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Madison reacts to The Capital Times refit
Fans, haters, bloggers, and media watchers comment on the daily's demise

When Capital Newspapers revealed Thursday morning that The Capital Times is ending its 90 year run as a daily newspaper this spring, reactions from readers were swift.

Like others, I was both shocked yet ultimately unsurprised by the announcement. Despite being in the works for many months, these changes were a well-kept secret though hardly a revelation, particularly for the paper's staff. Given its decades-long ebb in circulation and the ongoing decline of newspaper industry fortunes, along with the fiscal cushion provided by its partnership with corporate partner and Wisconsin State Journal owner Lee Enterprises, this major shift in business strategy was not unexpected.

Starting April 30, the Cap Times will commence operations as an online publication with a twice-weekly tabloid edition. More directly for numerous employees at the company, though, are plans to cut jobs concomitantly with its new approach to publishing. Together, these changes mark a significant shift in the Madison media landscape, one that's driving plenty of speculation about and eulogies for this local progressive institution.

Commentaries about these changes are rapidly accumulating online, appropriately enough given the growing importance of the medium for the newspaper industry and the stated plans of the Cap Times.

"In the end, the corporate desire to make a few more dollars by killing the paper won out," writes Bill Lueders in an article about impending demise of the afternoon newspaper. Indeed, Capital Newspaper was on message Thursday as it unveiled plans that have been in the making since last spring.

The corporate message
Starting off, and certainly a welcome sight to Capital Newspapers despite the numerous nay-sayers and ill-wishers, are the many comments that follow both the paper's announcement and editorial about the new guise of the Cap Times. These discussions rack up page views and thus ad impressions, the only sure route to revenue right now for an online publication and something the company now has to count on with its new business model.

Of course, the Cap Times couches these changes in its standard liturgy of interpreting the intentions of its Founder, William T. Evjue. This is best exemplified in a video statement from new editor Paul Fanlund, a former assisting managing editor at the State Journal and VP of operations for Madison Newspapers, Inc., the former name of Capital Newspapers:

Conservative comments
Other comments on the change were similarly expectable, namely those from conservative critics looking for an excuse to lay into "Madison's Progressive Newspaper." Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel columnist Patrick McIlheran speculates about the "appeal of 'progressive' publications" as one potential reason for the Cap Times' new identity, while Waukesha Freeman columnist James Wigderson simply bids it adios. A pseudonymous GOP staffer at the Wisconsin Capitol simply declares: "Apparently someone over at Madison Newspapers Inc. finally figured out that the Cap Times was a total, money-losing liberal screed."

Political consultant and new Cap Times online video personality Brian Fraley warns against this interpretation, though. "While there is merit to the claim that the politics of the left that the Cap Times espouses may have hastened this move, they will not be the last daily newspaper to go this route," he writes.

Conservative observer and Cap Times fan Dick Ginkowski memorializes the publication, meanwhile. "In the journalism business -- more specifically, the print journalism business -- the death of a daily newspaper takes on the aura of a funeral," he writes in a eulogy for the afternoon paper that the background and influence of its founder Evjue. "Maybe The Capital Times will continue to be the scrappy voice for those whose voices might otherwise be muffled but slipping a tabloid inside the 'enemy' newspaper twice a week just doesn't seem the same."

Liberal laments
Ginkowski wasn't the only reader lamenting the end of a daily Cap Times. "It's sort of a sad demise for a very progressive newspaper that has been around for 90 years," writes UW College Democrat Ryan Greenfield about the change. "It was the progressive paper in a town that wore its liberalism with pride, and it was unafraid to call out politicians who sacrificed the best interests of the people for their own gain," declares UW College Dems chair Oliver Kiefer in a eulogy for the daily. Describing the paper's progressive history, he speculates that its shift online and to a weekly format could go either way. "In the information age, I wonder if I'm being too sentimental about the daily paper," Kiefer concludes. "If the Cap Times is able to continue high quality journalism with solely online content, perhaps we haven't lost too much at all, but if a second set of eyes that has always looked out for the little guy suddenly disappears from this isthmus, Madison will reap the consequences.

Others weren't as hopeful. Writer Teresa Doyle describes a friend "in tears" about the news, while Richard S. Russell reminices about reading the paper for the last three-and-a-half decades.

