Madison’s alt weekly is a casualty of coronavirus

    Isthmus neon sign (lights off)
    Photo by Carolyn Fath Ashby, courtesy of Isthmus

    On March 19, a message went up on the homepage of Isthmus, Madison’s 44-year-old alternative weekly.

    “We are heartbroken to share this news,” the unsigned post began. 

    “Over the past few weeks we have been trying to cover the turmoil and grief that COVID-19 has caused our Madison community. Today, we unfortunately need to share our own story.”

    Isthmus will be going dark, effective immediately. All staff have been laid off and both the weekly paper and the website will cease to publish stories about the Madison community. 

    “We’re all about where to go and what to do,” Jeff Haupt, Isthmus’ publisher, told the Examiner. “If you can’t eat, drink, or go to film fests, that turns off the money.”

    (Full disclosure: several Examiner staff wrote regularly for Isthmus.)

    “I worked more hours this week than I’ve ever worked in my life,” Haupt added. He described sitting in the newspaper’s office with his business manager, trying to work out a budget that would allow the paper to keep publishing, at least on a part-time basis. In the end, there was no workable scenario.

    “The thing is, it’s all expense now,” Haupt said. “We’re losing $35,000 a week. If we wanted to have life on the other side of this, we had to do this now.”

    Haupt, who bought Isthmus in 2014,  is also the founder and co-owner of Red Card Meal Plan, a pre-paid dining and discount app that allows UW-Madison students to buy meals at Chipotle, Starbucks, Noodles & Co., Qdoba, Ian’s Pizza, among other restaurants and grocery stores. 

    Recently, Red Card has been expanding into other markets, offering the off-campus meal app to students on at least 24 other campuses around the country, including Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, and UNC-Charlotte, according to the company’s website.

    “There is some good news on the Red Card side,” Haupt says. A company in China that manufactures scanners had cancelled its contract with Haupt’s company after the COVID-19 outbreak. “They just contacted us to say the plant is open and the engineer is back,” Haupt said. He sees it as a sign that the crisis here will diminish.

    Haupt holds out hope that the paper will be revived in some form after the pandemic. Meanwhile, laying off staff now, instead of waiting to be dragged down by debt, also allows his employees to collect benefits that are “better now than they’re going to be later,” he added.

    “Isthmus has deep roots in this community and loyal readers and advertisers whom we cherish,” the paper’s final post stated. “We will miss being a part of your life during this difficult time.”

    “We are going to take this time to try to figure out what is next and what Isthmus might look like in the next life. Until we meet again.”

    Ruth Conniff
    Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. She moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on All in with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, and other radio and television programs. In 2011, she did award-winning coverage of the uprising against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Conniff graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal.