One of the trickier things we do is try to determine which stories will prove most interesting to readers and identify the stories we think need to be told, either because they inform or enlighten, shed light on corruption or abuse of power or simply tell a great tale. But this sifting and winnowing sometimes proves to be a crapshoot. Stories we think should generate outrage don’t cause much of a stir; a four-paragraph letter of outrage published as a web post, on the other hand, goes viral. Here are our staff picks for stories that might not have set the internet ablaze, but were nevertheless important ones to run. If you missed them the first time around, give ’em a click.
News editor Joe Tarr
I’ve edited a lot of great stories this year, and I think Nathan Comp’s “Strokes of Genius” was one of the more important. Not because it’s an investigation of corruption, but because it deals with a subject most media are too timid to cover in a serious way: sex.
We’re all sexual beings. The sex industry generates billions of dollars each year, and sex is used to sell many other things, in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Yet the subject is scarcely covered anywhere. Comp’s story looked at how a Madison couple — Tabitha Rae and Chris Johns — are at the vanguard of the industry, trying to capitalize on new technology that allows people to connect physically through the virtual world. In short, it could change both the sex industry and how couples interact. Comp did a great job covering the issues and telling the couple’s unusual story (defying stereotypes, they’re both devout Christians). And the story gave rise to an intense editorial debate in the newsroom over the use of the word “jackhammer.” It was cut from the story.
One of my favorite features to edit (and write when I get the chance) is Snapshot. The idea simply is to write about things happening every day in Madison, events that might not fit the traditional definition of “news” but still manage to capture something about life in our complicated city.
Since I helped create the concept, along with editor Judith Davidoff and former creative director Ellen Meany, I take a special pride and pleasure in seeing what writers uncover in our weird city. I love the creativity that can be sparked when limiting writers to about 650 words or so and seeing how photographers can convey the same scenes visually.
There were a lot of great Snapshots this year, but my three favorites, in no particular order, were:
Freelancer Trina La Susa tagged along with two young Madison men as they rummaged through dumpsters for groceries. Lauren Justice’s photo of one of them munching a strawberry from inside a dumpster was easily one of the best Snapshot photos.
Features editor Linda Falkenstein watched a professional photographer work in the lucrative but esoteric field of cow photography during this year’s World Dairy Expo. And she also managed to snap an amazing photo of the whole scene.
And Dylan Brogan risked jail time and an ass-whupping to follow a graffiti artist while he tagged a freight train car in the dead of night. Despite working in pitch black, Dylan still managed to come home with a decent photo of the art.
Features editor Linda Falkenstein
A lot of food coverage is devoted to new restaurants, the entree that is most likely to bring foodies to their knees, and who’s serving freshly muddled sorghum Aquavit toddies. And that’s good fun, appealing to the chowhound in all of us.
But covering the food scene in Wisconsin turned serious with this story from Jay Rath about how state budget cuts closed the pioneering dairy sheep research program at the Spooner Agricultural Research Station in northern Wisconsin. It was the only dairy sheep research program in North America, focused on research that improved production of sheep’s milk for processing into cheese. Artisanal sheep’s milk cheeses are a growing market for small sheep farmers, and currently the U.S. doesn’t make enough to satisfy the desire of American consumers, and 60 to 70 million pounds of it a year is imported. So instead of continuing this innovative research station that helped small sheep farmers produce domestic product nationwide, the state shut it down. Cost savings? Just $150,000.
Arts and culture editor Catherine Capellaro
On Nov. 17, less than 10 days after the Russian hacker-influenced 2016 election, Pussy Riot came to town. If anyone knows about the dangers of autocratic leadership and the importance of resistance, it’s these intrepid punk activists. Before the show (and before the election), I corresponded with Masha Alyokhina, who spent two years in a Russian penal colony for performing “Punk Prayer” at a Moscow cathedral, and Sasha Bogina, a journalist for the online investigative news service Mediazona. When I asked about Gov. Scott Walker’s repression of free assembly rights during the Capitol protests, Alyokhina told me: “At this moment America has a much more difficult test in the face of Donald Trump, and it is important for you to look to the example of Russia, the country in which a fucking bastard took the presidency.” At the Q&A event at Shannon Hall, Pussy Riot lauded Madison’s “strong culture of rioting,” while also warning how swiftly freedom of expression went by the wayside in Putin’s Russia. Much to the delight of the participants in the Solidarity Sing Along, Alyokhina made a visit to the noontime event.
