When he's not giving speeches and writing books, or traveling the country as The Nation's Washington correspondent, The Capital Times' John Nichols is usually churning out editorials on his wireless laptop at Ancora, a 21st-century version of the hard-bitten reporter phoning in stories from the local tavern.
Wisconsin's most prominent journalist is a familiar face at the King Street coffee shop, so much so that local politicians and activists routinely stop in for advice. The other day, it was Madison Ald. Marsha Rummel shuffling over to talk about city funding for neighborhood police officers. Nichols' response included a history of American policing and an analysis of the values of Madison's police chief. "John Nichols," Rummel gushed, "you are so smart!"
No doubt Nichols could have left Madison long ago for bigger things. But the former national correspondent for newspapers in Toledo and Pittsburgh - he holds a master's in journalism from Columbia University - professes to love his native state's capital city, where he and his wife are raising a toddler.
Nichols has another love here: The Capital Times. The enviably prolific writer is freakishly cheery about his newspaper, and sees his job as a calling. He's not alone. The paper's newsroom remains a hotbed of romanticism and idealism, despite the depression of the broader newspaper industry. (Full disclosure: I wrote articles for the paper in college and was a staff writer there from 1999 to 2001).
"You look around The Capital Times and you see a whole lot of people who feel a deep responsibility to this newspaper and what it represents," says Nichols. He counts himself among those who believe "there will always be a Cap Times because Bill Evjue said so."
History buff Nichols, it so happens, sets up his makeshift office just down the street from where Bill Evjue launched Madison's progressive newspaper 90 years ago this week, on Dec. 13, 1917.
Despite years of declining print readership - weekday paid circulation has dropped to an abysmal 16,565 in the most recent reporting period - The Capital Times remains highly readable. With a few exceptions, the paper's reporters are more experienced and better sourced than their counterparts at the Wisconsin State Journal. And its opinion pages remain influential and provocative.
Capital Newspapers Inc., the company that owns both The Cap Times and State Journal (as well as 18 other newspapers and several niche publications in 17 counties), continues to increase its profits, at least according to an analysis of dividends paid from stock in the Capital Times Company. Last year, the company paid about $7.3 million in dividends; since the Capital Times Co. is half-owner of Capital Newspapers, profits for the overall operation likely topped $14.5 million. (The other half-owner is Lee Enterprises, the nation's fourth-largest newspaper chain, based in Davenport, Iowa.)
Because of Evjue's foresight, this largess benefits more than just stockholders. The Evjue Charitable Trust, funded with Evjue's donated stock, gave $2.3 million to community projects in 2007, contributing to Madison's civic and cultural life in ways that are tough to match. (An additional $2 million goes annually to Evjue's heirs, including Jack Lussier. This money will eventually revert to the trust.)
Capital Times publisher Clayton Frink insists that decades of speculation about the paper's imminent demise have never been based in fact, given its unique ownership arrangement. By sharing equally in revenues from the State Journal and other papers, the Cap Times can weather circulation numbers that would have forced severe staff cutbacks if not closures at other papers.
"Our trustees and board are committed to keeping the voice of The Capital Times alive and vital forever," says Frink, adding that the company's trustees have flatly rejected buyout offers from Lee in the past. "We are not interested in selling out, and our position has not wavered. We're proud to have half-ownership in [Capital] Newspapers, and we're proud of our franchise." He predicts the newspaper will be publishing well beyond his lifetime.
The Cap Times currently has roughly 58 full-time newsroom employees, likely the largest staff of a daily paper with a circulation south of 20,000 in the nation. This is possible because of the overall profitability of the operation, which some say is subsidized at the expense of the State Journal, whose staff of about 90 may be on the low end for a paper with a paid circulation of 87,708 daily and 141,234 on Sunday.
As papers make the inevitable transition from print to the Web, readers can select news sources based on values and interests rather than the geographic limits of newspaper delivery. This could bode well for The Capital Times' brand of local political news and progressive editorials.
