Looking back on his 30-plus years in publishing, John Heaston readily admits that he had no early ambitions to be in the media business, or as he put it, “It never crossed my mind.” After studying finance in college, he relocated to Omaha in the 1990s. As a military brat, he had previously lived in Omaha during high school. He thought his stint here would be temporary.
“I wanted to go work for World Bank. I was ready to move to Connecticut and then go to school at Fairfield University, where I’d been accepted,” Heaston said. “I was making all these plans.”
He wasn’t idle in Omaha, however. The music lover and a group of fellow University of Nebraska Omaha students had been renting venues and hosting performances by area bands when they decided they should go a little bigger with a New Year’s Eve show at Sokol Auditorium in South Omaha.
“The other halls held maybe 300, 500 people,” he said, adding that the Sokol, now named The Admiral, could hold several times that capacity.
Heaston was stunned to discover that closure was imminent for the historic venue, which was built in 1926. A fire inspection had elicited an estimate of around $1.4 million for repairs and upgrades for which funding was unattainable. Word on the street was that the building would be razed and a fast-food restaurant would be built at the site.
“My family comes from that neighborhood. And so, for some reason, I felt some ownership here, even though I really didn’t grow up in Omaha,” he said.
Heaston’s efforts to find preservation funding were unsuccessful, but he persisted in finding a solution, involving several friends, pitching coverage to the Omaha World-Herald and appealing to city authorities. Ultimately, a new inspection took standards for historic buildings into consideration.
“It ended up costing $1,800,” Heaston said.
Helping save the Sokol also sparked Heaston’s interest in journalism. He began connecting with other college students and other young locals interested in creating a publication focusing on the music scene around Omaha as well as the community’s arts and culture. In 1992, the first monthly issue of Sound News & Arts was printed.
“So, I just caught the bug. You know, I really enjoyed it, and I thought it mattered,” he said. “At the time, it was so much about culture and kind of alternative culture that had no place in the usual media outlets.”
A group of Creighton University student journalists helped produce the first editions.
“We did them in the Creighton journalism lab at night. We would hide when security came by,” he said. “We had Father [Donald] Doll’s permission, though … so we thought we were semi-okay.” (Doll, a prominent photographer, was a journalism professor at the university at the time).
In the early 1990s, Omaha and El Paso were the only top-100 media markets without an alternative news publication, Heaston said, after the Omaha Sun ceased publication in 1983. Heaston was encouraged to continue his fledgling publishing endeavors by several fortunate connections including Bob Encell, former assistant publisher of the Omaha Sun, whose son Jay was a friend of Heaston’s; and Bob Guthrie, a former Omaha Sun staffer whose son Ken (later to work on design for The Reader) was also friends with Heaston.
The community was not only ready for an alternative news weekly, but advertisers were also taking notice as the local arts and culture scene began taking off.
“There was never a grand plan. It was just kind of an idea,” Heaston said. “The reception and support it got is what made everything else happen.”
In 1994, The Reader was launched as a tabloid alternative news weekly with a focus on arts and culture, distributed free throughout the city and soon supported by a solid cohort of advertisers. Heaston had enough faith in the publication to quit his night job two years later. Over time, The Reader published tens of thousands of articles, reaching an estimated peak audience of 100,000-plus through various channels. It received numerous AAN (Association of Alternative Newsmedia) awards and Great Plains Journalism Awards, and outlasted multiple competitors. The business operated out of a founder’s apartment and an old train car adjacent to a brewery before moving in later years to more traditional office spaces in Dundee and South Omaha.
Heaston and Dan Beckmann were among The Reader’s handful of founders, but the others departed for other careers within a few years. Beckmann and Heaston had different visions for the publication. In late 1999, Beckmann bought out ownership from Heaston, selling controlling interest a few months later to Alan Baer of the Brandeis family, who was in his late 70s at the time. Baer took up the position of publisher in May 2000. By then, Heaston was publishing the Omaha Weekly, a new alternative newsweekly printed in broadsheet format and folded for direct mail distribution.
“The late Kyle Tonniges (a former contributor) called it ‘The Origami,’” Heaston said.
After Baer’s November 2002 death, Heaston had the opportunity to buy back The Reader and assume ownership of The Reader’s parent company, Pioneer Publishing. He merged The Reader and the Omaha Weekly to introduce the Omaha Weekly Reader. That same year, as the internet was rising, he began TheReader.com. By 2004, Heaston’s print publication was back to being titled simply The Reader.
“The Reader was a bigger brand and had been around longer,” Heaston said. “So, we retired that extended name.”
The early 2000s were also a period of growth and evolution for Pioneer Publishing in the wake of the changing media landscape and increased prominence of the digital realm. Heaston was also looking to diversify. By 2010, the company included El Perico, a bilingual Spanish/English publication for the Latino market; omahajobs.com, an internet-based jobs site; and PioneerMedia.Me, offering digital marketing and media consulting. In the first decade of the new millennium, Heaston also co-founded the Omaha Entertainment & Arts Awards to recognize and celebrate the local scene and joined the board of the Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center associated with the Omaha Star.
In 2019, Heaston began serving a three-year term as board president of AAN after previously holding other leadership positions. His tenure unfortunately coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, a particularly challenging period for the alternative press, but his accomplishments included spearheading collaborations with national Black and Hispanic press organizations. In 2021 and early 2022, Heaston served as board treasurer for NAHP (National Association of Hispanic Publications).
