against the Internet giants, the Hieggelkes of Chicago's Newcity
are building a gateway to alternative media on the web.
of crisscrossing the country to court collaborators, Brian J. Hieggelke,
AB'83, MBA'84, launched in June what he hopes will become a very
loud voice for the alternative media on the World Wide Web.
NewcityNet, Hieggelke, the president of Chicago-based New City Communications,
aims to give "young urban adults with a disposition toward iconoclastic,
independent, and creative ideas" a single point of entry to Web
sites designed with them in mind.
is known, in Web lingo, as a "portal." Microsoft, Excite, and Yahoo!
run some of the largest portals on the Web. Their pages provide
an entry point to Web sites on a multitude of topics, from autos
to health to sports. By contrast, the smaller portals-such as Femina,
which links to sites on women's issues-typically focus on one topic.
In this quickly consolidating virtual world, Hieggelke is building
a gateway to sites that serve a purpose on the Web akin to that,
in print, of free city weeklies, known for their hip, edgy take
on news and entertainment.
foray into electronic media-and onto the national media stage-follows
the 12th anniversary of his company's own flagship free weekly,
Newcity, a Chicago tabloid that has the U of C written all
over it. In February 1986, Hieggelke, along with his wife, Jan Muzzarelli
Hieggelke, AB'85, and his brother, Brent J. Hieggelke, AB'88, published
the first issue as a biweekly neighborhood newspaper, with former
Maroon chief Frank M. Luby, AB'85, serving as editor. Earlier this
year, the Hieggelkes celebrated the paper's first 12 years with
a 16-page expansion and a complete redesign.
has won nine Chicago journalism awards, New City Communications
has earned a national reputation for its entrepreneurship. In 1993,
it helped form the Alternative Weekly Network, which gives its 100
member papers the circulation and clout to attract national advertisers
like Levi Strauss. The network's sales have grown from a few hundred
thousand dollars to a projected $20 million in 1998. New City's
national sales division, which specializes in network deals, is
expected to account for nearly $5 million of the network's total
sales this year.
ago, national advertising didn't exist in this business," says Richard
Karpel, the executive director of the Washington-based Association
of Alternative Newsweeklies, an industry group representing 114
city papers. "The network has had triple-digit increases each year.
Brian and his people have been the biggest sellers of those ads."
are now watching Hieggelke's efforts on the Web. "It's a bold move
and it's hard to tell what will work," says Karpel. "A big part
of what alternative weeklies do is tell people how to spend their
leisure time, and a lot of companies are betting that people will
go to the Web for this information. We want to be positioned to
meet this challenge, and what Brian is doing could put us there."
Over the last
nine months, Hieggelke has visited potential Web affiliates in more
than 40 cities, logging 4,639 miles on the road and 24,359 miles
in the air. He's targeting city papers in the 100 largest markets
and Web sites that cater to the same audience. So far, he has signed
17 city weeklies-including St. Louis's Riverfront Times, New Orleans'
Gambit Weekly, and Portland, Oregon's Willamette Week-to provide
links to their Web sites from NewcityNet's home page, found at the
address http://www.newcitynet.com. In return, NewcityNet gives the
affiliates technical support and national advertising sales.
The idea, Hieggelke
says, is to do for alternative Web sites what CBS did for independent
radio stations. "CBS had a business model where it developed the
national strategy, while each station was left to develop its own
local strategy," he explains. "The financial awards were distributed
across the spectrum. We want to similarly build a brand name with
equity on the national level that the local affiliates can benefit
been racing to establish a Web presence for Newcity and other city
weeklies before some big names with deep pockets move too far into
the weeklies' arts-and-entertainment domain. Already, Microsoft
has been busy constructing Sidewalk, a smaller portal on its general
network home page with links to city entertainment guides created,
owned, and operated by Microsoft. America Online and Yahoo! also
run portals to localized entertainment listings. The corporate draw?
Ad dollars and an audience. Karpel estimates that alternative papers
last year earned $400 million-mostly in ad sales- and were picked
up by some 20 million people each week.
competition from the Internet giants, Hieggelke maintains that NewcityNet
meets a need. "If the Web is going to consolidate into portals,
then there should be a place that speaks to our audience," he says.