The Capital Times says readership on its portion of Madison.com, measured in page hits, increased by 85% from October 2006 to October 2007. Its editors are emphasizing the need to put fresh stories on the Web for peak readership times in the early morning and lunchtime hours.
And executive editor Paul Fanlund, an outsider tapped last year to head a newsroom full of veterans, has stirred the committed but sometimes sleepy staff, and is earning decent marks.
In some ways, The Capital Times may be better positioned today than it has been in decades.
From Evjue to Zweifel
The Capital Times has a rich history, and the contemporary link to it is longtime editor Dave Zweifel.
"Since Dave was a kid, he wanted nothing else but to be editor of The Capital Times," says Nichols. "And for three decades, he's defined this newspaper."
The son of small-town farmers, Zweifel started his own small newspaper in New Glarus when he was still in high school. It eventually had 300 subscribers and got a write-up in The Cap Times. Evjue told the young man to stop in for a job interview when he finished college. The day after Zweifel graduated from UW-Madison with a journalism degree in 1962, he showed up on Evjue's doorstep - literally.
By this point, Evjue was a larger-than-life figure in Madison politics. In 1917, after a philosophical break over Wisconsin Sen. Robert La Follette's opposition to World War I, Evjue quit the State Journal and started his own newspaper to advocate for peace and progressive values. That same year, Lee Enterprises bought the State Journal. Evjue struggled mightily in those early days to keep the presses rolling, selling $1 shares of stock to help the paper survive an advertising boycott.
When Zweifel was hired, Evjue's newspaper was thriving. Early on, he was assigned to write a story about the new windows in Evjue's office that let the publisher look out without others being able to see in. Zweifel failed to do so for the next day's paper ("It wasn't like I was going to get scooped by the State Journal about Evjue's goddamned windows") and was summoned for a scolding from "the old man." He left Evjue's office thinking "my career at The Capital Times was over."
Zweifel survived that crisis, and became adept at avoiding Evjue's tirades. But he was clearly and profoundly shaped by Evjue's vision, politics and passion.
Evjue died in 1970, after setting up the charitable trust that has since poured tens of millions of dollars into the Madison community. But perhaps his most consequential business move - and the reason his paper is still alive - was the deal he inked with Lee in 1948. Both parties agreed to sell their newspapers to a third company, then called Madison Newspapers Inc., which would in turn be owned jointly and in equal measure by the Capital Times Co. and the State Journal Division of Lee Enterprises.
"The stroke of Evjue's genius," says Zweifel, "was to get the 50-50 ownership." At the time, both newspapers were suffering financially, and the deal saved money by consolidating advertising, production and distribution. The State Journal, with a circulation of 35,000, ceded the dominant afternoon position to The Capital Times, then with 40,000 readers, and in return got the Sunday spot, which today is any newspaper's cash cow.
Capital Newspapers (renamed from Madison Newspapers in 2003) is governed by a board of 10 individuals, made up of five reps each from Lee Enterprises and the Capital Times Co. Separately, the two companies contract to provide editorial content to their respective newspapers.
This ownership arrangement is not well understood. As State Journal editor Ellen Foley told Isthmus last year, "We're governed by a contract that was negotiated in 1948 that very few of us know the contents of."
Some State Journal employees view The Capital Times as a drain on resources that their larger, more popular paper justly deserves. Meanwhile, some Capital Times employees resent the influence of Lee Enterprises on business decisions. Below the corporate echelon, most employees view their counterparts as competition rather than colleagues, despite sharing the same physical plant.
Not looking forward
Zweifel has been calling the shots as editor since 1983, after working himself up the ladder, starting with his appointment as city editor in 1971. But his role in day-to-day coverage decisions was diminished in July 2006, when Fanlund was hired as executive editor. That has taken some getting used to.
"No one can have the relationship with a veteran staff that Dave Zweifel has," says Fanlund. "I knew it'd be a challenge coming in after this beloved and admired editor, who still would be a major voice at the paper."