In 2015, The Reader went from weekly to monthly distribution and expanded its online presence. In 2020, it changed from a tabloid format to an 8-by-10. In May 2023, Heaston announced that The Reader and El Perico, which had combined a few years earlier, would cease publication in September. A farewell party took place in December, fittingly, at The Admiral — the original inspiration which inspired the whole enterprise.
“I’m really proud of a long list of stories,” Heaston said. “In the grand scheme of things, I’m probably most proud to see where our alumni have gone and what they’ve done. I’ve heard from more than a few that we gave them a place to start when there weren’t many places around, particularly in journalism or design or in business … I really get a kick out of that.”
Heaston said one of his biggest professional accomplishments was to find a sustainable revenue model. At the same time, he said, he failed to fully “future-proof” the business. Like the career he stumbled into, the end of The Reader did not come about the way Heaston had envisioned.
“Because I love what I do, I wanted to keep doing it forever … I figured they’d bury me with my fingers on the keyboard. I never considered retiring, never thought about not publishing,” he said. “It just all kind of came up … It was an extremely difficult decision, but it’s the right one for what I can do.”
What came up was cancer: Heaston was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia in 2020. In his typical forthright manner, he blogged about the experience and his 2022 bone marrow/stem cell transplant in a blog called “Lick My Leukemia” (thereader.com/lick-my-leukemia). His treatment is ongoing.
“I’m not in remission, so there are more treatments in my future, and they’re going to have a bigger impact on me … Because of the fundamental nature of cancer, I’m kind of living with this two- to three-year timeline, right? If things really went down, that’s probably the best that we could be,” he said. “I thought I had seven to 10 years to totally future-proof [the business]. I guess the biggest role that I have in this whole thing is making it rain, making sure we’re bringing in the money, and I’m pretty decent at it; I’ve been doing it for a long time. So, to find somebody that could do it as well as I was doing it … it was going to take years to kind of reconfigure that team.”
PioneerMedia.Me continues. So does Heaston’s advocacy work, which began with Reader coverage of systemic inequities and other social issues and his later involvement with El Perico and the Omaha Star locally and AAN and NAHP at the national level.
“There’s a bigger conversation happening nationally about funding local media and the future of local media. Fortunately, I’ve got a seat at that table,” he said. “I think it’s really important that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past, that we are innovative and we serve the communities that are fastest-growing and historically underserved in traditional media or historically excluded in traditional media. And along the way, [I am] doing what I can to kind of help this emerging new media ecosystem going on.”
He added, “I have to get through this next stage of treatment. And then I would expect that I’m still going to try being engaged in local media issues and how local media also intersects with an agency consulting business. I think that’s one of the biggest contributions I can make to the industry, is to help others find the type of revenue streams that are very sustainable, very measurable, and really insulates local media against the vagaries of advertising and the challenges of membership,” he said. “There are communities that can’t afford membership and those are the communities we really need to get news to the most.”
Heaston said that, looking back, one thing that rises up is his appreciation for the opportunity he had to help shepherd a “creative and cultural explosion.”
“It’s a real honor to be able to work with people who love what they do,” he said. “I know I’m dealing with cancer, but I still feel like I’m one of the luckiest guys.”
1992 Sound News & Arts, a monthly nonprofit publication focusing on local arts and culture, is launched by a group of college students including John Heaston. Heaston’s inspiration for publishing began with his investigation of rumors that the historic music venue Sokol Auditorium was closing and his subsequent efforts to find a way to keep it open.
1994 The Reader, a free alternative newsweekly distributed locally, is co-founded by Heaston, Dan Beckmann and others.
1999 Beckmann buys out Heaston for ownership of The Reader in November.
2000 Beckmann sells controlling interest in March to 77-year-old Alan Baer, who becomes the new publisher in May.
2000 Heaston begins publishing the Omaha Weekly, a new alternative newsweekly with direct mail distribution, in March.
2002 After Baer’s November death, Heaston buys back The Reader, assuming ownership of Pioneer Publishing, and merges The Reader with the Omaha Weekly to create a new publication called the Omaha Weekly Reader.
TheReader.com is established.
2004 The Omaha Weekly Reader is reestablished as The Reader.
Heaston purchases ABM Enterprises/El Perico from Marcos Mora, who started the bilingual publication for the Latino market in 1999.
Heaston co-founds the Omaha Entertainment & Arts Awards, also serving as an executive officer and board member over the years.
2005 Omahajobs.com, an online employment site, is purchased by Heaston.
2007 Heaston is invited to join the Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center Inc. board by Omaha Star publisher Dr. Marguerita Washington. He serves as vice president 2009-2010/ 2018-2019 and president 2011-2012, and helps the Omaha Star become a nonprofit in 2019.
2008 PioneerMedia.Me, a digital marketing and media consulting service, is established by Heaston.
2015 The Reader changes from weekly to monthly distribution and augments online content.
2019 Heaston begins serving a three-year term as board president of AAN (Association of Alternative Newsmedia) after previously holding other leadership positions.
2020 The Reader changes from tabloid to 8” x 10” format.
Heaston is diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia. He blogs about the experience and his 2022 bone marrow stem cell transplant in a blog called “Lick My Leukemia” (thereader.com/lick-my-leukemia).
2021 Heaston serves as board treasurer for NAHP (National Association of Hispanic Publications).
2022 The Reader is named as one of “10 news publishers who do it right” by Editor & Publisher Magazine.
2023 Heaston announces that The Reader and El Perico will cease publication in May, with their final issues published in September. A December farewell party is hosted at the former Sokol Auditorium (now The Admiral).