AAN Mourns the Passing of John Heaston, Former Board President

We at AAN are heartbroken to learn of the passing of John Heaston. He died on Friday, May 31, after a long battle with leukemia.

John is a former president of the AAN Board of Directors and was an active AAN member for many years as the publisher of The Reader, co-founded by John in Omaha, Neb., in 1994.

“John’s smiling face was a fixture at AAN events for decades,” said Jimmy Boegle, AAN’s current board president and publisher of the Coachella Valley Independent and Reno News & Review. “This is such a loss.”

One of John’s major focuses during his tenure on the AAN board was diversity and inclusion. He encouraged BIPOC leaders to join the board, developed partnerships with other media associations, and ensured that the organization became more welcoming.

John was instrumental in organizing the Fund for Equity in Local News, a partnership between AAN, the National Newspaper Publishers Association (the Black Press of America) and the National Association of Hispanic Publications, where he also served as a longtime board member. It was through his vision that the GNI Transformation Tech program, which he named, was born. The program impacts more than 200 publishers from all three associations with training and funding to help them increase their digital revenue, making these news organizations more sustainable in today’s marketplace.

“John could make you believe anything was possible, and he would constantly cheer-lead you to go for it,” said Todd Stauffer, executive director of AAN and lab director for Transformation Tech. “I might not be doing any of the work I’m doing right now—not for AAN, not at my company in Mississippi—if it wasn’t for John’s encouragement.”

His desire to see Black, Hispanic and alternative media work together bore fruit time and time again as the collaboration has spawned multiple revenue labs, a GNI Challenge Grant and programming funded by the Democracy Fund and others.

“John was a true visionary for our industry and our associations,” said Graham Jarrett, the publisher of the Orlando Weekly, who succeeded John as AAN’s board president; he now serves as the Alternative Newsweekly Foundation board president. “He had the gall to do what those before him not only couldn’t or wouldn’t. He dreamed bigger, and those dreams turned into realities we didn’t even know were possible. AAN, NAHP, NNPA, FELN and ANF would not be where they are today if it weren’t for the big thinking and very hard and recent work of John Heaston. His passing leaves a hole in the fabric of this industry. John Heaston, you mattered, my friend.”

John, who also owned and published El Perico, a Spanish-language newspaper in Omaha, and advocated for the Omaha Star, a Black-owned and led publication, believed strongly in the need for publications to add digital revenue streams to thrive.

Through his company, Pioneer Publishing (later New Plains Media), he offered expert services on search engine optimization, content marketing and digital discovery for local businesses—a revenue stream that allowed him to continue bringing the news to Omaha in English and Spanish. He encouraged others in the business to follow his lead.

“We lost one of the best to ever do it,” said Kimberly Griffin, the publisher of the Mississippi Free Press and AAN’s board treasurer. “Godspeed, my friend.”

John closed The Reader and El Perico in September 2023, in part to focus on his battle with leukemia. Earlier this year, John gifted The Reader and El Perico to Nebraska Public Media, which intends to maintain the publications’ archives and add content. “I’m pleased The Reader and El Perico will continue to make a positive impact on our community under the direction of Nebraska Public Media,” he said in the May 9, 2024, release.

Ben Heaston, John’s brother, told The Reader on Friday: “John was diagnosed with leukemia in 2020, shortly after our father passed away. John fought like a warrior for four years, but ultimately, his body couldn’t take it.”

The Reader had a 30-year, award-winning run, making a huge positive impact in Omaha, while John’s 53-year run on the planet made everyone who knew him better for it. We salute John for his perseverance, courage and positive attitude, even in the face of a debilitating illness. 

We miss him.

[photo: John Heaston at Knight Media Forum 2022 / credit: Todd Stauffer]