"Unlike everyone else, we are encouraging local control and targeting
a specific demographic niche as opposed to grabbing mainstream,
charge into alternative media contrasts with where he and Jan seemed
headed during their College days. The Joliet, Illinois, natives
met in a high-school English class, married in 1980, and had their
first of three children as second-years. Jan completed her economics
degree after taking a year off, while Hieggelke-a varsity football
player, Phi Gamma Delta brother, and economics concentrator who
entered the GSB as a fourth-year-took a job buying and selling securities
for Goldman Sachs.
In the fall
of 1985, Hieggelke, a self-described "media junkie," caught the
"entrepreneurial bug" and convinced Jan to help him start a paper
for their Printer's Row neighborhood (where they still live in a
Dearborn Street loft). His brother Brent, a second-year at the time,
came on board as the paper's main ad salesman, taking the Jeffrey
Express downtown every afternoon to put in 60-hour work weeks on
top of his studies. Hieggelke persuaded Luby, who edited the first
10 issues and is now a marketing consultant in Bonn, Germany, to
join over Edwardo's pizza.
"The U of
C is mostly responsible for what I'm doing now," says Hieggelke.
"When I went to the U of C, I was a classic suburban kid who did
very well in high school without lifting a finger. My creative side
got unlocked and I learned to write at the U of C, where a show
of Kandinsky watercolors sparked my interest in art and Joe Williams
beat the hell out of my writing and, thank god, gave me confidence."
Early on, Hieggelke squeezed in 6 a.m. editorial meetings before
the market opened, later also writing a media column. In the fall
of 1988, he decided to leave Goldman to work full time for the fledgling
media company. From the beginning, he has served as the "big-picture"
man, while Jan, as company vice president and copublisher of Newcity,
has acted as the "nuts-and-bolts," day-to-day business manager,
devising practical plans to implement Hieggelke's grand visions.
When he wanted to mark the paper's 10th anniversary with events
in 10 different venues on the same night, for example, she arranged
10 events over the course of the year. "Brian's tendency to think
big sometimes risks getting too far away from where the business
is in terms of staff and resources in the present," she says. Jan
also recalls the craziness of the paper's startup-carting a computer
back and forth from home to a nearby office, shuttling stacks of
the paper around town, all while they were raising a young family:
"Considering what we went through in the early years, I get great
satisfaction from what we have accomplished so far."
In 1990, the
Hieggelkes decided the paper would be more competitive for ad dollars
and more effective editorially if it came out weekly and covered
the whole city. "Our articles had already angered all the neighbors,"
laughs Hieggelke. But as a weekly, they found themselves going directly
up against the venerable Reader, Chicago's reigning free
weekly. "We tackled a gorilla," says Brent, who rejoined the family
business after a two-year hiatus working for investment bank Morgan
Stanley. His one-year plan to help with the expansion turned into
seven, along the way enlisting some circulation and invoicing help
from wife Kimberly Sutton Hieggelke, AB'88.
"It was a longer
project than any of us thought," says Brent, who is now marketing
director of ABC Technologies, a Portland, Oregon-based software
firm. "We underestimated the competitive environment. I couldn't
walk away and not feel guilty until it was making money."
has carved out its niche, notes Karpel, as the alternative paper
geared to Chicago's younger (20- and 30-something) hipsters. Hieggelke
wears his hair a good 2 inches longer than in his U of C days, and
the North Halsted office in River West that he shares with Jan (her
desk 6 feet from his) boasts exposed brick rather than wood paneling.
They plan to keep their multimillion-dollar company independent
for the foreseeable future-and to keep the bold moves coming.
Take the recent
redesign, which generated more letters to the editor than any other
issue. Disgruntled readers thought the new look-which features funky
sideways columns and bumping text separated by hairline rules-went
over the top. The noise prompted an article in the summer issue
of Design, published by the Society for News Design, which asked
if the changes spelled "great design or just a pain in the neck"
and reprinted 24 of the letters, including a note from the mother
of one of the paper's cartoonists who proclaimed the redesign "horrific."
such flak in stride, considering it a sign that Newcity is
pushing the right buttons. And, like a true U of C grad, he can
cite an appropriate source: Joseph Schumpeter's theory of "creative
destruction." He explains: "The vision for the paper is expressed
in its first word, 'new.' Without destroying something, you can't
make it better." With a new look for the paper, a new way to sell
ads, and a new portal on the Web, Hieggelke still believes that
going out on a limb is what makes work "fun and exciting."