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April 28, 2008

The Presses Stop But the Press Goes On: Capital Times Lives on the Web

The Cap Times was re-born to Madison on Saturday. Ambivalence was felt about the lost authority of print-on-paper news. Generational blues were sung, a flying leap taken. Now a progressive newspaper must make real progress on the Web.

Over drinks the night before meeting, Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger went years past where I planned to time-travel the next day. Talking about the presses they’d just spent tens of millions of pounds buying, he shrugged and said:

“They may be the last presses we ever own.”

Jeff Jarvis, The Last Presses, Buzzmachine, Dec. 5, 2005.

Take a look at this photograph. It shows employees of the Capital Times in Madison, WI, holding one of the last editions of their newspaper, an afternoon daily founded in 1917. These people are losing their jobs, and the newspaper they brought forward six days a week will no longer stretch across the big machines you can see behind them.

The photo isn’t a celebration. The people in the picture, though proud of their work, are not full of that fighting spirit. They are gathered to mark the end of something. Every day they put out a newspaper that won’t be put out that way any more. Behind them are the last presses at the Capital Times.

The presses have stopped but the press goes on. That’s my headline. Here’s the New York Times account and a local report. I wanted to add my own.

There’s no photograph of it, but the Capital Times was re-born on Saturday, which was a day of pain and hope for journalism in Madison. Ambivalence too: about the Web, and the lost authority of print-on-paper. Generational blues were felt. The good part is pretty simple: the Cap Times (“Your Progressive Newspaper”) will go on reporting the news. Journalists like John Nichols will go on editing and writing opinion. But the production logic will shift. The Cap Times is now on online newsroom—a NORG, in fact—with an independent editorial voice, plus two weeklies in tabloid form.

I see a web-to-print play aborning, to me a wise try. Plus they aced the distribution part of the exam: new tabs inserted into the morning daily, the Wisconsin State Journal, which in turn gains circulation from the demise of the afternoon paper, putting the ex-afternoon paper’s weeklies into way way more homes than the fading daily ever reached: 17,000 compared to 104,000 in the new arrangement. For the Cap Times it’s a brand new public to inform. Potential influence has been expanded. The journalism has to change, and no one knows how yet.

This outcome—which includes a flying leap into the digital unknown by a staff not known for its Web savvy—is the result of unique circumstances in Madison. For the people there who care about newspapers, the ground shook on Saturday. Some said goodbye to all that, and left the trade. Others went forward with a new thing. A lot of cynicism remained.

The deal was reported in February: The Cap Times would cease publication as an afternoon daily and change itself into an online journal with two weekly print editions— a news and opinion tabloid on Wednesdays, an arts and entertainment one on Thursdays.

The two papers have separate newsrooms and editorial pages, but they long ago combined other operations, splitting the profits 50-50 even though the Capital Times was smaller, weaker, and not a money maker. The paper sustained a decent-sized news staff: about 60-65 compared to 100 or so at the Wisconsin State Journal. In the end 24 people were cut from that staff. Seventeen of them are in the last presses photo. This is the pain part. The paper ran bios of each. According to the New York Times, about 40 people remain in the newsroom.

“Today marks our last edition as a traditional daily newspaper of the sort Americans knew in the 19th and 20th centuries,” said the editorial on Saturday. “Starting tomorrow, The Capital Times will be a daily newspaper of the sort Americans will know in the 21st century.” Which of course is the hope part.

The founder of the Capital Times, William T. Evjue, split from the Wisconsin State Journal at the height of World War I. Evjue strongly backed Wisconsin’s Robert M. La Follette, and his crusading populism. The State Journal less strongly. (It’s owned by Lee Enterprises, an Iowa-based chain.) The two papers competed as businesses for thirty years but then called a truce and combined in 1948, which was a lot earlier than other deals that created Joint Operating Agreements between rival newspapers, as they are known. The theory is: you preserve two editorial staffs, two voices.

