Madison Commons deserves more attention

Online community news source needs funding
Madison Commons deserves more attention
Neil Heinen

The great poet William Carlos Williams wrote, “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” I would argue that these days we are increasingly likely to get the news from poems as we are to get it from a newspaper, radio or a television broadcast.

Although I truly believe poetry is a vastly under-appreciated source of information in our lives today, the point of this argument has to do with the more conventional sources, their gradual disappearance and what sources will replace them. It’s hard to do this without sounding self-serving, but I know for a fact that the company I work for, Television Wisconsin, Inc., is working hard to serve viewers and readers of WISC-TV, and Madison Magazine with high-quality, high-value news and information. But none of us in the news biz has returned to the glory days of beat reporters, regular long-form journalism and, most importantly, consistent coverage of local news. Like a lot of people, I was stung by the most recent staff reductions at the Wisconsin State Journal and the Capital Times. And though I shouldn’t have been, I was surprised because I thought I’d seen indication of some stability in the newspaper industry. This latest blood-letting really worries me.

Three years ago, I introduced readers of this column to the Madison Commons. I need to re-introduce you. Because you need the Madison Commons. And the Madison Commons needs you. The Commons was founded a decade ago by one of the University of Wisconsin’s “star” faculty, School of Journalism and sociology professor Lew Friedland. I can’t think of a better example of the Wisconsin Idea, but best not to get me started on that. Ten years is a long time for a project that still hasn’t grown roots as deeply as it needs. It says something significant that it is still around. Never underestimate still around, especially in the news business. Or university business for that matter. Anyway, Lew and a growing list of graduate students, undergraduates and community supporters keep slogging away, turning out really good stories on education (especially efforts to close the achievement gap), food (especially urban agriculture and sustainable food systems), the environment (especially twenty-first-century, multi-model transportation issues) and city life. Stuff that, frankly, is not being covered, in depth and in total, nearly enough by other media.

We’ve all gotten pretty used to, indeed dependent on, multiple sources for our news and information needs. Many of us listen to the radio on the way to work, read the paper when we get there, visit, the Huffington Post and ESPN online, watch the six o’clock news when we get home and relax with Madison Magazine. And we still would have missed stories on intergenerational housing communities, affordable solar panels, efforts to fill local food pantries with local produce and an innovative outdoor classroom project, all happening in our community, all reported first by the Madison Commons.

The Madison Commons has great partners like Community Shares of Wisconsin and the Morgridge Center for Public Service. WISC-TV and the Simpson Street Free Press are partners, too. But it is still under-appreciated, under-funded and under-used. The Commons is, as its name suggests, a community resource and asset. The stories it produces are available to any other news site to post and share. But the Madison Commons is something more. It is part of the future of American journalism. It is part of the future of healthy, local communities. It is the antidote to a shrinking U.S. newsgathering industry.

All I ask, for now, is that you go to and read and think. We’re trying to make sure it stays there for you for the long haul. I’m hoping we’re all going to be meeting there more often.