There are many editors whose retirements reporters dream of, even conspire for. Zweifel wasn't among them. "This is not original, but Dave is one of the nicest and most decent people in the world - and he cares passionately about the newspaper and the community and the people who work for him," says former managing editor Phil Haslanger, who has known Zweifel for 35 years.
Doug Moe, whom Zweifel lured to the Cap Times from his post as editor of Madison Magazine, says, "The trait of a good editor, I think, is that his or her writers want to make him or her proud." For reporters, quite a high followed a "Helluva story!" from Zweifel, either in the newsroom or during his monthly staff meetings.
Zweifel still works fulltime as the paper's editor, writing and editing editorials, as well as a thrice-weekly opinion column.
"I'm gonna be 68 years old," says Zweifel. "But - my wife is going to be thrilled to read this - I'm married to this newspaper. As long as I'm having fun and I'm healthy, I want to be a part of it. I just don't want to be chained to it."
For years, the plan had been for Haslanger to succeed Zweifel. But then, as Zweifel succinctly puts it, "Haslanger found God, and that plan went to hell." In 2005, Haslanger decided to step back from journalism to become a pastor, fulfilling a longtime yearning.
A year later, Fanlund was named executive editor - a surprise because he came from the "dark side" - that is, the State Journal side. Fanlund had been worked there as a reporter and assistant managing editor before serving as vice president of operations for Capital Newspapers.
So how's it working?
Fanlund has serious journalism instincts and liberal politics - not a bad fit. But he's reserved and stiff, and some staffers complain about his proclivity for closed-door meetings and memos that verge on condescending. They say he's failed to inspire, and hasn't lived up to his initial promise to actively seek staff input.
And then there's his odd refusal to talk about the future of the newspaper, awkwardly sticking to a "no comment" mantra in an otherwise cordial interview in which he spoke freely on his role at the paper and other topics.
"The Capital Times is moving up on its 90th birthday," he says over coffee in the company cafeteria. "I'm just not willing to look forward." He measures his words carefully, at one point leaving a full 60 seconds of silence between question and answer. "There are two things I've decided just not to comment on: the future of The Capital Times, and the future of its journalistic focus and emphasis."
Fanlund's reticence may be a sign that he realizes something about the paper's viability that he wants to keep close to his chest. One self-described "conspiracy theory" about Fanlund, an insider relates, is that he was brought in by the corporate board to transition the paper into oblivion. Others suggest he might not want to offend staff by talking publicly about potential changes.
It's hard for serious journalists to be optimistic about the future of daily papers. A critical mass of the community no longer turns to newsprint for a daily snapshot of their world. As news organizations grapple with declining readership - and the constant pressure to do more with less - they're trying to bend the traditional model of local daily newspaper journalism to attract new readers.
Newspapers across the country have slashed government coverage in favor of longer trend and feature stories. Sports and entertainment news increasingly dominate page one. Stories are often secondary to photos and graphics, and the "news hole" is forever shrinking. Efforts to attract younger readers have for the most part failed.
Under Fanlund, The Capital Times is showing some signs of following the pack, bringing more feature stories to page one, creating an "urban affairs" and local trends beat filled ably by reporter Katie Dean, and hiring a graphics editor, an area in which the paper had long been short-staffed.
"I think our biggest challenge is making The Capital Times relevant and important for the next century," says managing editor Judy Ettenhofer, a former assistant city editor and opinion page editor promoted by Fanlund last year. She knows the paper's personalities well, although she's not a lifer and once worked as a copy editor at the State Journal. "It's a very eccentric staff, in many lovable ways and many frustrating ways, but I am of them, and I think I understand them."
Ettenhofer knows the dilemmas she faces as she tries to reshape the paper. Older reporters aren't sure how to write effectively for the Web without shortchanging traditional coverage. Editors want "magazine-style" trend stories on page one, but these take serious time to execute well and might not be what readers want. And there is constant tension between run-of-the-mill beat coverage and enterprise reporting.
The result is an ongoing identity crisis, with the paper being pulled in different directions.
