Two local men with roots in The Onion and a former Green Bay Packers player bought the Isthmus newspaper Wednesday, promising the 38-year-old alternative Madison weekly will not be funny.
“There will be no humor or satire in Isthmus,” said Jeff Haupt, 41, of Madison. “That belongs to The Onion.”
Instead, he and his partners, Craig Bartlett and former Packer and University of Wisconsin offensive lineman Mark Tauscher, said they want to stick closely to investigative reporting and local arts and entertainment coverage, hallmarks of the paper that was started in 1976. With a circulation today of 55,000, it is the 31st-largest alternative newspaper in the nation.
They took over Isthmus Publishing Co., which includes thedailypage.com online site, from Vince O’Hern, 70, who started the paper in 1976 with Fred Milverstedt and has owned it solo since the early 1980s.
“Vince was a great publisher,” said Bill Lueders, who worked as a writer and editor at Isthmus for 25 years and whose wife, Linda Falkenstein, still works there. “He didn’t let anybody push him around. He hired people with vision and let them follow it.”
Lueders doesn’t know the new owners but is encouraged that they’re local and that they’re not talking of major changes.
“The paper has a long tradition of excellence that will be difficult for anyone to screw up,” he said.
Haupt earned a business degree at UW-Madison in 1995 then headed west, running The Onion’s branch operation in Colorado for a decade before returning to Madison, where he oversaw the successful satirical paper’s operations in Madison, the Twin Cities, San Francisco and Austin.
In 2010, he and two partners, one of them Bartlett, started Red Card Media LLC, a Madison company that supplies debit cards used at select dining facilities and grocery stores by college students. The company supplies the cards to UW athletes and has 4,000 total cardholders. Tauscher became a co-owner of Red Card this month.
Tauscher played for the Badgers and was drafted by the Packers in 2000, playing offensive tackle for a decade. He currently does color commentary on Badgers and Packers radio broadcasts.
Bartlett also has a background with The Onion, as well as sales and marketing for the Madison Mallards baseball team and Adams Outdoor Advertising.
The two have known each other for about a decade, Haupt said, and a chance meeting at a Panera got them talking about business. That’s when Tauscher got interested in partnering on Red Card and later Isthmus, Haupt said.
Haupt said he had been in talks with O’Hern for a few years about buying Isthmus, saying he missed being part of a publication. Discussions got more serious last September, he said, and finally got to the finish line this week.
Like most newspapers, Isthmus has shrunk its staff and lost circulation over the last decade, a bruising time for the industry as publications saw significant classified advertising revenue drops due to competition from Internet sites.
Its circulation is just shy of 55,000 today and was 61,000 in 2008.
Haupt said the paper has nine full-time newsroom staffers, down from a high of about a dozen, according to Lueders.
Still, its circulation is 31st-
largest in the nation among alternative weeklies, outpacing papers in larger markets including the Twin Cities, Baltimore and Portland, according to the Association of Alternative Newsmedia.
“There’s a demographic advantage in Madison because there are a lot of young professionals that Isthmus cultivated,” said James Baughman, journalism professor at UW-Madison. “I think it was a great idea and a great fit for the city.”
Isthmus has long been viewed as an edgier alternative to mainstream media, in touch with Madison’s left-of-center politics and its healthy appetite for alternative lifestyles.
For decades observers have accused it of wandering too far from those roots, with increasing emphasis on shopping, dining and families, among other topics — a 1990 story in the Capital Times was headlined, “Isthmus: How Alternative is the Weekly?” — but others say it hasn’t strayed.
“I’m probably more conservative than most Madisonians and I don’t feel that way at all,” Baughman
The newspaper said it reaches 150,000 readers online or in print, or a third of adults in the Madison area. The median reader age is 44. Average income is $81,000. Fifty-four percent of readers are female.
Tauscher’s late father, Denny Tauscher, who died in October 2013, was a sports journalist and columnist for the Marshfield News-Herald, according to his obituary in that paper.
O’Hern, his wife and associate publisher Linda Baldwin will retire from the company and remain in Madison.
With former Capital Times staffer Fred Milverstedt, O’Hern “scraped together $1,800” to start Isthmus from his home at age 32, according to a 2001 State Journal story.
A Northwestern University graduate who moved to Madison to work as a Peace Corps recruiter in 1968, O’Hern later tended bar, drove a cab and served as Madison-based jazz star Ben Sidran’s road manager.
“It’s been a long and eventful ride for me, and I have been helped along the way by hundreds of former and present employees,” O’Hern said in his final Making the Paper column.
“I have benefited from the counsel and advice of many professional or just plain smart folks,” O’Hern said. “I thank them all.”
Terms of the sales were not disclosed.