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The Progressive

The editorial staff of The Progressive, left to right: Mrill Ingram, Alexandra Tempus, Bill Lueders, Norman Stockwell and a cardboard cutout of Robert La Follette, the publication's founder. 

The Progressive magazine has never exactly been a money-making machine. “An Enemy of the State,” a biography of former Progressive editor Erwin Knoll, includes the following exchange between Knoll and Matt Rothschild, then-publisher of the Madison-based magazine, in 1994.

“How’s the cash flow?” Knoll asked.

“Not very good,” Rothschild replied.

“When is it going to get better?” Knoll asked.

“It’s never going to get better,” said Rothschild.

“All right,” said Knoll. “See you tomorrow.”

Knoll passed away the next morning.

Bill Lueders wrote that biography. In October, he was promoted from managing editor to editor of The Progressive, so he’s familiar with the magazine’s financial struggles.

And now he’s hoping to change that, at least a little. The Progressive will turn 110 in January, and Lueders wants to raise $110,000 to “get our head above water.” Lueders kicked off the fundraising by donating $10,000 of his own money, a move he hopes will spur 10 other individuals around the U.S. to do the same.

“That will go a long way toward erasing our debt and putting us on firmer financial footing so we’re not just getting by, we’re able to take a breath,” Lueders said.

Donations to The Progressive can be made online. Eventually, Lueders said, he’d love to have an endowment, which he recognizes is “quite the dream from where we are.”

Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette founded the magazine in 1909, while serving as a U.S. senator. Today, The Progressive is a nonprofit publishing a bimonthly magazine and online news. It also runs The Progressive Media Project and the Public School Shakedown project.

The editor’s note in a recent Progressive magazine issue reads: “We are, not for the first time and perhaps not the last, in critical need of a cash infusion. The magazine is tens of thousands of dollars in debt; our income is not keeping up with our outgo. It’s serious.”

As a veteran journalist (Lueders was news editor at Isthmus for 25 years and spent four years at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism), a $10,000 donation is a big deal.

“It’s about half of my total savings and checking. I do have some money for retirement that’s separate from that, but it’s a lot of money,” he said.

But Lueders says he feels good about his donation, as he firmly believes the magazine’s journalism is vital.

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Lueders pointed to the number of full-length original reporting included in the magazine, as opposed to material like analysis or think pieces. The Atlantic’s October 2018 issue had one full-length original reporting piece, and the New Yorker had four, Lueders said. The Progressive’s August/September issue had nine.

“We’re not just surfing the web and spewing opinions. We’re doing reporting on things that are happening, and we’re trying to shine a light on the good work that people of conscience are doing all around the country,” Lueders said.

And while The Progressive’s stories and op-eds zero in on serious issues — recent posts include the plight of children living through war in the Middle East, violence from the far right and the harm of conversion therapy — The Progressive looks to offer “solutions-oriented journalism.” Lueders pointed to the most recent issue focused on climate change, which details what is actually being done in response.

“It’s not a hand-wringing exercise,” he said.

Lueders is also proud of The Progressive’s major projects, like Public School Shakedown, which publishes pieces on efforts to divert funding from public to private schools throughout the country. The Progressive Media Project, which began in 1993, provides one-day training sessions teaching op-ed writing and sends op-eds to newspapers around the country through the Tribune News Service.

Last year, a woman came to a Milwaukee training session wanting to write an op-ed arguing in favor of keeping the state treasurer’s office. She wrote a piece that was picked up by about a dozen Wisconsin papers, Lueders said. Ultimately, the referendum to eliminate the treasurer’s office failed. The op-ed writer, Sarah Godlewski, ran for and won the race for state treasurer on Nov. 6.

“I would never have had this platform without the quality instruction, helpful coaching, and support of the amazing staff,” Godlewski said. “I can accurately say, as a result of the Progressive Media Project, we preserved democracy in Wisconsin.”