Column 307: A Kind of Homecoming
Local boy Andy Norman launches hearnebraska.org
by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com
To understand the vision for HearNebraska.org — the new online music-directed website that is more than a website — you must understand its creator, Andy Norman.
HearNebraska.org launched Monday morning. I’m not going to go into great detail here about the site because you can discover its multitudes on your own simply by typing hearnebraska.org into your browser. I will tell you that its goal is to provide resources and a voice for bands, artists and members of Nebraska’s creative class — as well as the businesses that support them — in an effort to make the state a globally recognized cultural destination. I know that because I helped write the mission statement.
Full disclosure: I’m on the HearNebraska.org Board of Directors, so bally-hooing the site will seem somewhat self-congratulatory until you realize I get nothing from its success other than knowing that Andy and his lovely wife, Angie, are one step closer on their quest to acquire health insurance.
It didn’t have to be that way. Norman could be sitting in a fancy office on K St. in Washington, D.C., right now contemplating his next deadline had he followed his initial career path.
OK, let’s start at the beginning.
Shortly after graduating with a degree in journalism from University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2003, Norman headed to Omaha to work with former Omaha World-Herald columnist Jim Minge and a cadre of others (including The Reader‘s own Eric Stoakes) to create Omaha City-Weekly, an alt-weekly competitor to The Reader, in 2004. His tenure as managing editor at OCW was short-lived, as he ended up at The Reader in June 2005, where, among other things, Norman was my boss as the paper’s managing editor.
Three years’ worth of deadlines later, and Norman left The Reader in May 2008. “I was looking for a new challenge and didn’t want to work for any other paper or alt weekly,” he said. “I just wanted to go back to school.”
He found a program that offered a Master’s in Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. “Basically, they teach you how to find and produce environmental stories by taking dry science and making it compelling,” he said. Norman paid his tuition by working as a grad assistant and editor of MSU’s award-winning EJ Magazine. He went on to spend the summer of ’09 covering environmental legislation on Capital Hill for Congressional Quarterly.
It all sounds very impressive, doesn’t it? “I had picked environmental journalism because I was trying to position myself and my career,” Norman said. “I wanted to learn about new media; I wanted to know how to transition in a rough journalism climate that hadn’t even gotten rough yet. I thought I was ahead of the curve.”
But something funny happened on the way to picking up his future Pulitzers — the economy died, along with journalism. “The housing bubble busted and the economy went to shit and no was buying newspapers anymore,” Norman said. “It was all about sports and entertainment. Lifestyle reporting was safe. Environmental journalists and foreign correspondents were disposable.”
Norman hadn’t even graduated from MSU yet and he was already second-guessing a career in environmental journalism. Instead, he and Angie were having drinks in a dive bar in Lansing and the conversation turned as it always did, to Nebraska music.
“We talked about how no one in Michigan knew about Nebraska music, and if they did know something it was only about Saddle Creek Records,” Norman said. “The idea popped up to create a statewide website that increased Nebraska’s music presence nationally.”
He took the idea to his advisors at MSU, and hearnebraska.org became Norman’s master’s project — a project that had nothing to do with the environment. “My advisors were incredibly supportive,” Norman said. “They said if you can make a job out of this or if it helps you get a job, we’re in no position to stand in your way. There was this air that no one had a fucking clue what was happening in journalism or how to navigate the waters, so they were open to it, and I had a pretty good pitch.”
Among his biggest supporters were Cliff Lampe, one of the founders of nerd/geek tech site slashdot.org, and Jonathan Morgan, a reporter for the New York Times and the Detroit News, who was behind a neighborhood hyper-local online application.
So after receiving his master’s in May 2010, Norman began to piece together the non-profit hearnebraska.org from his new home, back in Lincoln. Despite the unmistakable death knell of print journalism, with his credentials Norman still could have landed a cushy reporting gig somewhere. Instead, he followed his more financially modest dream.
Why didn’t he go for the money grab? “It’s not what I want,” Norman said. “I want to live comfortably. It would be great to have health insurance, but I lived in D.C. for a summer and worked for one of the best political papers in the country and I saw the lifestyle and how fast everything moved and how much I would have had to focus on my career as opposed to my family and friends, and that’s not what I wanted. I didn’t want to chase those ambitions.
“I’m proud of Nebraska, and I realized in Michigan that I had become this huge cheerleader for the state. I want to help it grow. I’m a Nebraska guy. It just makes sense to be here.”
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Speaking of The Reader, there have been a ton of changes at the paper which you may or may not know about. The executive suite sees the departure of Sarah Wengert as Managing Editor. Sarah’s not leaving town, she’s just looking to try something new. You’ll be seeing her byline out and about in various publications, including The Reader. Her replacement is Sean Brennan, who you might recognize from the ol’ Omaha City-Weekly. But there’s also a bunch of new warm bodies that have been added to The Reader‘s torch pile, including news writer Lincolnite Hilary Stohs-Krause, a name you may recognize from the Starcityscene.com blog. And something I didn’t have room to mention in the above column — Andy Norman also continues to contribute to The Reader in a news capacity — you didn’t think he was paying his bills doing hearnebraska.org, did you?
And then there’s maybe the most earth-shaking change of all, a monumental shift that very likely will have a quantum impact on the Omaha music scene — Chris Aponick has been added to The Reader staff as its new music editor. I’m not sure what his actual title is, but Aponick is now responsible for assigning music coverage as well as writing the weekly “Backbeat” column.
In the driver’s seat for only a couple weeks and Chris already has snagged his first exclusive. In his column this week he reports that Digital Leather has signed a deal with Tic Tac Totally Records to release their upcoming album, Infinite Sun, sometime this summer. This is the album that was partially funded through a successful Kickstarter effort, so if you, like me, laid down some cash you’ll be getting your limited edition copy sometime soon. TTT is a Chicago label whose roster includes Bare Wires, Wavves, So Cow, Meercaz, and Omaha’s very own trash-punk deviants, The Shanks. Pssst… just between you and me, Digital Leather is one of my favorite local bands…
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Finally, the Playing With Fire concert series announced yesterday that Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings is the headliner for their July 16 concert at Lewis & Clark Landing. It’s a huge announcement that sends shockwaves through the local festival circuit. SJ&theD-Ks is one of those bands that cuts through multiple genres — blues, R&B, rock and yes, indie — as well as age groups. Everybody thinks they’re cool because they are. Huge. Red Sky very likely never even considered booking them, but SJ/D-Ks would have been a perfect get for the MAHA Music Festival. This ups the ante even further. Can MAHA top it?
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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2011 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.