Why doesn't The Capital Times boldly try something different? Instead of going soft, why not go hard? Shift staff to emphasize late-breaking news, political and government coverage, investigative reporting and analysis pieces. Focus on stories that are important, not merely interesting. Use the Web to stake out a distinct brand of consistently updated, local and smart journalism.
On its best days, The Capital Times is already doing this, reaping the benefits of its reputation as a "writer's paper." Susan Troller, Bill Novak and newcomer Mary Yeater Rathbun provide fine coverage of the schools, county and city, respectively. Judith Davidoff has done prescient reporting on the state cable deregulation bill, among other stories. David Callender consistently writes important, richly sourced stories on state government, as did Anita Weier until she moved to cover the UW-Madison. Veteran courthouse reporter Mike Miller is widely respected for his discretion and judgment, and business reporters Jeff Richgels and Mike Ivey are known for smart, hard news. Samara Kalk Derby writes colorful events coverage. And Doug Moe's ability to turn out five quality columns a week puts most other columnists to shame.
On the editorial page, the paper's feistiness is embodied by its current crusade to remove Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler. Its endorsements remain relevant. Just ask the seven members of the Madison school board, each of whom won - one by the narrowest margin in the board's history - with the backing of The Capital Times.
As the State Journal cuts back on local government reporting, The Cap Times should be expanding its coverage of these overlooked areas. Rather than pushing feature stories for page one, the paper should pursue stories about important trends, issues and people.
This will mean some tough choices. A much-despised computer upgrade has virtually wiped out the benefit of a later deadline promised by eliminating an early edition. Management should work to push back reporting deadlines as late as possible to maximize the paper's ability to deliver fresh, same-day reporting.
Most important, at some point The Capital Times needs to conclude that striving to be all things to all readers is a detriment rather than a benefit. One recent "Sound Off" call said the paper has "sunk to new inane depths" with its story about moms who blog, a comment that could apply to some other recent "trend" stories.
It is a rare and wondrous thing for a city as small as Madison to have two daily newspapers. A lot of larger cities, Milwaukee included, have lost this long ago.
"It's very unusual these days to see a morning and an afternoon newspaper in the same town," says newspaper analyst John Morton, based in Silver Spring, Md. Of the 600 afternoon dailies that remain across the United States, most are in small towns with no competition and without expensive suburban distribution systems. As for mid-size cities with two dailies, Morton says Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, Pa., come to mind, but few others.
Many two-newspaper towns, Seattle and Denver among them, have altered Joint Operating Agreements so both papers become morning papers. In Madison, says Morton, "you have what looks like a JOA, walks like a JOA, and quacks like a JOA, but isn't a JOA." (The key distinction is that JOA papers own a third company that performs joint functions; in Madison, the company that performs the joint functions owns both papers.)
This "unique ownership system has enabled ownership there to keep an afternoon paper going," Morton says. Still, for The Capital Times, "There's just a huge disadvantage today with the afternoon market." Asked to name a good afternoon paper in a big city, the veteran analyst gives up quickly. "What we've seen over decades is that there aren't a lot of afternoon newspapers left."
There are those who see their $11 monthly subscription to The Capital Times as a civic responsibility. Madison is a better place for having two daily newspapers, including one dedicated to progressive politics.
"We care deeply about what we do - everybody here," says Lee Sensenbrenner, a UW grad who covered the county and schools beats - and went to Iraq as an embedded journalist - before being promoted to assistant city editor last year.
"Whether it's just getting people through lunch, telling a story that would never be told or presenting a different view, what we offer daily to readers is important," he says. "And The Cap Times ought to be around forever not just for what it publishes, but for what it represents and gives to the community."
John Nichols says today's media climate bodes well for the paper's future, because management cares more about preserving Evjue's legacy than maximizing profits. In fact, he foresees a day when Lee Enterprises might want to sell off its share of the Wisconsin State Journal.
"I'd rather be us than them," proclaims Nichols. "We've made it through the period where so many American cities lost their newspapers. The changing economics of newspapers and the evolution of American journalism suggest to me that The Capital Times has survived long enough that it will remain eternally."