The most ardent eulogy comes from Gregory Humphrey, who comments on the simultaneous abruptness of a long-expected announcement and waxes sentimentally about the tactile pleasures of reading newsprint. He writes:

While The Capital Times will try to be relevant in the computer age, and stresses that their content and vocal opinion on national issues and local concerns will still be a mainstay of the efforts William Evjue started in 1917, we all know that this is not so much the start of something new, as it is the end of something grand. Come April a great mainstay of the city is about to end, as we know it. That is worth a moment of reflection, along with a sincere thanks on the part of a grateful city for all that the printed papers have meant to so many.

Finally, State Journal and Isthmus freelance contributor Jay Rath urges supporters of the Cap Times to lobby for its continued publishing as a daily newspaper. "This reminds me of the Vietnam-era saying: that fighting for peace is like screwing for virginity," he declares. "But let me say that the survival of The Capital Times as a daily, printed newspaper is absolutely essential to Madison and Dane County. It is our only mainstream liberal voice. Without it, we will be subjected to a virtual information monopoly; and let's not kid ourselves -- radio and TV get their news agendas from the papers." Rath urges supporters to write letters of protest to the shareholders of the Capital Times Company (the co-owner with Lee Enterprises of Capital Newspapers) via the Evjue Foundation, and to start supporting the daily with their pocketbooks. He concludes: "Madison has saved many other 'lost' causes before, and never was there a cause so worthy."

The biz
On the same day that Capital Newspapers made its announcement, the New York Times published a much-remarked upon article examining the double-barred threat of declining advertising and circulation faced by newspapers. This piece and the general state of the newspaper industry in an online world did not go unnoticed, with some observers considering the business environment, perils, and opportunities for the new Cap Times.

New media executive Alan Mutter examines the accelerating extinction of the afternoon daily. "Like canaries in a coal mine filling with methane, the few remaining afternoon newspapers in competitive metro markets are gasping their last," he writes, looking at the long and steady decline of the format as its problems anticipate those of morning papers. The Cap Times cessation as a delay will be followed by others, he predicts.

The presentation of Thursday's announcement underwhelmed one pseudonymous Madison blogger, meanwhile, who was unimpressed by the video and interpreted the paper's editorial as a best face exercise. "The achievements of the past are real enough, but the present seems more iffy," he writes, considering the challenges the new product will face in terms of esthetics, resources, and competition once it heads online. "You can't help but wish them well," he concludes. "But you also can't help but wonder whether the new move is just a face saving way to push The Capital Times off-stage into permanent retirement."

Former Madison mayor Paul Soglin applauds the decision, describing it as "marvelous opportunity for Madison and The Capital Times. These changes are "another indication that the future of news is on the Internet," contends onetime Madison reporter, mayoral candidate, and Soglin ally Jim Rowen, "not as the sole news and information format or platform, but the one that is growing." He also notes that plans for the new tabloid wing of the publication will place the Cap Times in direct competition with Isthmus.

Giving props to the Cap Times for its tenacity and dedication to hard news, Jesse Russell at Dane101 is skeptical of the potential outcome of this change. "I'll wait until I see it to cast final judgment, but it sounds like Capital Newspapers is about to repeat the same mistakes they made with Post and coreweekly," he writes of the company's recent ventures into the weekly tabloid biz. However, he also professes confidence in the ability of the paper's marquee personality John Nichols to make lemonade out of the situation.

"I personally think this move is a little premature since there is still a very large number of people that enjoy their newspaper," writes former Capital Newspapers staffer Brett Farrey, meanwhile. "My guess is their numbers have gotten so bad, that this is more of cost cutting move." He also notes the impending job losses, but also applauds the publication for diving headlong online and for the environmental impact of reducing newsprint. Similar comments on both of these latter thoughts are also made by WKOW technical director Adam Chernow.

The difficulties of succeeding in building an online business model are explored by Ben Brothers in his commentary on the change, noting on the necessity of a local publication focusing on local concerns. "No one has yet discovered a business model that can pay for the reporters and the shoe leather and the time commitments necessary to demand transparency in the state house and on the city council," he writes, "while giving away their content for free on a website."

The people
Though the transformation of the Capital Times has been in the works for many months, it's executives and owners were successful in keeping their plans out of the public eye until issuing the announcement on Thursday. Even then, the article was heavy on official corporate optimism and light on details, particularly the fate of employees who will be affected by the move. There was only a brief bit of context near the bottom of the piece:

The changes will result in a smaller workforce in The Capital Times newsroom and in other areas of Capital Newspapers, though the size of the change has not been finalized. A voluntary separation program for employees will be part of the transition.
Not included were any numbers on job losses or the fact that the company's employees have been told that it will resort to "involuntary separation" should not enough employees take buyouts and early retirement.