Editor Judith Davidoff
Over the years, Isthmus has published a number of opinion writers who skew right: Charles Sykes, David Blaska and Larry Kaufmann, among them. Michael Cummins joined our regular print opinion rotation about a year ago after Kaufmann moved to Austin. It proved interesting timing, as Michael ultimately determined he could no longer remain a Republican with Donald Trump as the party’s standard-bearer. Two pieces from his inaugural year stand out: His cover story on the Republican Party National Convention in Cleveland, “I survived RNC 2016 — but will my party?” culled from his on-the-ground reporting, and his most recent opinion column, where he offered a fresh perspective on how our military might just be the “canaries in the coalmine” when it comes to Trump-led invasions of our civil liberties.
Michael’s reporting from the RNC was colorful, and he found plenty of colorful figures, including Milwaukee native Tom Ertl, national media director for Christians for Donald Trump, who said of Trump: “He’s got all those male characteristics that God...intended for men to act like. For the last two generations, we see around us everywhere...men that have been feminized.”
It’s not easy to complain to your boss about wrongdoing and even harder to go public about it if you can’t effect change internally. But that’s what Kathi Hurtgen, associate director of finance and operations at Monona Terrace Convention Center, did when she filed an ethics complaint with the city alleging that executive director Gregg McManners went around city rules on bidding for competitive projects. Joe Tarr was one of the very few local reporters who covered the story, writing at least three times about Hurtgen and the allegations. But ultimately neither city officials nor readers seemed to care much about whether taxpayer money was being misappropriated. The Madison Ethics Board dismissed Hurtgen’s complaint without even letting her talk. Someone other than Joe was paying attention, though: the board’s inaction earned them a Cheap Shot for 2016.
Staff writer Dylan Brogan
The sights and sounds of State Street turned out to be a source of inspiration and insight for several stories in 2016. It’s a generous, albeit, convenient muse. Isthmus is located in the corner building where State Street meets the Capitol Square.
I watched the police crack down on “bad behavior” at Tinkertoy Park — a popular hangout for people who are homeless — in real time from Isthmus’ conference room. Every morning, I walked past sleeping bags and other belongings that eventually prompted Mayor Paul Soglin to call for the homeless to tidy up.
I inspected and counted street lights up and down State Street after city engineers learned that a manufacturer's defect made the metal poles vulnerable to toppling over. I couldn't help myself from asking an Edgewood High junior why he spent his last days of summer lounging in a hammock strung between two trees outside the Red Elephant Chocolate Cafe. A story on pedestrian counters finally quelled my nagging curiosity about what caused a small light to blink on a mysterious device perched above the sidewalk.
No matter the story, I often find myself writing while wandering the 100 block of State Street. I met many a deadline — furiously typing on my phone — while leaning up against the side of Myles’ Teddywedgers or sitting on the bench by Capitol Corn Popper. My winter refuge is the vent outside of Ian’s that spews hot, pizza-smelling air even on the coldest day.
Watching folks come and go on the busy downtown street is a reminder that Isthmus has an obligation to inform, enlighten and challenge the people that live and work in this city. We are, after all, Madison’s weekly newspaper.
Staff writer Allison Geyer
These days it’s rare for a reporter to get an opportunity to step away from her desk and spend a few days in the field doing in-depth, on-the-ground reporting. It’s a sad reality for journalists (let’s be honest, we live for these kinds of assignments). But ultimately, it’s the public that suffers most when important stories don’t get covered up close.
That’s why I was so excited when I got the chance to go to Standing Rock and write about the fight against the Dakota Access pipeline. Not only was it one of the biggest stories of 2016, but it was also one of the least-covered — at least by what some call “mainstream media." Despite my enthusiasm, I was also a tiny bit hesitant. Isthmus is a Madison paper. Was there enough of a local connection to justify spending the better part of a week nearly 800 miles away from the community I cover?
But during the three days I spent at Oceti Sakowin camp, it became apparent that what was happening at Standing Rock was more than a regional (or even a national) issue. It was a story happening at the intersection of our country’s ugly past and its uncertain future. That same conflict — strong versus weak, corporation versus people — is playing out in communities everywhere, Madison included.