A fond farewell

A little over four years ago, we set out to launch a new quarterly magazine about “politics, ideas and civic life in Massachusetts.” We had studied the publications of think tanks around the country and had a clear idea of what we wanted to create. We wanted a real magazine that would complement the organization’s research work by covering our major areas of interest — economic opportunity, lifelong learning, safe communities and civic engagement — in the impartial, compelling way that only good journalists can. And we wanted the magazine to look beyond the daily headlines to take a smarter and deeper look at the ideas and people shaping our state’s policy debates.

Those lofty goals created one large and immediate challenge: who to get to serve as the editor of a magazine that existed at the time only in our heads?

Thankfully, in what has to rank as one of our best decisions as the co-founders of MassINC, we hired a quiet, unassuming fellow named Dave Denison to help us turn the magazine of our dreams into the real magazine you now hold in your hands.

In those early days, our hopes were high, but our budget was not. Thus our charge to Dave was a simple but daunting one: “Can you put out a good magazine with just one other full-time journalist on staff, modest budgets for free-lance writers, photography and art direction – and make it something busy people will have to read if they want to be in the know about public policy in Massachusetts?”

Needless to say, even many of our best friends thought it couldn’t be done.

But somehow, Dave did it. After lengthy story conferences where staffers peppered him with dozens of story ideas for each issue, he would retreat to his quiet office and methodically pull each issue together.

They included stories about fascinating people (like the Tom Finneran profile in the Winter 1997 issue) and challenging policy dilemmas (like the probation reform stories in the Spring 1998 issue). They featured regular “departments,” like Town Meeting Monitor and Dave’s own Civic Sense, that took ordinary citizens and the exercise of democracy seriously. Sometimes, like the “How State House is it?” piece in the Winter 1997 issue, they made you laugh out loud about the people and rituals that make our politics so interesting. And more than once, he worked in a subtle homage to one of his Midwestern heroes, Michael Jordan (note the cover headline of the Finneran issue — “The Finneran Rules” — or the binder carried by one of Mo Vaughn’s youthful admirers in the Fall 1997 issue).

All the while, he clung to his original vision, and taught us a lot about publishing in the process. From the beginning, Dave envisioned a magazine that was to be written, edited and produced by journalists — trained professionals who would pursue the impartial coverage of current events and people, and who would want, more than anything, to get it right and tell it well. We have been proud to stay on the publishing side of “the wall,” to let Dave do it his way – and we couldn’t be prouder of the results.

Dave’s tireless work ethic and peerless editorial talents led to remarkably good stories on a wide range of topics. Even more importantly, for us as well as for many of our readers, his work led to a renewed faith in the power of good journalism in an era when “the media” are generally about as popular as a root canal.

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Meet the Author
In some ways, the next editor will have it easy. After all, we now have 14 issues of CommonWealth to guide us, rather than a two-page memo — which is what Dave started with.

But in other ways, the next editor will have it hard — because in Dave Denison, we hired a consummate journalist and a dedicated professional who took CommonWealth magazine to places we had only dreamed about.

Like Jordan, he leaves big shoes to fill. We can only hope to do better than his beloved Bulls in finding a worthy successor.