Some of the graphics, like the text, are clear but dense with information. Others are arrestingly simple. These maps, for example, show how the partisan divide in Milwaukee contrasts with relative political diversity in Chicago:

MilwaukeeMap.jpg

The work was supported by Marquette, which offered Gilbert office space and covered a portion of his salary during a six-month fellowship, so the Journal Sentinel could hire a freelancer to fill in for day-to-day political reporting. The affiliation also created an opportunity for Gilbert to collaborate with Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll, whose research is cited throughout the series, often in in-line footnotes like this:

FranklinNote.jpg

The law school also hosted a “Dividing Lines” conference at the series’ conclusion; for the especially engaged, full video coverage of the conference is here.

For the Journal Sentinel, the project was a way to develop new platforms and skills. And the paper’s investment, Koetting said, lives beyond the bounds of the series. The market, economic, and demographic information amassed by the reporting is expected to inspire and substantiate future stories.

The project was also a reflection of the paper’s strategic response to the business challenges facing newspapers. Despite the Journal Sentinel’s relative market success and acclaim—it boasts one of the strongest market penetration rates in the country—the paper closed three suburban bureaus and drastically cut staff members through multiple buyouts in recent years. At times, it was a struggle to keep morale up.

Rather than “a nip here, a tuck there,” Koetting said, the paper decided to drop some coverage assignments and focus on three critical areas: breaking news, beat expertise and enterprise reporting, and in-depth investigative/explanatory reporting. “All three of those things are seen through the prism of watchdog journalism,” he said. (CJR has written about the Journal Sentinel’s impressive investigative team.)

“In a way, going through challenging times has forced us to figure out what we’re really, really good at, and focus like a laser on those things,” Koetting added. “When you have a reporter like Craig with a singular expertise, and the ability to do a piece of in-depth, data-driven journalism that can raise the conversation of the entire community, you have to find a way to make it work. That means giving up other things, but at the end of the day, what we gave up is worth it.”

It’s worth noting that, while the series spells out some of the downsides to polarization, “raising the conversation” doesn’t mean “trying to fix the problem.” Though it offers theories, the series never quite makes a case for why polarization is uniquely extreme in Milwaukee. Nor is there a strong sense of “where to go from here”—and from Gilbert’s perspective, that’s purposeful.

“It’s not really designed to be, ‘here’s what we need to do to end polarization,’” Gilbert said. “Wisconsin’s gone through incredible upheaval the last few years. One of the themes of the project is that this is about deep-rooted trends and patterns. It might be a depressing thought, but one of the conclusions was that this is not a fleeting phase in our politics.”

That is depressing—especially given how the political divide Gilbert identifies mirrors other social divides, like race. But even if its conclusions are grim, the existence of “Dividing Lines” is reason for optimism. And the Marquette partnership could be a model, in some markets and for some types of subject matter, of how to sustain this sort of work.

Speaking of which, will another fellowship be forthcoming to the newsroom? The Journal Sentinel isn’t sure yet—but the law school is open to it. At the “Dividing Lines” conference, Koetting said, the dean approached him, smiling, and said, “This was fun. Let’s do it again.”

“I almost grabbed a microphone to get that on tape,” Koetting said, with a laugh.

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The Guardian, Grantland, and Salon; blogs at Isak; and can be found on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.