Reader Reminiscences

The Way Back Story: A Tale of Survival


Pundits have predicted the death of newspapers for a century or so, but some keep defying the fore-casts, including The Reader you’re now reading. I’m not exactly a mass murderer, but I’ve killed a few weeklies myself. Or at least my columns ran in a few Omaha weeklies that didn’t survive. Not that all the papers that ran my words died. The Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil lives on, though it’s now part of the Omaha World-Herald’s corporate holdings. I wrote columns for a high school paper called the Echoes, and it still echoes (echo, echo). I even wrote columns for the University of Nebraska at Omaha Gateway and it soon celebrates its centennial. (For the record, its most famous column writer was a fellow named Dick Holland.)

But it’s one thing to survive when supported by strong institutions, and quite another for a newspaper to live inde-pendently for 20 years as an alternative to a monopoly daily. 

So pardon me if celebrating The Reader’s two-decade run reminds of the fallen, including many so short-lived as to make its endurance rather amazing. The Reader hasn’t once failed to publish since starting bi-monthly in February, 1994, moving to weekly in 1996 and now monthly in 2015.

If that doesn’t seem so remarkable, recall the silenced voices. Before radio emerged in the 1920s, Omahans found alternative voices in a handful of daily newspapers with different politics and different names: the World, the Herald, the Republican, the Bee and the News, among others in the city’s first half century.

As The Reader celebrates 20 years in the more motley media world of the city’s fourth half century, it has survived an even more fluid era of competition after those dailies began disappearing…until there was one. Long before television, cable and the internet quickened the spread of news, those dailies died.

First, in 1889, the World and Herald became the World-Herald, owned by Gilbert Hitchcock, a Democrat who became a U.S. Senator. Rosewater’s Republican died a year later, and two more became one as the Bee-News in the 1920s. When employees tried to keep it alive in the 1930s by buying it from William Randolph Hearst, the World-Herald paid him more, $750,000, to kill it.

So Omaha became, like so many other cities, a one-newspaper town. A daily monopoly. That left the neighborhood week-lies whose names changed from time to time: South Omaha, Benson, Dundee, North Omaha and West Omaha. Plus narrower voices, with one actually identifying itself as The True Voice (now the Catholic Voice). We had the Jewish Press, a labor press, the university weeklies the Creighto-nian and the Gateway, and more.

Until 1983, those neighborhood weeklies had survived as many as 88 years but by then were all known as the Sun Newspapers. They died after an anti-trust suit, dedicated to preserving a second editorial voice in Omaha, led to an out-of-court settlement with the defendant, the World-Herald. Gone was the weekly group that under the ownership of Warren Buffett had won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting and other national awards. 

The group had reported on racial discrimination in housing and other inequalities while the daily generally looked the other way. Even a column I shared with my prolific university colleague Bob Reilly couldn’t keep the Sun shining.

An Omaha that once had a flourishing foreign language press —German, Czech, Danish, Italian — and other alternative voices still had Mildred Brown’s Omaha Star serving the black population largely on the north side. And others popped up, lasting a few issues or a few years, but not two decades.

The Star brought more attention to the fight for civil rights, but didn’t fight hard and fast enough for more radical voices that briefly published as the United Front Against Fascism. The more established Down Here on the Ground was a monthly that featured a “Slumlord of the Month” while promising to “make people aware of problems” not presented in the World-Herald or even The Star.

Others, even more issue-oriented, were called underground, counter-culture or anti-war voices in the 1960s. The most mem-orable: the Buffalo Chip by artists Gloria and Tom Bartek and others, including Tim Andrew who would later be arrested on obscenity charges for distributing his *Asterisk publication.

Other audiences needed alternatives, it seemed, so former Sun and World-Herald journalist Bob Hoig provided the Omaha Mirror, then later the Metro Monthly which he sold to his daughter Andy for $1. Best known for his successful Midlands Business Journal, Hoig also started a paper, the Downtowner, for another neglected neighborhood, and staffer John Boyd left it to edit The Metropolitan weekly for publisher John Lee. It led the fight to save Jobbers’ Canyon downtown and lasted from mid to late ’80s. 

If anyone’s counting for kills, my columns appeared in the latter at times, but not when it folded. My media commentary was also carried on WOWT television as “Watching the Watchdogs,” a role also played by Mick Rood’s short-lived River City Review and Frances Mendenhall’s longer-lived WHAMO (World-Herald Attitude Monitoring Operation) which became The Nebraska Observer.

By 1990, a later arriving immigrant population would get a monthly voice when Ben Salazar started Nuestro Mundo, and a bit later by El Perico, founded by Carlos Alvarez, John Barrientos and Marcos Mora (ABM), and now The Reader’s sister publication. In 1992 some Creighton and UNO students would launch a publication that set the stage for the 20-year history of The Reader.

Father Don Doll’s Creighton journalism lab spawned a monthly called Sound News & Arts under the very capable hands of Creightonian staffers, a mix of artists, poets and musicians and UNO finance major John Heaston, eager to keep Sokol Auditorium open. At the same time Wahoo brothers Kevin and Mark Simonson were distributing The Great Red Shark and host-ing the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut in Lincoln. Throw in radio saleman and future dueling weekly pub-lisher Dan Beckmann (City Weekly, Shout) and you have the start of our story.


Category: Specials

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