In early January, Brennan Nardi asked me to join her for a cup of coffee. We met at Ancora, across the street from Isthmus.
Nardi, the editor of Madison Magazine, expressed her sadness at the recent and ongoing wave of impacts on Madison's journalism community. She wondered if there was something we could do, collectively.
I agreed with her sentiment. It may not be clear to members of the public, but there has been a change in how Madison journalists view each other, now that our profession is in peril. There is less internecine conflict, more of a sense of shared mission.
When our jobs were secure, it was easier for us to bicker with each other. Now we are more inclined to see that we're all in this together.
Brennan and I talked about various things we could do and struck upon the idea of a collaborative reporting project. The idea: Get individual Madison media to all do enterprise reporting on the same topic, to show what we are capable of as a community.
We could achieve collectively more than any of our outlets could individually. And we could demonstrate our ability to advance a common purpose, with each outlet doing what it does best.
The next time Brennan and I got together, I held up a manila folder. On it was scrawled three words: "All Together Now." Lennon/McCartney had channeled through me the name of this new venture.
Brennan and I made contacts to others in the community, describing the goal of All Together Now. Early on we reached out to Andy Hall of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and Deborah Blum of the UW School of Journalism, who have helped the group refine its goals and provided critical support.
We talked about what topic we could take on. At a meeting of several dozen Madison journalists in April, we discussed a leading contender the issue of health-care access and entertained several other suggestions, including the diminishing social safety net and the faltering economy.
A process was created for exploring these possibilities and eventually a vote taken. The health care idea won.
This is undoubtedly a fine topic for Madison, home to a large number of insurance companies (especially HMOs), medical providers, regulators and, of course, consumers. And it is a topic that allows us to look at the issue through the perspective of ordinary people. The project was christened "Madison RX: Our Ailing Health Care System."
About two dozen Madison media agreed to take part. Over the summer we set a run date: the last two weeks of October. For a while there, it looked as though Barack Obama and Congress might have the problem licked before our stories could run. It was a very brief while.
None of us could have foreseen just how timely the topic would remain, into the present moment. That heightens both our challenge and the project's potential.
What we did realize early on is that this undertaking could serve as a model for journalists across the nation. As news staffs shrink, cooperation becomes imperative; the Madison model is an ambitious attempt to make this work on a community-wide basis. The Columbia Journalism Review recognized as much in a shout-out about All Together Now in its May/June issue.
The first stories will begin airing and running this week. Madison Magazine plans several pieces, including Brennan Nardi's story on the thinning ranks of family practitioners, and efforts to reverse this trend. The Capital Times is doing a story on the disinclination of insurance companies to cover alternative therapies. The Badger Herald will look at what is and isn't covered under SHIP, the Student Health Insurance Plan. And Blum is overseeing a class reporting project on the issue of mental health care.
Isthmus is running a two-part series: This week we will look at the efficacy of the state Office of the Commissioner of Insurance in handling complaints against HMOs by Madison-area residents. Next week we are doing a story about some more effective advocates, at the UW Center for Patient Partnerships. There will also be a story in this week's edition about economical, easy-access clinics.
All of these stories, we believe, play to Isthmus' unique strengths investigative reporting, looking at issues that affect individuals, affirming the value of local institutions that tackle problems head on.
The staff of Isthmus has embraced this project from the start. The logos for All Together Now and Madison RX were designed by Isthmus creative director Ellen Meany. The website for the effort -- www.atnmadison.org -- was implemented by Isthmus features editor Linda Falkenstein.
But the real driving force is Brennan Nardi, who has spearheaded all aspects of the project. It is her vision that is being realized in this endeavor -- that of a community of journalists united, in pursuit of the common good.