Isthmus closes but memories remain

A writer for the weekly looks back, hopes for a return
Isthmus Cover
Madison's alternative weekly Isthmus stopped publishing after putting out this issue. Hopefully it won't be its last.

My earliest memory of Isthmus is as a college student hoping to be a journalist and reading a story by Marc Eisen about the 1978 Wisconsin governor’s race.

Eisen was writing often about the campaign for the Madison weekly newspaper. In the article I’m remembering he noted that Republican candidate Bob Kasten’s campaign was so out of touch it was having yard signs made for the general election on the day Lee Dreyfus trounced them in the primary.

Like some of the other stories I will mention here, I am pulling this from memory. The libraries are closed and so is Isthmus, consequently there is no way for me to check a story four decades old.

The shuttering of Isthmus hit me harder than I might have expected. Amid all the virus upheaval, it’s what I keep returning to on the long walks through the Arboretum that have replaced the gym.

The gyms will open again, but one can only hope the same for Isthmus. A Capital Times story a day after Isthmus’s own website announcement noted that its 20 employees had been furloughed and that post-virus the paper would hope “to adapt to whatever the future holds.”

Most ominously, an article from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard detailed how the virus is a perfect storm for the country’s alternative weeklies: no subscription revenue, no advertising, and even for those few flush enough to print, no place to distribute the papers. The article was headlined, “Total Annihilation.”

I first wrote for Isthmus in 1979, a year after I read Eisen’s Kasten piece. Eisen was an editor by then and handled the book review I did of Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song.” He sent me a nice note on publication and a check for $14, adding, “I mentioned you wouldn’t get rich writing for Isthmus.”

No one did, but it was fun — readership was taking off — and you could learn a lot. At the paper’s office in the Hotel Washington, I met Fred Milverstedt, who cofounded Isthmus with Vince O’Hern in 1976.

As a teenager I’d read and admired Milverstedt’s highly original sports columns in the Cap Times. It was clear he had read Jimmy Breslin, who was reinventing column writing in New York City. Fred’s presence helped Isthmus gain an early reputation as a writer’s paper.

It fell to O’Hern to keep the lights on, which he did but it was not always an easy task. Meanwhile, other publications came and went.

For years I believed that it was Madison jazz legend Ben Sidran who brought Milverstedt and O’Hern together, but Sidran told me recently that the two men probably met playing outdoor volleyball or at the old Fess Hotel bar.

Yet the day after they decided to launch Isthmus, Milverstedt and O’Hern did stop at Ben and Judy Sidran’s house to share the news.

One of them said, “We’re going to start a newspaper.”

“Great!” Judy Sidran said. “What are you going to write about?”

“The scene,” Milverstedt said.

Judy Sidran frowned. “What scene? There is no scene.”

“Well, we’ll have to create one,” Milverstedt said.

They sure did. Across four decades, the paper’s editors and writers included shining Wisconsin journalism names such as Bruce Murphy, Joanne Weintraub, Bill Lueders and Judy Davidoff. I’m leaving dozens out.

Though he retired as a fulltime editor in 2008, Eisen continued to write and has always been the first person I think of when I think of Isthmus. I’ve never had a better editor.

“I was always struck,” Eisen told me recently, “at how it was easier to teach a good writer to be a good reporter than to teach a good reporter to be a good writer. This was always the difference between Isthmus and the dailies.”

Eisen continued: “I increasingly saw reporting as the raw material of telling a good story. The story — with conflict, history, rhythm and a head-nodding conclusion — is what pulled the reader in.”

Eisen edited the best story I ever wrote for Isthmus, actually two stories, that ran on consecutive weeks.

In April 1984, I did a long piece reconstructing the rise and fall of Peter Bear, a Democratic state senator from Madison who abruptly resigned and disappeared in August 1980. He hadn’t been seen — or at least recognized — in Wisconsin since.

The story was titled “Bad Debts and Broken Hearts” and it caused a stir, but nothing like the stir a week later, when I was able to write a second story after Peter Bear called me (from his mother’s house in New York) to verify the gist of my story and talk about his downfall, which he blamed on cocaine. Someone in Madison had read him the entire first piece over the phone.

My second favorite Isthmus byline came just last year — 40 years after my first — when I profiled the estimable Madison journalist and author David Maraniss.

You didn’t get rich writing for Isthmus, but people read your stuff. The time the editors took with stories made you want to give them your best.

A few years ago my friend Jane Burns approached the paper with the idea for a short piece previewing the Wisconsin Book Festival appearance of Art Cullen, the small town Iowa editor who won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing and followed with a book called “Storm Lake.”

Isthmus arts and culture editor Catherine Capellaro sensed a bigger story.

“She pitched it back as a cover,” Jane told me.

Burns’ piece on Cullen won gold, the top award, for best personal profile in 2018 from the Milwaukee Press Club. (Lueders’ Isthmus profile of Tommy Thompson on the publication of the former governor’s autobiography won the bronze in the same category that year.)

Jane recalled getting the more ambitious assignment from Capellaro.

“I was shocked,” she said. “And a little hesitant because I didn’t want to work that hard. But boy, I’m glad I did.”

This is what we lose when we lose Isthmus.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.