Homegrown Good Life

Andy Norman launches HearNebraska.org

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 the address 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 the 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 says. "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 says. 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 says. "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 one was buying newspapers anymore," Norman says. "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 says. "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 says. "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 f***ing 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 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 says. "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."

posted at 05:04 pm
on Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

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