While the Cap Times may be going (primarily) virtual, many of its employees are facing very real decisions about their jobs. One observer in Iowa comments on the direct and indirect effects resulting from these changes. Rachel Unekis writes:

I think people need to be aware of what they are doing when they start switching to online versions of papers. Not only are the people at the actual newspaper being put out of a job. Think about all the delivery people. Moving deeper into the company, think about the people who repaired the press, ordered and delivered the supplies to keep the company running, and even the people who will no longer be receiving their daily papers.
Or for that matter, she concludes, what about readers who don't own a computer or aren't regularly online? The digital divide may seem a quaint notion to those breathing the euphoria of Web 2.0, but there remain readers whose access is limited to pulp, particularly among those still subscribing to the print editions of daily newspapers.

As the media trade press picked up on the story through Thursday afternoon, though, details about the job cuts started emerging. An article in Editor & Publisher quoted John Nichols as stating that some 40 to 45 out of a news staff of 60 would be remaining onboard at the new publication. A more specific example of the attrition at the paper is detailed in a report from the National Press Photographers Association. It starts off by explaining how the story was broken to employees at an internal company meeting:

"It was a surprise to the staff," chief photographer Rich Rygh told News Photographer magazine today. "We came in this morning for the usual news meeting and were told there would be a staff meeting at 8:30. We had no idea at all."
The article goes on to quote Rygh as stating that only three of the five staff photographers at the paper would be departing with a severance package, and that those remaining onboard would be "run to death" to keep up the pace. It continues:
"We don't have much of an option," he said. "It was basically, 'Take your buy-out and go,' so unless something changes I'm going to take the buy-out. I'm 57 years old and I had hoped to retire here, but I can't see working in the situation where it's going to be 'grab a photo anywhere you can and use it regardless of quality,' that's unprofessional. They're also going to have freelancers shoot, and the reporters were told they'll be shooting for themselves," Rygh said.
It also reported that the severance packages were based on years of employment, with the highest level being one year's pay for 26 years with the company.

One publication that the brass at the Cap Times did speak with on Thursday was its corporate sibling and new distribution partner, the Wisconsin State Journal. The dominant morning daily owned by Lee published a detailed article about the change late Thursday night. The piece notes that some 40 jobs are expected to be cut at the Cap Times, both in its editorial department as well as among staffers working on the printing and distribution of the physical paper. It also confirms that some 20 of these job losses will be in the newsroom, with an emphasis on reducing copy editors, though that still leaves multiples cuts to be made in the editorial sections. Additionally, the piece reports that employees subject to layoffs would receive the same severance package as those leaving voluntarily.

Finally, the State Journal article notes that these changes have been in development since May 2007, with the unanimous final decision made in January by the Capital Newspapers board, which is split between representatives for the Cap Times and Lee Enterprises. It is this gestation period that is the subject of the most interesting commentary published online Thursday about the change.

Dave Wilcox is a partner and media strategist in the national ad agency and public relations firm Lindsay, Stone & Briggs, based at the top of State Street next to the Madison Children's Museum. He also writes online, both at his blog Kerfuffle and as a diarist on Daily Kos. In a commentary about the changeover at the Cap Times posted on both sites, he briefly discusses the fact that the paper has been strategizing for months on how to break the news of its passing. He writes:

I'm personally pretty sad about this, but I've had time to get used to the news. Unlike even most of the Cap Times staff, I was part of a meeting last December to make communication plans for the announcement to staff, advertisers and readers that daily publication was coming to an end. It was a hard secret to keep among my progressive friends. I made sure to give my Cap Times carrier a really nice holiday tip because I knew well before he did that he'd be out of work.
Wilcox goes on to express hope for the publication's future online.

This confirms the reticence of new editor Fanlund to speak frankly about the future of the Cap Times in an interview for the Isthmus cover story published last December on the occasion of the paper's 90th year in business. As reported by Jason Shepard:

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.
In the conclusion to this story, John Nichols is quoted as speaking optimistically about the paper's future and about his hopes that it "will remain eternally" in the newspaper business.

Whether or not the new version of The Capital Times can still aspire to this status -- and observers certainly are disagreeing on this point -- there is no doubt that it is changing courses into the unknown. Only time will tell where it ends up heading.

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