New Weekly Launches in Omaha

Draws talent from Omaha Weekly Reader

The new Omaha Pulp publishes its first edition Wednesday, a venture aiming to provide music and arts coverage initially with plans to expand to news in the future and to reach a business break-even point by August.

Publisher Al Johnson saw the opportunity for a second alternative newsweekly in Omaha when ownership of the Omaha Reader changed hands after the death of long-time owner Alan Baer. Johnson, a media sales veteran with 11 years experience selling Yellow Pages advertising and stints at the Omaha Reader and, a service of the Omaha World-Herald, says the idea of running his own weekly “was just sort of sitting there.”

Johnson brought on board Timothy Schaffert, former managing editor of the Reader, who left to work on his second novel after John Heaston bought the paper and merged it with his Omaha Weekly in December 2002. Then Johnson hired away from the Omaha Weekly Reader both Arts Editor Leslie Prisbell, author of the popular “Bar Hag” column, and Production Manager Justin Wolta. Now Schaffert and Prisbell are sharing editorial duties, while Johnson is acting as both publisher and sales manager.

Johnson and partner Bill Davidson, president and CEO of Continental Sprinkers in Omaha, each “kicked in some dough” to start the paper and jump-started the business with successful pre-sales of advertising.

Their business plan was based on Johnson’s experience with the Yellow Pages. He analyzed advertising in alt-weeklies in similar markets – Cityview in Des Moines, the Weekly Alibi in Albuquerque, The Pitch in Kansas City, and the Urban Tulsa Weekly – and identified 40 different Yellow Pages categories of advertisers that bought alt-weeklies regularly. Then he looked at the Omaha market and found 4,000 advertisers in those categories. He threw out half of those in his calculations, figuring at least that many would never advertise in a weekly, and then calculated that he could get 5 percent of the remaining 2,000 businesses.

The plan so far is proving solid with 17 paying advertisers in the first issue, 11 of whom are in for 13 weeks and two for 26 weeks, including an auto dealer that has bought the full-page, full-color back page for 26 weeks.

Johnson does not want to set the Pulp up as a competitor to the Weekly Reader. “There’s plenty of room for both of us,” he says.

Heaston says he welcomes the competition, which he says will enliven the Omaha media scene. “To me more voices is a great thing. It will keep us on our toes, ” he says. “The worst thing for me would be if they didn’t last a while.”

Heaston, one of the co-founders of the Omaha Reader who left in 1999 to found the rival Omaha Weekly, says he may have lost Prisbell and Wolta to the Pulp because he was focused too heavily on sales. “We had a lot of turnover in the sales staff and that’s kind of where my focus has been, so I may have kind of neglected editorial,” he says. In addition, he says some editorial differences emerged between him and his staff.

“Along the way it became very important to me to establish credibility,” he says. “I think with the staff at the Reader after I left the emphasis was more on the process and the words rather than back it up, back it up, back it up. It’s two different perspectives, and they felt that their perspective was really underserved.”

The first issue of Omaha Pulp has 24 pages, 500 distribution points, and a circulation of 8,000, with six pages of ads and 18 of editorial content. That is expected to increase to 40 pages and 20,000 circulation by August, Johnson says.

By comparison, Omaha Weekly Reader is now at 56-64 pages, 20,000 circulation and 650 distribution points, Heaston says.

Schaffert says the Pulp will be a “true alternative … steering away from mainstream and over-hyped stories.” The first issues will be slim, limited to reviews and news satire, but they are looking for a political columnist and when the resources are there, they plan to expand to news coverage. “But to do that right you need serious resources,” Schaffert says.

“There is an absolute niche for this kind of writing,” Johnson says. “It’s entertaining, irreverent; we may even take some cheap shots at local politicians.”