want the immediacy of news found online. By its very nature, news in printed form is obsolete the moment the ink dries. In this hyper-aware, social-media-driven time we live in, print is not about timeliness; print is about providing a point of view you’re not going to find anywhere else — another take, after the fact.
That’s what good alternative newspapers do — provide another point of view, often published in communities dominated by a single point of view that’s been delivered for decades to the doorsteps of its readers. As long as I’ve known him, Heaston has never vilified the Omaha World-Herald. He’s always viewed The Reader as a necessary counter to that paper’s mostly conservative diatribe.
Someone has to tell the stories that no one else is telling. That’s been John’s motivation for as long as I’ve known him. And despite the economic downturn of the printed medium, he’s kept it going. For 25 years. That’s the tenaciousness I was telling you about earlier. The fact that he’s done it with compassion, with courage and always for all the right reasons, well, that’s the good-hearted part.
Here’s to the next 25 years.
Over The Edge is a monthly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org