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Thursday, November 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 23.0° F  A Few Clouds
The Paper
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A tear for The Capital Times
Be sad, and mad, over the loss of Madison's afternoon daily

A longtime reader of The Capital Times called me to say that the news made him cry. When I mentioned this to Dave Zweifel, the paper's longtime editor, now emeritus, he confided, "I cried."

Maybe we all should.

The announcement last week that the Cap Times is, after 90 years, suspending publication as an afternoon print daily to become a round-the-clock web product with two weekly offshoots, is nothing if not sad.

It's sad for subscribers who are not web-connected, and thus can't "access" the publication's "content" online. It's sad for those to whom reading a daily newspaper means, curiously enough, reading a newspaper -- not snacking on news bytes in-between watching videos on YouTube and checking for new friends on Facebook.

"I unfortunately can't do anything about the march of progress," sighs Zweifel. "I'd love to go back to the '60s." Back when the Cap Times had 47,000 subscribers, about 30,000 more than it does today.

It's sad for the workers who will lose their jobs. Capital Newspapers Inc., which owns the Cap Times and Wisconsin State Journal, plans to cut about 40 positions. (This doesn't include scores of newspaper carriers, the hardest-working people in the business.) Zweifel says his 65-employee newsroom will shed 15-20 bodies -- "probably closer to 15." Layout workers, copy editors, photographers and sports writers will be the hardest hit.

Cap Times employees are being offered buyouts equal to 10 to 52 weeks of their current salary, depending on longevity (two weeks for each year of service). If they don't leave voluntarily, they must reapply for available jobs and hope they get picked.

It's no accident, of course, that the paper is being reincarnated -- at least for now -- as two free weekly papers with higher circulations and a much larger staff than Isthmus. As one Cap Times employee puts it, "At last, Capital Newspapers has found a way to combine its twin obsessions of shutting down the Cap Times and harassing Isthmus out of business."

If this goal is achieved, presumably, the logic behind keeping the Cap Times alive will evaporate, once and for all.

Zweifel and others are of course right to try looking on the bright side. Optimism is better than despair, though the latter is often more realistic.

Still, the incessant cheerfulness of associate editor John Nichols is more than a little obnoxious. "I think it's pretty exciting," he chirps of the changes, which he admits are not economically necessary.

"We could have kept publishing a daily newspaper for as long as we wanted," says Nichols, repeating a refrain the paper's management has sounded for years. "This isn't a situation where we had to shut down."

That's because the Capital Times Co. is half-owner, along with Lee Enterprises, of Capital Newspapers Inc., and thus shares equally in the profits from the much larger State Journal and a slew of regional papers. The Capital Times Co. and Lee each has five representatives on the Capital Newspapers board. No decision on the future of either paper can be made without the other side's consent.

Cap Times managing editor Judy Ettenhofer, responding to speculation about corporate skulduggery, asserted in a web post that Lee did not "have any role in planning our changes." That's simply not true. As Zweifel confirms, the changes were discussed with and approved by the Lee reps on the Capital Newspapers board long before most folks at the Cap Times were told a thing. (Boy, I'm really blowing my job prospects at TCT in the post-Isthmus era, aren't I?)

Yes, the newspaper industry has been hurting. Both Lee and the Capital Times Co. have seen their stock values plummet. But Capital Newspapers' profits, as measured by Capital Times Co. dividends, have gone up year after year, without exception, for more than a decade. In 2006, Capital Newspapers topped $14.5 million in profit -- which, I'm sure Nichols would agree, is properly defined as the difference between what workers earn and what they get paid.

Now some of the workers responsible for this largess will be discarded. How do you put a positive spin on that? Will working-class hero John Nichols be drawing smiley faces on their pink slips?

I don't mean to be overly harsh. As someone who loves (loved?) The Capital Times, I am aware that my anger and sadness are tied up together, and need sorting out.

In an online posting last week, I chalked the changes up to greed -- a corporation putting the screws to a profitable operation in order to make a few more bucks. But Zweifel has since persuaded me that there is more to this story.

"The bottom line for us is keeping the Cap Times alive," he says. "If we really wanted to save money, we'd do what virtually every other afternoon newspaper in America's competing markets have done and simply close up shop. We're not doing that by a long shot. We believe we can keep our voice alive for a long time to come by putting ourselves in a position to take advantage of the new technology that is revolutionizing the way people get their news and information."

Others at the paper share this assessment. "Something had to give," allows one staffer, who reports being "personally excited about the changes. Maybe more people will see our work now."

That's part of what's going on here. Not only does The Capital Times likely have the largest editorial staff of any 17,000-circulation daily in the country, it is also possibly the nation's best daily with a circulation south of 20,000.

A dedicated core of talented journalists have for years poured their hearts into making the Cap Times a top-notch paper, only to reach an ever-smaller print audience. Laments Zweifel, "I think to myself, as we watch the circulation numbers come in, who the hell are we talking to anymore?"

Over the last several years, the paper tried just about everything -- redesigns, promotions, later press times, expanded distribution -- and failed. In the end, the Cap Times simply could not withstand the public's indifference. No newspaper can.

In December, Isthmus ran a cover story on The Capital Times, on the occasion of its 90th birthday. The story's subhead asked, "Will it live to see 100?"

My answer is: Let's hope so.

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