What happens when small, independent publications team up? In the case of network publisher Tone Madison and its news neighbor Madison Minutes, the ability and resources to produce powerful journalism on a national issue. Last August, the Wisconsin-based digital publication and newsletter asked readers to share how the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling — which overturned the abortion rights protections of Roe v. Wade — affected their family planning. The result of the over 200 responses received was a six-part series of stories, “Post-Roe family planning in Madison,” unpacking the potential long-term impact of the decision.
Indiegraf, which supported the series with a $4,000 grant, sat down with the team to chat about the year-long collaboration and takeaways for other indie publishers on producing ambitious long-form journalism. Below is part of our conversation with Scott Gordon (Tone Madison publisher and editor), Christina Lieffring (Tone Madison news and politics editor and reporter), Holly Marley-Henschen (reporter), Kay Reynolds (illustrator), and Hayley Sperling (Madison Minutes co-founder and reporter).
Note: This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Indiegraf: Where did the idea for the series come from?
Christina, Tone Madison: When the Dobbs decision came down, I did some reporting for Tone, but also for some other outlets about what Dobbs meant, particularly in Wisconsin. For me, it’s also just something that I noticed was being discussed a lot among my cohort — women who were childbearing age or anyone who could potentially become pregnant. This decision prompted a lot of informal conversations among friends and anonymously online about what does this mean for us? I met with Scott and Oona Mackesey-Green, who was Tone’s managing editor at the time, and we just started talking about it. I wanted the conversation to go beyond the people that I knew and that’s where the idea of doing a survey came from. That was when we talked to Madison Minutes.
Hayley, Madison Minutes: This was something that people were protesting about. There were real consequences happening. When Tone came to us with the idea, it felt like something tangible and actionable that we could work on together. We were able to go into the deeper stories of how this is impacting people now in our community. The survey was the meat and potatoes of everything, and Tone did a great job of putting it together. Our specialty at Madison Minutes is having that pulse point on our audience. We have a pretty large set to work with when it comes to our list size so we were able to use that to our advantage to get a solid group of responses, which was very critical to making this series the best it could be. There were hundreds of people that took the time to respond to the survey and pour out personal thoughts and information.
Scott, Tone Madison: Doing the survey approach, I don’t think that’s something that would have worked very well if it was just Tone Madison doing it alone. By partnering up with another publication and especially with the email list Madison Minutes has been able to grow and how they’ve managed to create a large but also very enthusiastic audience that is paying attention to their work. That helped us expand the reach of it. We have a strong audience but we’re a pretty niche publication, so we knew we wanted to cast a wider net.
Christina: When the survey results came in, it was clear that there were a lot of people who wanted to talk about this because we had a short answer segment. I wanted to have this be open because the whole point of having this widely dispersed survey is to get as much variety as possible and perspectives that I couldn’t anticipate. And we got those. There were a lot of people who put in emotional and complicated information there. I’m glad that we were able to have that conversation with the community.
Indiegraf: Can you talk about security around using this survey as a way to gather stories and sources? How did you approach those challenges?
Scott: At the moment of the ruling coming down, it was very frightening and demoralizing. We stepped back and thought about what tools were available to us, and what sort of precautions we needed to take. The most important part of it was being very upfront with people about how we were going to use this information. People will have different opinions about anonymous sourcing but we had to let people feel safe being frank. We used secure channels of communication (Signal) and a secure document management system (Zoho) when we felt that was necessary. Knowing how different people would be taking advantage of this ruling to go after folks, we wanted to be as careful as we could.
Indigraf: How did you come up with the art treatment for the series?
Kay, Tone Madison: I wanted the art to be mid-century-inspired because the post-Roe world has been feeling very pre-Roe. A lot of my work is inspired by collage and queer zine culture. One thing I introduced was a double red line element, which you’ll see repurposed throughout the series, referencing a positive pregnancy test. I’d receive the drafts so I could design specifically for them. I found getting all of those perspectives to be valuable. For example, with “How the Dobbs decision weighs on parents in Madison,” I hear all the time that a lot of people who get abortions are parents who already have children, but I hadn’t heard the more personal perspectives and I felt that was useful for me as someone who is not a parent. It’s important to me to use my skills to support causes that I believe in.
Indiegraf: What has the response been from your audiences to the series?
