Idea Fest How Trump Broke It 091721 08-09172021230020 (copy for Fanlund column)

Pulitzer-prize winning Washington Post writers Carol Leonnig (on screen) and Philip Rucker speak with moderator David Maraniss (lower right) during the first night of live sessions Friday at Cap Times Idea Fest 2021.

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It feels like yesterday, but it was Sept. 16, 2017. Marty Baron, then the executive editor of the Washington Post, spoke before an audience of hundreds on the first day of our first Cap Times Idea Fest.

Baron retired earlier this year and is working on his first book: “Collision of Power: Trump, Bezos, and The Washington Post.” (Jeff Bezos is the Amazon billionaire who owns the Post.)

Idea Fest, meanwhile, keeps gaining steam and evolving.

We just finished production of Idea Fest 2021. Its sessions will be available this week at Our first three festivals were all in-person, then last year went all-virtual because of the pandemic. This year we mixed in-person and virtual.

First, sincere thanks to ticket buyers who were able to attend in masks and contributed to the energy of the live sessions. Thanks also to those who bought tickets to watch via livestream.

One small request: If you are an Idea Fest fan, please take note of the names of our many civic-minded sponsors. Admitting my obvious bias, I believe they are investing in Madison’s future by helping us explore our most pressing issues while backing an independent, locally owned news organization.

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We’ve evolved and adapted since 2017 and are interested in your ideas for how Idea Fest might be better for our community — and more importantly, for you.

If you have ever attended, what changes would you like to see?

If you have not, what would attract you to a live event like ours?

For the uninitiated, the festival is modeled after the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin. At its core, it’s about bringing together terrific speakers and moderators on provocative issues, but it is also intended to be fun.

We pack sessions into adjacent venues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison so attendees can experience the wonderful vibe of central campus in and around the Memorial Union.

Where else can you eat, drink, run into friends and come away smarter, or at least better informed?

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When we begin planning the program each spring, a first step is to ask ourselves what are the most important public affairs questions facing Madison and Dane County right now.

Among our answers this year were the future shape of Madison’s downtown, the city’s shortage of affordable housing, the evolution in Madison policing a year after the Black Lives Matter protests, and what the city would have to do to actually start to close the academic achievement gap between white and non-white students.

Our speakers are authorities on those subjects. For example, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway was on both our housing panel and in the future of downtown conversation.

A second bucket in Idea Fest planning is bringing notable national speakers to Madison, especially in politics and journalism. We’ve always believed that attendees like seeing notables such as David Axelrod, in person. Axelrod, the former Barack Obama strategist and prominent pundit, was part of our 2018 keynote panel.

We’ve always thought there is something special about seeing people like Baron or Axelrod in person, especially when interviewed by David Maraniss, the acclaimed author, Washington Post editor and part-time Madison resident.

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Our third ingredient is to leaven our often serious programming with opportunities for fun. So this year we included a session partnering with Madison’s Forward Theater. We bring food carts and host an after-event reception. We sponsor a trivia contest, hosted a cooking demonstration with a local chef and a music program with a local band. Our aim is to have options for everyone. Fun is the goal.

The Cap Times’ slogan is “as Madison as it gets,” and if you are someone who is immersed in this great city, we want to resonate for you.

So, what types of programs or subjects do you think we lack? Or perhaps do too much?

Through the years, evidence that we have struck a chord with people is reflected in criticisms we get. One year it was that our programming was male-dominated. Or dominated by elite people, who some complain run the city. Or lacked enough conservative voices. (That is an annual concern.)

Other complaints were issue-specific, such as that we had given short shrift to the topic of climate change.

As evidence that we listen, we presented an all-star panel of local environmental experts last year on climate and this past Saturday presented a program that featured a reporter and photographer from the Washington Post who won a Pulitzer Prize in explanatory journalism for work describing the devastating effects of the climate crisis.

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Yes, we do listen. And we will address critiques.

Beyond programming, the format is something that continues to evolve.

In our first years, we’d present four or even five simultaneous sessions to give attendees a bunch of options, but this year we provided a simpler either-or choice between two sessions and thought that worked much better.

This year we had two sessions on Friday night and seven on Saturday in Shannon Hall, our biggest venue. It was a lot to attend consecutively.

Look, we know there are countless options for things to do in Madison; that’s part of why we love it here. But knowing that there is stiff competition for your time and attention, we want to fine-tune Cap Times events.

When I started in this business decades ago, the closest we came to hosting events were newspaper building tours of our printing presses and warehoused rolls of newsprint.

Today I think crafting events is in our wheelhouse. We know how to frame issues and interview people and present “content” in ways people find accessible.

I’ll close with this: Please email Chris Murphy, managing editor and Idea Fest maestro, or me with any thoughts. We will read and acknowledge them all.

We believe Idea Fest is a strong fit for a place as committed and experience-loving as Madison. Help us be better.

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