20 years: A difficult start 

By Will Higgins

I became familiar with the alternative press while in school in Madison, Wisconsin. That town's weekly, The Isthmus, was written with attitude, but also written well. It paid poorly but was known for throwing good parties. I got a job there, and learned more in bi-weekly meetings with its editor, the exacting and unsmiling Marc Eisen, than I did from five-day-a-week instruction from my professors at the University of Wisconsin, even though the UW's was said to be one of the best journalism schools in the nation.

After graduation, when I returned to Indianapolis to take a reporting job with Indianapolis Business Journal, I remember feeling culture shock. Madison, Wisconsin, was where people had maroon hair, and supported Jesse Jackson for president and listened to U2 and the Clash.

Indianapolis was Ronald Reagan and Bon Jovi. And stone-washed jeans.

Soon I was editing a staid monthly magazine called Indiana Business, and seeking a better life. I contacted a guy who was publishing a monthly freebie called The New Times. It was really just a calendar of events, but I thought it could be more, and so I went to work there as editor-in-chief. It was a bold title, almost a joke, really, since the operation consisted of me and two other guys. Our office was in a down-on-its-luck duplex on 33rd Street.

We became a cult hit.

For the December issue we put on the cover a photograph of a nativity scene but with GI Joes and other toys instead of the traditional creche players - a Hulk Hogan action figure stood in for a wise man; Gumby was Jesus. My phone rang, with praise and also outrage. A local television station said we were "edgy."

We mocked the daily newspapers as stodgy and out of touch. We mocked the politicians, and the business interests. I recall illustrating the interrelatedness of Indianapolis' big corporations by diagramming the stunning overlap among their boards of directors. The same dozen guys were running everything.

What we were trying to prove? It seems to me we were mostly trying to shock people, to shock Indianapolis. Juvenile, yes, but I don't apologize for it.

One time we got hold of the law school grades of Dan Quayle, the Republican vice presidential candidate. Quayle's intellect was under fire, and he was guarding his transcript closely. The size of the ensuing flap surprised me. Quayle scored C's, after all. Had he gotten A's, now that would have been news.

When I went to NUVO as its editor in the spring of 1990, I was struck by its professionalism. It felt corporate. The salesmen wore ties. The offices were Downtown in the American Building, and there was a room just for meetings, with a fireplace. There was a receptionist named Heather. Or was it Autumn?

But we were hemorrhaging money and so Kevin McKinney and I immediately had to pare the staff from 26 people down to 13. Those who stayed took pay cuts, big ones, and they lost not just their health insurance but their free parking, too. That's probably the least friendly thing I've ever done, but the situation was dire.

We were making headway selling advertising to the car dealers, but now that revenue source went away with shocking suddenness. In a show of unity that still astounds me, the dealers - all of them, together - pulled their ads, all of them. They said it was because we'd published a story that included the statement - not only unassailably true but widely known - that if you sell your car on your own, you get more money for it than if you trade it in at a dealership.

The episode remains a mystery.

The newspaper industry is in flux at the moment, and it's a stressful time for everyone in it, including me (I work for The Star). But it's nothing compared to the stress of the early NUVO days. I still cringe when I recall how circumstances at the office caused me to opt out of a family vacation my wife and I had planned for months, she and our two young children heading off for a week in a rented house in Wisconsin without me.

But slowly things started to turn around at NUVO. Our relocation from tony downtown digs to a shabby spot in Broad Ripple helped move us in a freer direction. Our financial straits brought us closer together (with exceptions). We picked up Jeff Napier to write about the local music scene and at his insistence called him "Flounder." We hired a mother hen of a bookkeeper named Polly, who as well as being a source of mirth was good with numbers. Our political columnist, Harrison Ullmann, was gaining traction with his chronicling of "the stupidest state legislature in the nation."

Each staffer had a paper route; we spent Wednesday mornings delivering NUVO to various retail locations. Leading this effort was a very dedicated, very short person named Tony, who was relentless in ferreting out new distribution points. Tony's fixation on Starvin' Marvin convenience stores was particularly manic.

A brand new industry came our way - the phone sex pioneers, with their 1-900 numbers, cheesy entrepreneurs who preyed on the lonely, the sex-starved. They needed a place to advertise.

We had a brief internal debate - very brief, actually - and took their money.

And we survived. Then we started to thrive. A sense of confidence came over us (with exceptions).

We would publish next week, and the next, and the next.

Now NUVO is a given, part of the cultural landscape, part of Wednesday.

I'm proud of my role in the struggle.

And what a struggle.

Will Higgins is a reporter with The Indianapolis Star, where he has won numerous journalism awards while covering a range of topics. Most recently he reported in depth from a large, makeshift homeless encampment that sprang up on the city's southeast side. In 2008 Higgins and photographer Robert Scheer traveled throughout Iraq to report on the conflict there.


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