A former publisher of The Onion, an ad executive and a former Green Bay Packer walk into a newspaper. They buy it.
An unlikely story, but fill in a few more details, and you have the future of Isthmus, the alternative weekly started in Madison 38 years ago by Vince O'Hern and his former business partner, Fred Milverstedt.
O'Hern announced Thursday the sale of Isthmus to Jeff Haupt, Craig Bartlett and Mark Tauscher. O'Hern and his wife, associate publisher Linda Baldwin, will retire and continue to live in Madison.
"I love the publishing world and media," Haupt said. "We had an opportunity with the Red Card to keep Isthmus local and independent. We thought it was a great opportunity for us. I’m really excited to be back in the publishing world."
Keeping Isthmus locally owned and independent was important to O'Hern when he considered its sale. He first spoke with Haupt, Bartlett and Tauscher — now operating under the Red Card Media umbrella — about their interest around 2009. But he decided about a year ago, when he turned 70, that it was time to sell.
The Red Card Media group offered "the best possibility for Isthmus' future success," O'Hern said, adding that there were other potential buyers, including an alt-weekly publisher from Salt Lake City, Utah.
Interested buyers had approached him several times in previous years, including once around the time of the recession. O'Hern said he felt it was important to stay on and guide the paper through that tough time — and while some publications didn't make it through those hurdles, O'Hern said Isthmus just completed a "banner" fiscal year.
But there's no doubt that things have changed, not just for Isthmus, but for all news media, since the paper started in 1976.
"Alternative weeklies are dealing with the same problems that metro dailies have — declining print readership and advertising, and weak online advertising sales," wrote media blogger Jim Romenesko in an email.
"What's been happening in the alt-weekly universe is stunning — the death of onetime powerhouse Boston Phoenix; the sale of the Chicago Reader to the Sun-Times; and the dismantling of the New Times weeklies chain. I recall picking up Isthmus in the 1980s and early 1990s during my Madison visits and being impressed by its heft — three sections, I recall. The last time I visited, I grabbed the paper and it — like most print publications these days — was almost featherweight," Romenesko wrote.
Both the print and online editions will get a redesign, but no major changes will be made immediately, Haupt said. The new publishers will be consulting with the current staff as they move forward with that process, he said.
Haupt said Isthmus editor Dean Robbins will be in charge of editorial decisions, adding that he'll look to the publication's "great staff of writers" to lead in that direction.
"I'm kind of a news junkie," Haupt said. "I'm not a writer. I'm not an editor. I would never pretend to be."
Isthmus will remain committed to investigative journalism, with an eye toward politics, Haupt said. But he also plans to expand Isthmus' arts and entertainment coverage — an area he bolstered during his time overseeing The Onion's local edition in 2005.
While Red Card's user base is entirely composed of students, Haupt said he doesn't foresee students ever reading the news section of the paper, and his team isn't likely to change it to target them.
"What we really want to do is broaden the entertainment section so whether you’re late in high school, at the UW or one of the other schools, or 80 years old, you want to go to Isthmus to see where to go, what to eat, what festival is coming up," Haupt said. "They do a good job of it now, it just needs to be laid out a little better. I think the redesign will go a long way in doing that."
O'Hern reflected on Isthmus' evolution since its launch 38 years ago: No longer solely a print publication, it exists online and through a mobile app. He noted that it's becoming more active on social media. When faced with the loss of revenue from classified ads that all papers dealt with as services like Craigslist gained popularity, Isthmus' response was to get into the business of hosting and sponsoring events. The new owners plan to expand on that by creating and partnering with others on new events in the community.
Isthmus and Red Card will effectively merge into one company, Haupt said.
"As of right now, we’ll retain the whole staff," he said. "We’re not merging in a large number of people."
O'Hern and Baldwin will retain ownership of the building Isthmus currently occupies, at 101 King St. The new owners have a lease for the time being, but O'Hern said he doesn't expect them to occupy it for more than a year.
Haupt said they'd like to stay downtown, either in the State Street area or on the Capitol Square. They've looked at a few possible locations, including office space in Red Card's current location at 341 State St., but "nothing is set in stone yet."
Tauscher's role, for the time being, will be more involved with Red Card than the operations of Isthmus, Haupt said. With the deregulation of food expenditures for NCAA athletes, Red Card saw an opportunity to expand its business to other universities, much like the partnership it launched with UW Athletics in 2011 to feed its football, volleyball, hockey and basketball teams.
But the former offensive tackle, who provides color commentary during Packers and Badgers radio broadcasts, comes from a newspaper family, ESPN Wisconsin's Packers reporter Jason Wilde tweeted Thursday. His father, Denny, was a sports journalist and columnist for the Marshfield News-Herald, according to his obituary in that paper.
Haupt said Isthmus could "potentially, in time" start publishing more sports content.
Bartlett's background merges the worlds of sports and media. He most recently comes from Adams Outdoor Advertising, as a national account executive. He has also worked as a city sales manager for The Onion and assistant general manager of the Madison Mallards.
Haupt said the new team has some ideas to freshen up Isthmus' online presence and to monetize mobile technology. That should come as no surprise given the launch of WisGo, Red Card's online food delivery service and app, and the company's plans to expand its mobile payment options.
But O'Hern emphasized that there's still a place for a print weekly, which gives more perspective than a daily paper and more frequency than a monthly publication.
"I think print is far from dead," O'Hern said, adding that he sees corporations shifting their advertising budgets, in small amounts, from digital to print because it's more familiar, more established and gives "more bang for the buck."
As far as what sets Isthmus apart in the Madison media landscape: "One is, it’s not Capital Newspapers," O'Hern said. "It stands as an independent voice. Another source of scrutiny and opinion, separate from the daily newspaper. I think it provides valuable information in a concentrated form that is very useful to people. That has always been our business model, that is to be indispensable to people in terms of navigating Madison, especially its cultural life. We started out doing mainly culture and entertainment. We’ve evolved beyond that."
That philosophy will be carried forward, Haupt said.
"The one thing I want to stay the same is the commitment to journalism," Haupt said. "We don't have to answer anybody. We don’t answer to a corporate overlord, we don't answer to big money. We can say how we feel. Today more than ever that’s such a needed thing. I really don't see any change in our commitment to that."