Last summer we were feverishly working to put things in place for a return of Isthmus to print as a monthly. With six weeks to go before the Aug. 5 publication date, a couple of key pieces were still unsettled, including who was going to design the damn thing!
As you may recall, Isthmus had not been in print since March 2020 and during that hiatus underwent some dramatic changes, including a transition to a nonprofit organization (we became an official 501(c)(3) in April 2021). The small volunteer group that led the transition was made up of writers and editors, not artists. Some in that group (I won’t name names) thought we could lay out select pages while leaving the more complicated design challenges to a professional. Knowing what we now know, I think we would all agree that it would have been a disaster! In a kind of Hail Mary, we reached out to Tommy Washbush, a former Isthmus production artist, who was living in New Hampshire at the time, to see if he might be available.
Tommy was enthusiastic about helping us out, but timing was an issue; he and his partner were on the cusp of a move. We all exhaled when Tommy emailed with the good news on June 23: “We finally talked to the landlord and we are at minimum extended through August, so I’m all in.”
And all in he was. Getting that first issue out was daunting in many ways. We still needed to retrieve our old InDesign files and templates from the server as we transferred everything to the cloud, and Tommy then needed to adjust the pages to the specs from our new printer, among other things. Tommy also agreed to illustrate that important first cover, and his riff on him on the uphill battle Isthmus faced to survive the pandemic remains one of my faves to this day.
Watching that first print issue come together as we all worked out of our computers at home was both a bit surreal and magical. So was seeing the bundles of paper piled high on pallets at the Waunakee warehouse, where we all gathered early in the morning on publication day to help out with distribution. Everyone on staff continues to deliver papers to this day as a way to save on circulation costs.
We have since published 12 issues in print, while continuing to publish online, and are celebrating that not-so-minor feat with a party Aug. 12 at Working Draft Beer Company, 1129 E. Wilson St. (4-9 pm). It is also a celebration of our new life as a nonprofit and the members, donors, business partners, board members and contributors who have helped us make it this far. A special beer called Above the Fold, brewed by Working Draft, will be on tap (see story, page 26) and music will be provided by Dearly Brearly. Staff members will be on hand to talk with guests. I hope you will join us for a few minutes or hours.
Any recap of this incredible year has to start with our readers and members. Our decision to go nonprofit was a leap of faith based on our belief that Isthmus‘ longtime readers and fans would step up to support their community newspaper. And they have.
We now have more than 700 members in our membership program, launched in June 2021, and more than 1,ooo one-time donors. Reader donations account for about one-third of our revenue.
Our advertisers and sponsors — some old and some new — have also come through. Sales director Barbara Bolan and publisher Jason Joyce have worked hard to come up with creative packages that suit the needs of local business owners and larger companies who get the added bonus of supporting local news with their advertising dollars. Print advertising is now the largest chunk of our revenue — 39 percent, with another 18 percent coming from sales of digital ads. Would it be easier given our tiny staff of five to abandon print and go digital-only? Absolutely. But there is clearly support and demand for Isthmus to remain in print and I’m happy to say that we are in a good position to continue our monthly editions into the near future.
We’ve donated a lot in the last year or so. Here are some of the highlights:
• Published in-depth stories on racial justice, the environment, politics, mental health and homelessness. A few of our most impactful stories included an essay on Wisconsin’s fraught relationship with wolves (“Howl”), which just won a first-place award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia for best feature; an investigative piece on a murder plot involving a family in Sun Prairie (“Murder-for-hire on the dark web”); and a piece on the immediate impact of the overturning of Roe v. Wade (“One Madison woman’s trip to Illinois for an abortion”)
• Developed new features, including “One Dish” and “Digest,” to stay connected to Madison’s vital food and drink industry as it continues to work to emerge from the pandemic
• Summary coverage of Madison’s theater, visual arts, local music, books and sports scenes. Theater critic Gwendolyn Rice won a first-place award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia for best arts criticism
• Promoted the work of local artists by featuring original illustrations on the cover of each month’s print issue. Local artist Claire “Snaggle Tooth” Warhus’ illustration for “Howl” won first place for illustration from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia
• Continued to compile and continuously update the city’s only comprehensive calendar of events
• Trained promising young journalists through our internship program
• Formed partnerships with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and Wisconsin Humanities’ Love Wisconsin project to offer readers diverse stories with statewide reach
• Partnered with local storytellers Jen Rubin and Takeyla Benton to promote 12 episodes of their Inside Stories podcast online and on our social media platforms
• Reignited partnerships with the Wisconsin Film Festival, Wisconsin Book Festival, various local arts organizations and dozens of Madison businesses
• Published three weekly newsletters with an audience of some 30,000
The Institute for Nonprofit News, which now supports more than 400 member organizations, including Isthmus, each year surveys its members to compile an annual index on the health of nonprofit news. The news from the 2022 Index Report is pretty good, showing that “the nonprofit news sector largely weathered the threats and disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic and continues a growth cycle of more than a decade.”
INN measured growth in terms of total revenue, philanthropic dollars, staffing size, and audience reach. One big takeaway: While smaller, local news organizations are driving the growth in the number of nonprofit news outlets, “gains in philanthropic support to nonprofit news is most densely concentrated among larger national and global organizations.”
As a small newsroom, we have certainly witnessed that trend. We did benefit greatly from INN’s matching grant fundraiser in late 2021, raising more than $80,000 over two months, and are looking forward to another substantial year-end fundraising campaign starting this November. But finding the bandwidth to seek other foundation funding has proven difficult.
We are, however, laying the foundation to meet that challenge, starting with our efforts to strengthen and diversify our board of directors. Our members now include Masood Akhtar, Dylan Brogan, Jill Pedigo Hall, Kirsten Houghton, Taylor Kilgore, Dan Koehn, Ralph Russo, Molly Stentz, Michael Wagner and me. (We just bid farewell to Michael Cummins, board treasurer, who also worked countless hours as our volunteer bookkeeper.)
The board recently voted to create five committees — fundraising, personnel, finance, governance and community engagement — that will help support the work of staff. Seeking out and securing foundation and corporate support is part of the fundraising committee’s mission.
Thanks again to all of our readers, supporters and members. If you are not already a donor, please consider becoming a member now.