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Madison ‘fanboy’ – Isthmus | Madison, Wisconsin


Journalists have an expression for when colleagues leave the profession to work in public relations — it’s called “going to the dark side.” The implication is that reporters are abandoning the honorable work of truth-telling for a job spinning information to make their employers look good. 

Dylan Brogan says he heard the crack when it was announced in May that he’d been named the first communications manager for the city of Madison. He says he “probably” used the expression himself when he was a reporter but realizes now that most people don’t view such a move as “turning your back on your profession.”

“Only journalists have said that,” he says. “My parents are very happy,” he adds with a laugh.

A former Isthmus reporter, Brogan says he felt comfortable becoming a public information officer for Madison because city government, as compared to state or federal government, is a different beast. “I think city government and how it functions is so different,” he says. 

The services provided by city government tie more directly to everyday life, Brogan explains. Think street plowing and planting trees. “By its very nature, that makes city government more transparent and therefore accountable.

“I know I’m such a fanboy for Madison,” he adds, “but it really is different.” 

Brogan has long been an unabashed cheerleader for his hometown, even as he turned out stories that raised concerns about city bus routes and employee morale in the Madison school district, where his mother, Kathy Kowalik, taught special education for about 30 years. He has a thing for the city flag (and flags in general), once surveying city properties to identify which were not flying the updated version: “Just half were flying the correct Madison flag ahead of Flag Day on June 14,” he declared, somewhat indignantly.

Brogan grew up in the Tenney-Lapham neighborhood, graduating from East High in 2005. “I just had a wonderful childhood in Madison,” he says. “My family was not wealthy, we were probably lower middle class. I had wonderful schools.” He traces some of his civic devotion to his dad, Joe Brogan, who served on the Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood Association, edited its quarterly newsletter, and kept close tabs on school board issues. 

Brogan left Madison for just two years to attend George Washington University. But he returned to graduate from UW-Madison in 2009. He then worked for more than a decade in Madison in radio and print journalism, including seven years at Isthmus, where he helped transition the paper to a nonprofit after COVID. He most recently worked at the podcast company City Cast as a producer and host. Due to his city job, he has ended his longtime volunteer work at the community radio station, WORT-FM 89.9. 

He explains his move to city PIO this way: “I think it’s that I missed reporting and learning and being part of knowing what’s going on in city government. I was still watching council meetings.” 

He acknowledges that the pay and benefits of his new gig — he will be making about $91,000 a year — were attractive. The salary is tens of thousands more than he earned at Isthmus, and he notes that he did not start receiving any kind of retirement benefits until he began working, at age 35, at City Cast. He says his move also helps his wife, Chali Pittman, who is news and talk director at WORT, continue in journalism. 

Brogan says it feels good to once again be immersed in city issues and is proud of the work he has already done to help reporters access information. “I think I’ve already cut so much red tape,” he says. One early example: a local TV station wanted to do a story on what people need to do to make sure large furniture items are picked up at the curb. The reporter emailed the mayor’s office and Brogan texted the city streets superintendent. “They did a Zoom interview and everybody is happy,” he says. “There weren’t 20 emails.”

Of course there’s a big difference between fielding questions on furniture pickup and, say, police violence or budget overruns. Though Brogan remains a friend of the paper, we’ll continue to hold him and the city accountable, as I know other media in town will as well. 

Dylan advises reporters to get directly in touch with him: text or call. 

The position of city communications manager was approved by the city council in the 2024 operating budget. It’s a civil service position, located in the mayor’s office. Deputy mayors, in the same office, are political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the mayor. 

“It’s theoretical insulation,” says Brogan of his civil service designation. “It would be harder to get rid of me than a deputy mayor.”

The designation also means that Brogan’s job extends beyond the tenure of the current mayor. 

I wrote a column last year about the proliferation of public information officers, locally and across the country. I spoke with Carolyn Carlson, a retired journalism professor who is one of the few researchers to try to quantify the impact of PIOs as gatekeepers to information and sources. 

We talked about how PIOs can be helpful to reporters and residents as well — providing information about potential flooding or where people can get sandbags, for instance. But there is also an inherent tension between reporters and public information officers.

“As a journalist you want to provide information to the public that you’ve vetted and you want to give them objective information,” Carlson told me. “That is not your priority as a PR person. Your priority is to present your client in the best possible light. That is a very diametrically opposed goal because it inherently means that you’re not telling the public anything that puts your client in a bad light. You’re not necessarily concealing information; you’re omitting information.”

I asked Brogan who he sees himself as accountable to. The public? The mayor? “Everyone’s boss is the mayor of the city,” he says. “And the people elect my boss. I think that is something I always need to be mindful of.” 

Brogan insists his position “doesn’t feel like a gatekeeper situation at all.” He says he is committed to transparency and believes the city as a whole is as well. 

“I knew the city was transparent before [taking the job], and I don’t think anyone should take my word for it, but the city can back up how transparent it is. There is an impressive amount of information coming out of the city every day, so much so that you almost need navigators to find it.” 

He says it’s not yet clear what his relationship is to the other PIOs who work in some city agencies; technically he is not their supervisor. He would like to work on improving the communication around projects that involve multiple agencies. “The city can absolutely do a better job of coordinating how its divisions talk to each other,” he says.

Perhaps the most critical issue facing the city is whether the city council will approve a ballot referendum to close a gaping $22 million budget hole. Brogan says he won’t know what his role in a potential referendum would be until a decision is made, but it would likely be to “provide clear and accurate information” and “educate the public and help people understand the consequences.”

Brogan seems to be thriving in his new position; always a newshound, he is now at the center of things. I’m happy for him, but sad to see another talented journalist leave our ever-shrinking ranks. 




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