February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Todd Lemke discovered the art of the deal as an eight-year-old growing up in Papillion. One day, his father, Raymond—who believed that allowances should be earned, not given—drove the family station wagon to the old Skaggs store and loaded up on dozens of discounted lightbulbs. When he got home, he got out a map of Papillion, divided it into three sectors (one for each of his children), and told his boys to fan out and sell the lightbulbs. Young Todd dutifully knocked on doors. The exchange with the homeowner would go something like this:

“Are you with the Boy Scouts?”

“No.”

“Are you with a church group?”

“No.”

“Well, who are you with?”

“Just myself.”

(Pause)

“Okay, show me what you have.”

More times than not, he sold a lightbulb.

In many ways, the bulbs shined a light on the path Lemke would take in the future. The youngster with a natural gift for sales became an adult with a knack for creative promotion. Just two years out of college, Lemke combined his skills and launched what would become Omaha Magazine.

Now celebrating its 30th year, Omaha Magazine remains at the top of its game, boasting 36,000 subscriptions—remarkable for a city this size. It’s sold at Barnes and Noble and other bookstores. Additionally, a copy of the publication can be found in every hotel room in the metropolitan area, reaching a half-million visitors to the Midlands per month.

Like many success stories, Omaha Magazine started humbly and underwent several transformations. Lemke, the owner and publisher, guided every stage.

“If you want to know what makes Omaha tick, then you have to know its people. And we do a better job talking about people than any other medium in town. It’s people, people, people, and then food. This town loves food.” – Todd Lemke, publisher

“I graduated from UNL in 1981 with a degree in journalism. I weighed my options and decided to sell homes,” Lemke deadpans, knowing his career choice came out of left field. He explains, “My mother and father sold real estate when I was growing up, and I got my real estate license in 1977 when I was still in high school.”

Lemke may have opted for sales, but he believed in the power of promotion. He advertised the custom-built homes in a weekly alternative newspaper called City Slicker and lured first-time homebuyers to view the models using a P.T. Barnum approach. Newlyweds Greg and Terese Bruns checked out Lemke’s block party one weekend.

“We went out there, and here is Todd dressed up in a clown suit,” says Bruns. “He had bands playing. He was handing out candy and balloons and pop. It was a carnival. And the next thing you know, we’re signing papers for a new house. That’s how we met.”

One day, the owners of City Slicker offered to sell the paper to Lemke. Flush with cash from his real estate deals, Lemke took them up on their offer. It was 1983.

“The first thing I did was turn City Slicker into a glossy, four-color magazine. I did that for three years,” says Lemke. But he discovered that the ad-buying community wanted a readership that was “past the party age.” So he literally dumped City Slicker one day and started another magazine the next day called Omaha Today, distributed free around town.

Seeking to stabilize his investment, Lemke went to a competitor who owned a monthly publication, Our City. It listed all the local shopping, eating, and entertainment hot spots. Lemke thought it would be a good merger “because he had a magazine that was in all the hotels.” The marriage went through in 1987. But there was still a missing piece to the puzzle.

“The name [Our City] didn’t do much for me,” says Bruns, who by this time was working with Lemke selling ads. “I mean, I’d call a business and say, ‘Hi, this is Greg Bruns from Our City,’ and they’d go, ‘Huh? Never heard of it.’ I said to Todd, ‘Why can’t we change this?’”

In 1989, Our City and Omaha Today became Omaha Magazine.

Magazines pulled from Omaha Publications' archives.

Magazines pulled from Omaha Publications’ archives.

“The name carried so much more meaning with people,” says Bruns, who soon became the vice president and Lemke’s business partner. “People became more willing to talk with me.”

As the ads increased, so did the content of the magazine. In addition to a thorough restaurant and entertainment guide, Omaha Magazine upped its profiles of people who make this community work.

“Over the course of 30 years, we have done thousands and thousands of great, positive people stories,” Lemke points out with pride. “If you want to know what makes Omaha tick, then you have to know its people. And we do a better job talking about people than any other medium in town. It’s people, people, people, and then food. This town loves food.”

The look of the magazine also sets it apart: thick, glossy, and beautifully photographed. An innovation that really put Omaha Magazine on the map is its annual “Best of Omaha™” edition.

“We started that in 1992,” says Bruns. “It’s absolutely huge and gets bigger every year.”

Lemke, an optimist by nature, says he wakes up every morning with ideas that he can’t wait to bounce off his editors, photographer, graphic designers, and sales staff. His business sense, however, has kept the ship afloat. He expanded his publishing business to include B2B Omaha, a business quarterly; The Encounter, a magazine focusesd on downtown; HerLiving, with articles devoted to women; Family Spectrum, featuring helpful stories on kids, education, and family; and the Old Market Directory, a guide to business and events in the historic district. Equally important, Lemke doesn’t shy away from innovation.

“Print publications have to embrace social media and the internet,” he says. “You can read all our magazines online, and we link everything.”

Lemke never forgets the lessons from long ago, when he sold lightbulbs door-to-door. He learned to look a customer in the eye. He learned to listen to what they had to say. For 30 years now, he’s been listening to what Omaha wants and needs—and chronicling it.

“I’m fortunate. I picked an occupation that I can do for a long time.”

Happy anniversary.