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Reflections

written by Fred Milverstedt
on the occasion of the 30th Isthmus Anniversary

Fred Milverstedt photo

I am proud, as I have always been, to be part of the inception of Isthmus, and in our observation of the 30th anniversary, I am pleased to be acknowledged for that.

Indeed, save for my part in the conception of my son, the role I played in helping to establish Isthmus is arguably the most significant contribution I have ever made to anything in my home town.

People ask me, what I think of Isthmus today. I reply, highly cliched, but speaking as directly as I can to the point: It speaks for itself.

It is ironic, however, that when we started out, Isthmus was intended principally to be a "guide to Madison through entertainment and the arts." If there were two other characteristics that would distinguish it, one was that it would be distributed free of charge -- giving something to the community, the way Vince put it, and the second was that the guide would be supplemented by editorial content.

The greatest irony there, as we soon were to learn, is that had we skipped the editorial content, and maybe charged a quarter for the thing, even a nickel, it never would have taken so long as it did for the paper to actually start making money.

We had to pay all these writers and production people. Printing. Distribution. Ad salesmen, fer Chrissakes.

We didn't pay them much, granted.

But that was Madison in the '70s when rents in nice places were going for $225 a month. And the Ph.D's, were still driving cabs, not a few of them writers.

But we were quite naive, if not literally babes in the woods, and we went about in quest of the vision without ever actually doing all that much research, looking past the many pitfalls, together with vague promises, that were fatefully lying in wait for us in the Brave New World of publishing.

Whereas, as we later discovered, most other entrepreneurs might start out such a venture by saying, "How can we make some money? Let's start a newspaper!" we angled the whole deal through a novel approach: "Hey, let's start a newspaper! Maybe we can make some money."

We bankrolled the thing with $1,700 between us, most of it borrowed from our families -- Vince's parents, my mother, all since now passed, none of whom had much to spare.

Initially, it was a far easier sell to our parents than it was to most potential advertisers, and as well to many of our fondest supporters and friends.

I recall the reaction of one of those friends on the day we first told her our plans.

"You're going to publish a newspaper?" she said. "What are you going to write about?"

"The scene," we said. "We're going to write about the scene."

"Ha, ha," she laughed. "What scene?"

Hmmm, I was thinking. If that's the case, we'd better find one.

And so we did, in fits and starts, and it wasn't long before "entertainment and the arts" had expanded into culture and politics, which, I believe, is a direction we always knew it would take when we started thinking about it back at the very beginning. It was a natural segue, you could say, the nature of the place and things, and the rest, as we say, is history.

Depending, of course on whoever it is who winds up writing about it.

In my mind, there are four things about Isthmus, its contributions and effects, that in a lasting way have been significant.

One, is that it is what we in the trade have always called "a writer's paper" -- a paper where good writers can write. It was that way from the outset, and through the years, remains so today. It is a newspaper in which good writers are sought after, sometimes fostered, always fine-tuned, and encouraged to speak with a voice. Even when we don't agree with them, which is often enough, they say it well enough to offer a valid perspective and hold a reader's interest.

In this and other respects, Isthmus in 1976 and through the next decade was in many ways ahead of its time. For sure, today and for the past 15 or 20 years, in most cities of any size you'll find both newsprint and glossies offering some sort of guide and reflection, weekly or monthly, on the beat and pulse of local culture.

At the time we started, however, these sort of "alternative" presentations were comparatively few. As I recall, there was The Village Voice, from which we took a few cues, and the Chicago Reader, from which we did not. If we had any other model, it probably was The New Yorker, more than anything else.

It took a while, but eventually, in Madison as well as other places, the fresh approach we were taking to what some were coming at the time to regard as a "new journalism" -- hip but with its head screwed on half straight -- resulted not only in our own measured progress, but in dramatic changes of direction, however belated, by other publications in and around our own little corner of the turf.

They say, of course, that "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," and in this, I think, the Isthmus people have every right to sit here tonight and feel... flattered.

Sincerely.

I also feel gratified to have been one of two guys in this town who at one time 30 years ago had a pretty good handle on how things were changing and what else was coming well before anyone else.

The other one is the guy who made it all happen.

He's your host tonight.

Vince O'Hern.

We presented them with a challenge. They had to respond. They had to get a tad bit edgier, go a little further out on the rim.

And on the whole, for information and opinion exchange, Madison has been the better for it.

Which brings me to another Isthmus milestone -- the constituency that it speaks to, and more often than not, the constituency that it does its best to reflect.

When we started our "writer's paper," we knew that we lived in a community of readers; that is, people who actually like to read. That was probably the only thing close to a demographic target group that we'd actually identified.

The University, of course, had much to do with this -- a captive audience, so to speak -- and in and around that, a fairly predictable convergence of the same sort of dynamics that we've all been reading and hearing about in this, the 150th anniversary of the city's founding.

For the most part, most certainly on and close to the isthmus itself, since that constituency is generally well educated, overwhelmingly liberal (Progressive with a capital "P"), opinionated, active and outspoken, it only makes sense to speak to the lot.

And you'd better listen, too.

Isthmus has been very representative. If anything, it could use a little more diversity. If there's one thing that's missing, I've thought, it's a Pat Buchanan column twice a month.

The fact is, Isthmus has stayed true to its original calling. It's a newspaper written largely for Isthmians, as I've come to call them, what they do and how they think.

And if that's not all to your liking, then you can just go to hell.

But the most important thing we ever did, in my estimation, is to let folks know that we live on an isthmus.

By naming it this, we were instrumental, if not seminal, in helping all of us to know, and understand better, the kind of place, the very "nature" of, the place where we live. It has helped to "center' us, I think.

Oh, sure, before we started the paper, there were a few folks around town who were aware of the fact that most of the real action here was generated and conducted on "a narrow strip of land that lies between two larger bodies of water," but for the most part, these were probably only a handful of historians and professors -- an urban planner or limnologist, maybe --but not the public, per se.

Today, of course, you have Isthmus Engineering & Manufacturing, Isthmus Eye Care, Isthmus Lighting, Isthmus Apartments, Isthmus Surveying, the Isthmus Playhouse, and the Isthmus Zen Community, among those of which I'm aware. Early among them, as I recall, was Isthmus Sailboards, though I'm not so sure they are here any more.

And in this ...proliferation.... the word "isthmus," non-capitalized, is now commonly known by nearly everyone, and synonymous, for the most part, with our environmental center -- physically, intellectually and emotionally -- our little piece of the universe, little elsewhere in the world quite like it. It's an evolving organic molecule, as often has been said, in a rather wondrous setting in the middle of our town between two lakes.

How we came to plug into it, a somewhat serendipitous stroke to be sure, is, like certain other bits of Isthmus legend, the subject of some little dispute.

Vince, for his part, recalls that a close friend of his came up with the name, essentially at the same time as I did, and I am accepting of that.

Lord knows, for all we ever agreed upon, Vince and I have disagreed about other things nearly as much.

It was sort of like a marriage, I used to think. The only real difference was...well, thank God, for that.

But as it happened in this matter from my point of view, in the same week that the babe would be formally christened, I found myself driving downtown from the near east side one morning, and I was thinking about a name. One of my ideas was some kind of word play on some sort of Dylanesque phrase -- something evocative, something poetic.

"Isis," I said to myself. "Isis."

At that moment, turning from Willy Street onto John Nolen Drive, another thought popped into my head.

"What precisely is it about this place that is truly distinguishing?"

I looked at the lake.

"An isthmus," I said. "We live... on an Isthmus."

"Well, I'll be damned."