Using buckets and a wet/dry vac to remove ankle deep rainwater out of the basement of The Reader’s South Omaha location with then-news editor and cartoonist Neal Obermeyer, my last day as TR’s managing editor was highlighted by the same kind of charm that I’d both become accustomed to, and had genuinely come to appreciate. To keep an alternative newspaper afloat, after all, sometimes you have to bail some water. Cursing the city’s wastewater infrastructure decisions and clomping barefoot up the stairs to toss a gallon or three into the alley, and repeat, I suspected I’d never have a job quite like it. I was right, of course. But I didn’t fully understand then how significant the skills, lessons and experiences I’d gained working there would positively impact my life.
Those gifts started right away, in another basement. I’d made it rain by securing a “signing bonus” — a new Fender Jazz Bass — from head honcho John Heaston to come over from the now-defunct Omaha City Weekly. So of course I was in high spirits as I spent my first day at The Reader navigating its labyrinthine basement maze in Dundee that had formerly housed Nebraska’s longest-running grocery store (owned by Warren’s grandfather, Ernest Buffett). I was meeting people, sure, including Editor-in-Chief Summer Miller, Listings Editor Kevin Coffey, Doer-of-Everything Rita Staley, Salesman Marv Pratt and designers Jared Cvetas, Ethan Bondelid and Eric Stoakes (with whom I’d worked at the OCW). I was also avoiding my office, wherein a support beam that helped keep Buffett’s building erect since the grocery store opened in 1869 separated the door and my new desk. More subtle than a dead rat in a corpse snitch’s mouth, the message was clear: “This isn’t about you. Do the work.” Eventually, I had to do just that.
With his encyclopedic knowledge of seemingly every government, community and administrative figure worth knowing in Omaha, as well as his passion for exposing underreported stories affecting underrepresented populations, Heaston has a knack for lighting a fire under a reporter’s ass.
He put me on a first-name basis with the most important people in government — the secretaries and aids. He taught me how to do the labor required to dig up good stories: searching through stacks of criminal case records; poring through documents; and being productive while sitting through the most boring city council meetings. And he taught me that the only way you get better at writing is to do it every day.
I began covering stories that I still believe really matter, from the city’s unlawful lack of an independent police auditor and its detriment to police-community relations, to the full story behind the COINTELPRO-related imprisonment of Mondo We Langa and Edward Poindexter. I interviewed politicians and musicians and artists and homeless people. I learned Omaha, quickly. It was fun. It was challenging. It sucked. It was weird. It was scary. A few notable moments include: being propositioned for oral sex (no, thanks, though) by a would be source; skinny dipping in Lake Michigan; and receiving a phone call from a pissed-off publisher minutes before the paper went to print, regarding our visual depiction of the crucifixion of Christ in a story involving Focus on the Family and the headline, “Can Jesus Make Me Straight?”
I wouldn’t trade my time at The Reader for anything. There’s no chance I’d be doing what I’m doing now if it weren’t for The Reader, and the experience it helped me gain. I also wouldn’t have met or gotten to work with many of my favorite people, including the late Ed Howard, Rita Staley, Tim McMahan, Tessa Jeffers, Sarah Baker, Lindsey Baker, Casey Logan, Sean McCarthy, Sara Wengert, Jeremy Schnitker, Kerry Olson, Ryan Syrek, Jesse Stanek, Chris Aponick, Jon Tvrdik, Nicole LeClerc, Paula Restrepo, Carrie Kentch and many more.
Online or off, weekly or monthly, I hope The Reader continues its important work for another 20 years, it serves a truly important community need, and there’s no publication like it in town, or in the state. I hope that it continues to frequently be all-hands-on-deck, because that’s the fastest way to build strong, loyal, dependable teams. And I hope that it continues to give young writers a chance to get their feet wet.