In 1970, on his death, Evjue transferred ownership of the paper to a foundation he had started. His will demanded that profits not invested in the newspaper be distributed to the community as grants. (Assets today are $25 million.) This saved his newspaper from a cookie cutter fate, allowing Evjue’s voice to carry and linger long enough for heirs to bring it across into the next era. Ideologically, the Capital Times cut a distinct—and left-wing or to later generations “progressive”—path. It of course opposed Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, who was from Wisconsin. (See this history and this video from Nichols.)

“Capital Times will carry on the fight in a new form,” vowed editor emeritus Dave Zweifel, the paper’s dominant figure after Evjue’s death. He spoke across 91 years of Wisconsin progressives in commemorating Saturday’s events. Zweifel summoned a different photograph, showing Evjue turning the key on new presses in 1961.

The players may be different in 2008 than they were in 1917. The powerful lobbies of the railroads and banks have been replaced by even more powerful corporate lobbies and their deep-pocketed associations. All too many laws are written for the elites, not for the public. Money controls elections, and politicians, groveling for money themselves, refuse to do anything about it.

In other words, if peace and justice are to be served, there’s a lot of work ahead…

And so after today, we’ll be pushing a different button from the one Mr. Evjue pushed on his new press back in 1961. He didn’t shy then from forging ahead, embracing new technology that would make his paper better and stronger.

The button we push tomorrow will move The Capital Times to the Web seven days a week — as one of our reporters put it, from your mailbox to your inbox — giving us the opportunity to carry Bill Evjue’s message to more people than ever before.

This passage reminds us that newspapers have always been good for propagation, as well as information. The Capital Times is a newspaper trying to pass along its DNA (non-profit, progressive daily) and possibly influence the course of the press after the “jump” into another frame. Will it work? I have no idea. But it makes sense, what they’re doing. (See this account of another publisher’s print-to-web leap.)

I asked my friend and colleague Lew Friedland, who teaches journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and studies social capital, what these events meant for the press in Madison. I also asked him what PressThink readers should know that would not be apparent if you don’t live in Madison. He told me the Cap Times suffered for being the afternoon newspaper, which used to be the more valuable slot.

However, the Capital Times is also a decidedly progressive, left-of-center, newspaper and, although Madison still remains a town that is left-of-center by almost all American standards, it is not as far left as most people outside of Wisconsin believe. It is a city of about 250,000 in a metro-area of 500,000. Much of that surround consists of middle-class, middle of the road suburbs, and while neither paper has succeeded in expanding its circulation to match growth in this area, the Wisconsin State Journal has been aggressively pursing this expanding audience, while the Capital Times has been mostly indifferent, focusing on the city, the progressive community, and younger audiences through its lifestyle tabs.

I have deep respect for the Capital Times, its editors, and staff, but it has operated as an island in many ways, upholding journalistic traditions while much of the community has been changing around it. In fact, it was insulated from having to change by its unique economic arrangement.

It’s also true that the management, Capital Newspapers, strongly favors the morning Wisconsin State Journal. While most observers believe the State Journal is not making money (it’s hard to tell; Lee Newspapers holds its figures close to the vest), the Capital Times loses large amounts of money. In economic terms, the size of the newsroom (before being cut for the changeover) was at least three times the size of most with its circulation. That may be a reasonable decision, if the goal is to put out a strong alternative newspaper. But it was only possible because of the terms of the Evjue agreement. In an open market, the paper would have been killed a long time ago.

Essentially the paper is part way between a commercial and non-profit venture, and was being subsidized by the joint ownership. I don’t think this is a bad thing, and, indeed, may be a model for sustaining professional local journalism in the future. But we need to understand it in this context.

It’s exactly these quirks that made possible a flying leap at the Capital Times that other other newspapers still treat as implausible, even though their present situation is impossible. “This is the kind of bold move the American newspaper industry should have made five years ago,” wrote Jarvis today. Friedland told me there’s a lot of competition online; the Cap Times is getting into the game after others have established themselves in local news for the Web.

