Staff laid off during closure.
Nearly a decade after a University of Iowa graduate student launched Icon as a school project, the alternative weekly has closed its doors and laid off its staff while the owners seek a buyer.
Craig Hitchcock, chairman of Yesse! Communications, which owns 80 percent of the 14,000-circulation Iowa City paper, admits that the publication’s future is uncertain, although he said he is negotiating with a local couple with a publishing background. Yesse! bought Icon in 1998 from its founders but, Hitchcock said, the paper hasn’t grown as quickly as the company’s four other alt-weeklies, which include AAN members Bloomington Independent, Illinois Times and Impact Weekly.
“We decided at this juncture, we’ve gone as far with Icon as we think is prudent,” Hitchcock said in a recent phone interview. “It just hasn’t rounded the corners as fast as we had hoped.”
All but one of the paper’s nine full-time staffers were laid off after the last issue was published Jan. 25. The receptionist continues to take telephone calls, but said her last day is Feb. 9 unless investors are found.
Michelle Rubin began working for Icon four months after it was founded in 1993 by Aaron Wolfe as a University of Iowa j-school master’s project. Now associate editor at Kansas City-based AAN paper PitchWeekly, Rubin said Icon’s coverage of the local arts scene filled a void that was ignored by the local dailies. She left the paper in 1998 shortly after it was sold to Yesse!.
“I think it’s pretty sad,” Rubin said. “I don’t know many people who still work there [but] … I feel pretty bad for them.”
During her tenure at Icon, Rubin saw the weekly expand into nearby Cedar Rapids. Because she helped build the paper, Rubin said watching Icon close has been exceptionally difficult.
“It grew pretty well for five years,” Rubin said. “I wouldn’t say we were making money, but it wasn’t bleeding… If Icon is no more, I hope somebody will step up and [start an alternative paper] because I think Iowa City deserves it.”
Wolfe still owns 20 percent of Icon but said he has little personally invested in the paper since resigning as editor and publisher in 1999 to pursue a career as a chef.
“I had been working 60-80 hours a week,” Wolfe said. “It was taking a physical and emotional toll on me and I wasn’t a very happy person. … I started to think that I wasn’t the right person to take [the paper to] the next level in sales.”
Wolfe remains hopeful that a buyer will be found, but he said he is now primarily focused on his new career.
“I’m going to miss [Icon] as a reader,” he said. “The community doesn’t have anything like it.”