An editor fights for local journalism

The tough decision to shutter Isthmus sparked a rallying cry to save the alt-weekly.
Judith Davidoff in front of a red background
Photo by Carolyn Fath

By Judith Davidoff

Isthmus announced it would go dark on March 19 due to COVID-19. Advertising and event revenue had dried up in an instant as entertainment venues and restaurants closed. Our owners decided it made more sense to shut down immediately than take on debt. Our staff was furloughed on March 25.

It was a gut punch on many levels, personal and professional. But on a larger scale, we were facing the possibility of the end of Isthmus, a 44-year-old weekly print publication and online outlet that is part of the rhythm of life in Madison. I can’t count how many people have said, in the aftermath of the news, that Madison would not be Madison without Isthmus.

As co-owners Jeff Haupt and Craig Bartlett strategized on a financial future, our editorial crew never truly stepped down, continuing — with no pay — to keep our comprehensive calendar updated and posting stories to isthmus.com on local news and politics, art exhibits, music releases, restaurants and COVID-19. Dave Cieslewicz soldiered on with his popular Citizen Dave blog, and our social media director kept our platforms active. It just seemed incomprehensible to check out at a time of community crisis. And Isthmus is too special a publication to let go without a fight.

When I joined the paper in 1994, I felt so grateful — and somewhat incredulous — that I had landed a paying gig at what seemed the perfect place for me. I never pined to be a daily news reporter, but I had the writing itch. I wanted to dig in to issues and give voice to the less powerful. I loved good writing, design and art. Isthmus checked all the boxes.

Founded in 1976 by Vince O’Hern and Fred Milverstedt, Isthmus has always provided its writers and editors with a great deal of creative freedom — it’s one of the most attractive parts of working for the publication and what sets it apart from other media outlets, where reporters are usually assigned to specific beats. Though I came on board as the features editor, I was free to pursue stories in any section. I wrote about literary happenings and food and restaurant news. In one of my favorite cover stories, I profiled a Mary Kay Cosmetics superstar saleswoman. At the same time I was able to cover government and politics and delve deeply into state public policy, including Wisconsin’s nationally famous — or infamous, depending on how you look at it — record on welfare reform.

Many of us found our way to the publication as freelancers, who are key to Isthmus’ ability to offer broad and deep coverage of the arts, news, music and food scene. I submitted my first story while still in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Bill Lueders, the news editor at the time, accepted the piece, became a mentor and remains one of my go-to editors to this day. So does Dean Robbins, who was the paper’s longtime arts editor before becoming editor in 2009. They both taught me the art of long-form writing while emphasizing the importance of finding the human element in a story.

When I became the features editor, it was my turn to nurture new writers and seek out fresh talent. It’s something I continued to do when I returned to the publication as news editor in 2011, before becoming editor in 2014. When we announced our shutdown, I was struck by the number of contributors — past and present — who shared that they had found their voice while writing for Isthmus.

We have never tried to be the “paper of record,” looking instead for the stories that others aren’t covering. That provides a wide welcome mat to writers — both veteran and aspiring ones — to see our pages as a place where they can focus on what they are passionate about and see as important to their community. Readers, in turn, get hyper-local coverage from people who share their interests and introduce them to new ones.

As we navigate a future, please continue to read us on isthmus.com and sign up for our newsletters. You can also continue to find us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

In early April we launched a reader donation program to raise funds that will directly fund our editorial content. And, with funds from the Paycheck Protection Program, we have hired back a limited staff. We remain committed to finding a permanent way forward. Stay tuned.

Judith Davidoff is editor of Isthmus.

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