Celebrating 40 Years of Madison Magazine

The magazine has been a hub for Madison since 1978

In strictly actuarial terms, 40 years is roughly half a lifetime.

Over four decades Madison and the magazine that shares its name have grown up together, the first becoming an award- (after award-) winning city, the second becoming an award-winning publication that has told the city’s stories.

As sometimes happens with relationships of similar tenure, we’re starting to look like each other. The faces in Madison Magazine are the faces of Madison, and Madison’s issues are the ones we care about most: business, health, the arts, food and dining, style and lifestyle, inclusion and innovation.

You see your city in these pages – where it’s been, where it’s going and what it’s like to live in Madison today. We share a love for this place, and we like to think about growing old together. But one doesn’t get to 80 without getting to 40 first. Thanks for sticking with us. We’ve been through a lot together.

40 Years of Memories: Four editors and an art director reconvene to tell Madison Magazine’s story

Jenifer Winiger was once told that a city needs a population of at least 1 million to support a city-regional magazine.

Which makes Madison Magazine – a publication serving today’s estimated Dane County population of about 536,000 – a bumble bee.

“Everything says that they shouldn’t be able to fly, but they do,” says Winager, who was publisher from 1994 to 2012. She’s referencing the 1930s myth that deduced a bumble bee’s flight (involving short wings furiously aflap) should be an aerodynamic impossibility. Just as confounding to some, perhaps, is the existence of this magazine. A market the size of Madison’s shouldn’t have had the advertising dollars needed to sustain a city-regional magazine’s business model.

Yet – about 480 issues, six editors, several Paul Soglin covers, one Great Recession and four decades later – here you are, diving into the 40th anniversary edition.

And here we are, writing about the milestone and feeling honored that we’ve covered the Madison area’s most important moments, interesting people, delicate hardships and diverse stories for as long as we have.

“I’m proud that the magazine has not only endured but probably, by most measures, gotten better and continues to be a piece of landscape here in Madison,” says Doug Moe, a staff writer for the magazine starting in 1986 and editor from 1991 to 1997.

Moe says this in a recent roundtable meeting with former editor Brennan Nardi, editorial director Neil Heinen, current interim publisher and editor-in-chief Karen Lincoln Michel and art director Tim Burton. All five still contribute monthly to the magazine, and that seems to flatten the 40 years with Madison Magazine they share between them as contributors. But the years start to expand as they talk about trying to shed the publication’s once hoity-toity image while also earning respect as a prominent voice for the city. They talk about controversial covers, confounding headlines and unforgettable interviews.

Moe recounts his first freelanced story for the magazine about Badgers hockey in 1978, when the publication was owned by James and Gail Selk. Moe would later cover court cases and sensational crimes – some of which earned him State Bar of Wisconsin Golden Gavel awards.

“We tried to do things that no one else could do or would do in our area,” says Moe.

We analyzed the local arts scene and zeroed in on its potential. We became protectors of the lakes. We ran profiles that gave rare looks into certain sectors of the city. We wrote about food in a larger context. We named change makers, leaders and innovators. We addressed uncomfortable topics like heroin addiction and sexual abuse by putting them on the cover. We gave a voice to the voiceless.

“Brennan started bringing in not just a female perspective, but a feminist perspective to a lot of the stuff we were doing,” says Heinen about Nardi’s time as editor from 2005 to 2015. “It made the content so much richer and so much more powerful. And I think that started to weave its way into other things that we did.”

For Heinen – the magazine’s longest-serving editorial staff member – words of wisdom from his first ever City Regional Magazine Association conference have resonated for a long time. At the conference, a magazine critic from The New York Times was asked, “Why do people read city-regional magazines?”

“And he said, ‘It’s an act of citizenship,’ ” Heinen recalls. “It’s what people did when they had been in a place long enough that they felt a part of it. They wanted to be a bigger part of it. They wanted to know who the other people were and what the issues were. And that really affected me.”

The magazine gives people that sense of belonging, Heinen says. “And now that we’re much more inclusive in all of that, I like it even more,” he says.

Thousands of stories written over 40 years are difficult to encapsulate. We wish we could revisit every story. But after hours spent in the archive room and a dozen conversations held with former editors and publishers, we’ve decided to spotlight a few key topics and stories Madison Magazine has covered over its history.

We’re proud that our history is Madison’s history. And the story is hardly finished.

For more on Madison Magazine’s rich history, follow one of the links below.

A timeline: 40 years of food in Madison

Milestones in Madison’s arts scene

Madison fashion: Remember these looks?

The lost years of Madison Magazine

‘Seventy-Ate: Dan Curd looks back on Madison’s dining scene in the ’70s

10 Madison moments in history

When it bleeds, Doug Moe leads

Remembering a former Madison Magazine editor

The stories behind these 1980s covers of Madison Magazine

Creating pictures that are almost too pretty to eat

Madison Magazine columnists speak their minds

Meet Madison Magazine’s visionary

Protecting the city’s greatest assets

Letter from the Editor: Turning 40

Madison Magazine’s history of inclusive storytelling

40 years of tackling tough topics

Staying innovative in Madison