Madison is a great town in many ways to try a daily online news experiment. It has one of the highest broadband penetrations in the nation (thanks to the University of Wisconsin and significant financial, government, and high tech industry). But because the Capital Times is fully committing itself to the net somewhat late, it also has major competition. The Isthmus is one of the best alternatively weeklies in the country, independently owned and published, with a strong history of local reporting, and it’s Daily Page is widely read. Dane 101, a collaborative blog, is a younger, hipper alternative to both the Daily Page and the Cap Times, and has carved out a younger audience, mostly around arts and music, but it also covers local issues.

School Information System is a widely read collection of blogs, forums, and documents on the local school system, and while it has its own skew (deregulation, anti-tax, favoring the middle and upper middle classes) it has a wide readership and has had impact on this important local issue. Two daily student newspapers have online editions, and our own Madison Commons pulls together news from many neighborhoods with serious coverage of local public issues in a public journalism vein. This is a pretty crowded ecology into which to launch a daily online news journal. Add to this the fact that the joint web edition of both papers ( has really lagged the overall curve of local online journalism and there is a definite competitive disadvantage.

Still, I think there is room, if the Capital Times can reinvent itself as a breaking online news journal, with many links to existing sources, and, ideally, a strong current of citizen journalism. But that won’t be easy. Bluntly, the paper has had a strong tradition, but has not been an online innovator. It is almost starting from scratch, which could be an advantage, if it can inherit the best of its tradition, but in a very different, much more grassroots driven organizational form. I hope it does, because it is one of the few newsrooms with the reporters and capital to show us what local online journalism might look like. But it has a large challenge ahead.

Friedland’s colleague, Sue Robinson, who has been studying the transition at the Cap Times, names some of those challenges: “The introduction of new technologies to a staff that hitherto has not had much training across media platforms. The welcoming of citizen interaction within the production process. The 24/7 wire-service-like deadline. What it means to maintain objectivity as a journalist who must be heard and seen in their audio recordings or video formats. There is a going to be a significant adjustment period, no doubt, and at the end of it, the CapTimes’ newsroom culture will be altered in a fairly fundamental way.”

Mark Eisen, editor of the Isthmus, wrote a lengthy piece on the passage of the Capital Times: The End of an Era. He admitted that as “a gray-bearded print guy, I’m just as much in the fog as the next uneasy pressie.” But….

The one thing I’ll bet on is that the new weekly Capital Times that debuts April 30 with a free circulation of 80,000-plus will be aimed at the urban advertising market that Isthmus has cultivated for 32 years.

Ditto with 77 Square, the entertainment/culture weekly that the Cap Times staff will produce for free distribution and insertion in the Wisconsin State Journal.

To be sure, Cap Times editors and reporters see themselves as re-imagining founder Bill Evjue’s progressive vision for the Internet age. But, functionally, the new editions are all about the advertising.

Heard of convergence? Here you have an alternative weekly that went daily on the web competing with a daily that gone’s weekly in print. It is by no means certain that the Capital Times can succeed, because it’s not clear which development path is better. For example, if I were those guys, one of the skills I would immediately try to master is aggregating local news better (and faster) than anyone aggregates local news. But the Isthmus is already very good at that, while Dane101 produced a first-rate account of the shift at the Capital Times— better than the paper’s own. (See 101’s excellent round-up of reactions.) The Cap Times editors have a blog up about their re-invention drama, but clearly they are behind at blogging.

My concluding thoughts are these:

The professionalized press we have today is approximately as old as the Capital Times. Both come out of the progressive era. The mainstream press went one way, a tributary in Madison took its own (some say lazy) path. The headwaters are the same. One newspaper broke away from the other in 1917. Then they got back together in 1948. Now the State Journal carries the Cap Times into Madison homes. That’s not really two newspapers, but one with two branches.

Posted by Jay Rosen at April 28, 2008 1:08 AM