The Newspaper That Refused to Die
Isthmus returns to the racks after shutting down during the pandemic.
For more than 40 years, Isthmus owned Thursdays in Madison. When a new issue of the alternative weekly newspaper hit the racks, it was an event. UW students pored over the arts coverage while strolling down State Street. Bus riders consumed the latest cover story en masse. By Monday, well-thumbed copies littered downtown sidewalks and Memorial Union floors.
That tradition ended abruptly in March 2020. The free paper lost its chief revenue source when advertising evaporated amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The company dropped its print product, and editor Judith Davidoff MA’90 and owners Jeff Haupt’95, Mark Tauscher ’99, MS’03, and Craig Bartlett pondered the idea of a world without Isthmus.
No one was willing to let that happen — not Davidoff or, it turned out, Madison residents. A small staff continued publishing articles on Isthmus.com while transitioning to a nonprofit structure. Donors stepped up, fans bought memberships, and, against all odds, Isthmus returned to print as a monthly in August 2021.
Why all the fuss about this publication with a funny name? When Isthmus appeared on the isthmus in 1976 — part of a national alt-weekly movement that included the Village Voice, Chicago Reader, and LA Weekly — it promised a new approach to local journalism. The independent publication focused intensely on Madison, searching for stories and subcultures the mainstream media had missed. At its best, it showcased idiosyncratic columnists, erudite arts critics, fearless news reporters, witty illustrators and photographers, and feature writers eager to experiment with new narrative approaches. These included scores of talented UW interns who went on to national careers — and even Pulitzer Prizes, like Anthony Shadid ’90, Richard Winton MA’91, and Abigail Goldman ’92.
Cofounder Vince O’Hern provided freedom for self-expression, and that was enough to keep freelancers and staffers (including me) on board for ages. Isthmus attracted innumerable UW grads looking to develop original voices, such as Mike Baron ’71; Dylan Brogan ’09; Catherine Capellaro ’89; Dave Cieslewicz ’81; Aaron Conklin MA’93; Melanie Conklin MA’93; Jack Craver ’10; Phil Davis ’76, MA’81; Nada Elmikashfi x’18; Linda Falkenstein ’83; Maureen Gerarden MA’81; Jason Joyce x’92; Raphael Kadushin ’75, MA’78; Susan Kepecs ’74, MFA’77, MA’88, PhD’99; Kristian Knutsen ’01; Paul Kosidowski MA’86; Tom Laskin ’82, MA’85, MA’93; Stu Levitan JD’86; Elizabeth McBride MS’78, MA’88; Maureen Mecozzi ’94; David Medaris ’82; cofounder Fred Milverstedt ’69; Doug Moe ’79; Andy Moore’86; Brent Nicastro ’77; Steve Paulson MA’83; Jay Rath ’85; James Rhem MA’71, PhD’79; Ann Shaffer MA’90; Robin Shepard PhD’93; Jessica Steinhoff ’01; Paul Stroede MFA’94; Eric Tadsen ’93; David Tenenbaum MA’86; and Mike Wilmington x’74. The publication’s devotion to capturing the unique local vibe endeared it to readers, even as seismic changes in the industry felled one competing weekly after another.
And now, Isthmus has survived the latest earthquake. As the paper proudly proclaimed in August, “Thursdays are a thing again.”
Published in the Winter 2021 issue