Hayley: What we did that week was highlight each story in a day of the Madison Minutes newsletter as that day’s “lunchtime read” — the long read that you can take during your lunch hour. That did drive a lot of clicks. People were really interested in those stories and they’re very grateful that someone has taken the time to localize these issues.
Scott: The articles have had strong readership on the site and the response that we’ve had on our social media accounts to it has been good. Having six distinct story angles and Kay’s art bringing this cohesive and compelling visual identity to the whole series helps with that, too. One thing that we like to talk about and I complain about a lot internally, is the concept of impact. Especially in the nonprofit news or startup news world, people are always asking about it in grant applications. It’s hard to articulate that, especially in a state like Wisconsin, where there’s a sense that the usual thing of government being responsive to the pressure created by journalism is maybe not always going to happen.
For me, it was important that we were adding something to the conversation that I don’t think was emphasized in a lot of other local or state media coverage. There was plenty of coverage that was valuable, but I didn’t see a lot of in-depth reporting on how this is affecting people on a day-to-day level and what are the nuances of all these situations. There was a lot of reporting about what politicians were saying about it and what different advocates on various sides of the issue were saying, but we wanted this to completely de-emphasize that and focus on the human impact. What people value about it the most was that the story ideas were driven by what we were hearing from our community. We didn’t have specific story ideas until we took a look at the survey results and identified some of the themes.
Hayley: In journalism, it’s hard to measure impact when no legislation’s actively being passed or laws are being created. From a community standpoint, it was meaningful to be able to tell these stories on a human level and let people know that there are other folks out there struggling with what they’re struggling with as well. Everything about this project, it’s always about the people at the heart of it all.
Christina: I don’t even know how much time I spent reading through the survey results because it was just such a rich text of what people were thinking about and what they were talking about. I thought about journalism being the first draft of history. I don’t want people who look back on this time to just think about how Dobbs affected the election and all the worst-case scenarios. Those are important, but they have also gotten a lot of coverage. I wanted the survey to shed light on the more mundane, everyday decisions that people were making about their personal lives. Now, we have a record of it.
Indiegraf: What has working on this series meant to you as a journalist?
Holly, Tone Madison: I didn’t want to report on it, but I knew I needed to. When you’re interviewing someone that is literally in the same traumatic situation you’re in, it’s a whole different energy because you understand. You understand or at least have a shared understanding of what they’re going through. Talking to people I didn’t know and asking them those questions that journalists ask just to paint a picture of someone and where they’re at was probably the deepest conversations I had about Roe because otherwise it just felt untouchable.
Hayley: There’s a very large LGBTQ community in Madison and I wanted to make sure that their voices were heard. Everyone was able to break out and showcase the individuality of both the subject of the stories and the situations that everyone is in but still connect it back to the larger community about how this is still affecting all of us, whether you know it or not. It was a hard process for me because I felt like there was a heavy responsibility in publishing these stories.
Indiegraf: How did the additional funding and assistance from Indiegraf help you produce the series?
Scott: That additional funding helped us plan more confidently at a time when we, as a very small team with limited resources, were thinking about how to cover something this monumental while also trying to maintain all sorts of other things. It ended up being almost an entire year from start to finish. It was hard to say we were going to commit resources to this without additional funding. Afford is a flexible word in the business because it’s hard and it was during a period where we were dealing with plenty of growing pains. The fact that there’s a whole group of different small publishers out there who we were able to talk a little bit about this with was helpful. Just knowing that other smaller publishers out there are dealing with the same problems, both in covering these kinds of stories and in just staying afloat, is reassuring.
Indiegraf: What was the biggest lesson you learned from working on this series that might be helpful for other publishers who want to do a similar thing?
Christina: I’m proud that a small outlet like ours was able to do this. If we’re able to do this, just about anyone can do this. I highly recommend the survey approach because it’s helpful to find stories that you couldn’t have come up with on your own just based on your own experience. If you do a survey, leave a short answer segment because people will fill it out and you’ll learn things that you might not have any other way.
Scott: The big thing for me is the importance of smaller publications collaborating and supporting each other in different ways, and being comfortable experimenting and trying things that they haven’t before. The fact that these were all relationships, where people were able to trust each other, communicate well, and know what to expect, was essential. That element of trust and bringing similar values to journalism was important. I’m sure some people would dismiss this as an advocacy journalism project, which I don’t think is a dirty word. You can have a strong point of view and still do quality in-depth reporting that’s trustworthy.