Irony Inc.

James Wigderson has some fun at a former daily newspaper’s expense:

“Profit? Fiscal year? Tsk! Tsk! Tsk! Beware, my dear Zilkov. The virus of capitalism is highly infectious. Soon you’ll be lending money out at interest!” – Dr. Yen Lo, The Manchurian Candidate

The Capital Times was founded because the Wisconsin State Journal wasn’t left-leaning enough. Yes, wee know, that’s hard to picture, but that’s The Capital Times story and they’re sticking with it.

The newspaper was born in 1917 after the business manager of the Wisconsin State Journal, William T. Evjue, resigned over the paper’s increasingly strident attacks against U.S. Sen. Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette to create The Capital Times. As governor, later a senator and the founder of Wisconsin’s progressive movement, La Follette established a reputation as a champion of the underprivileged and an opponent of powerful business interests, but he came under attack like never before for his opposition to U.S. involvement in World War I.

Of course, The Capital Times supported the war anyway, as they remind us, but they were the good progressive newspaper. Just ask, Editor Emeritus Dave Zweifel,  wrote in his “Plain Talk” column in June:

As the founder of this paper, William T. Evjue, would often lament in his column years ago, “The trend toward the concentration of financial, economic, political and military power continues. Are we headed for a dictatorship of wealth?”

If Mr. Evjue only knew what’s going on today.

As readers of The Capital Times, we often ask the same question, “If Mr. Evjue only knew…”

We had some fun recently perusing The Capital Times’ 2015 IRS 990 form for the Evjue Charitable Trust. We were shocked, shocked to find capitalism going on there.

And we mean capitalism, starting with the granddaddy of them all, JP Morgan Chase & Co., founded by the great robber baron himself, JP Morgan. Old Evjue and Fighting Bob must be spinning in their graves faster than a high-speed Dremel Rotary Tool.

That was hardly the only investment that made us chuckle. The Capital Times may have been against war profiteers during World War I, but they’re investors in Halliburton, General Electric, and Raytheon now. And they love Big Oil, investing in Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell. They’re even invested in Phillip Morris and McDonalds for some healthy cash.

And for a relaxing Cap Times, they make it Suntory time.

There are also investments in drug companies, Amazon, Facebook, AT&T, Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, Wal-Mart Stores, and even Union Pacific Corp. You know, all those small mom & pop companies struggling to make their way in a brutal capitalist society.

Our favorite investment is in Tiffany & Co. Nothing says progressive values like being the Tiffany news company in Madison.

Associate Editor John Nichols recently wrote a column saying how socialists are free to be socialists again. The proof was the popularity of Senator Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign.

“His presidential candidacy confirmed the appeal of such a politics in a 21st century that has been characterized by rampant inequality and the corrupt excesses of crony capitalism,” Nichols wrote, in a publication fueled by wealth inequality and the corrupt excesses of crony capitalism.

The Madison Capital Times, one of the loudest voices of liberalism in the country, sounds a little different these days.

Struck by mechanical and editorial employees five weeks ago, the Capital Times stunned this liberal-oriented community by bodly advertising for reporters and editors to replace its striking employees and welcoming back into is newsroom strikers who broke from the picket lines to return to work.

This is the newspaper that in its 60 years of existence has been a colorful and aggressive foe of conservatism, governmental corruption and pettiness and individuals such as Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

This is the newspaper that led numerous fights for civil rights, including a wrenching battle for an open housing ordinance in Madison, that strongly advanced the progressivism of Sen. Robert M. LaFollette and that vigorously opposed U.S. involvement in Vietnam, well before that position became popular.

This, embarrassed liberals in Madison have noted, is the newspaper that has staunchly lined up with union leaders to lift workers into better living and working conditions.

“It is a great disappointment to see our own newspaper not offering protection, as it has done so often in the past, but actually collaborating in abuses against workers who built the Capital Times up to what it is,” said Ron McCrea, a striking copy reader and vice president of the Madison Newspaper Guild.

Ironically, the strike was not originally aimed at the Capital Times’ management. The strike began when, on Oct. 1, a union representing editorial employees struck the Wisconsin State Journal, the city’s morning paper, and the International Typographical Union struck Madison Newspaper, Inc., which owns the Capital Times and also owns the plant that prints both papers under a joint operating agreement.

Capital Times guild members, along with pressmen and mailers, walked out in sympathy.

However, about 60 per cent of the State Journal Association, the guild’s equivalent at that paper, have gone back to work, and the morning paper is now operating with most of its staff back on the job. And the printing plant is sufficiently automated to get along without the ITU.

But with the strike still nominally on, most of the Capital Times workers remain out.

The future of the Capital Times had been in question even before the strike.

The afternoon paper’s circulation has declined to about 39,000 from a peak of about 50,000 a generation ago. The State Journal, by contrast, circulates about 79,000 daily and 126,000 on Sunday, and management says the Sunday figure is up 4,000 from a year ago. In addition, the Capital Times has sold its radio station and entered the joint operating agreement under which its parents prints the State Journal.

Thus, to some, the Capital Times’ stance is no surprise.

“The problem is, basically simple: regardless of editorial orientation or ideology, if you get into a problem of [newspaper] economizing, the ideology is likely to make a marginal difference,” says one veteran labor economist in Madison.

In a lengthy, biting reflection on the strike printed last week, executive editor Elliott Maraniss said McCrea and his fellow strikers should stop invoking the heritage and traditions of the Times and build their own.

He speculated that the strikers had a death wish, either for the paper or the union, and used as an analogy a person who commits suicide because he or she fears murder.

At the same time the liberal Madison community does not appear overly concerned about the strike and its impact on the future of the paper. Miles Capital Times editor and publisher, expressed surprise that there has been so little mail decrying the possible fatal impact of the strike on the paper.

There is little solid evidence that circulation has dropped off substantially – spokesmen for the two papers say it is less than 1 per cent – and there is no noticeable drop in advertising.

One reason, according to some observers, is that the paper has lost some of its feistiness in recent years.

The liberal community was outraged last year, for example, at the papers tactics in helping to defeat a popular Democratic state representative who was speaker of the state assembly.

Following that, the paper switched positions on Archie Simonson, the judge who was recalled after his statements on the bench linking rape to sexual permissiveness and provocative women’s clothing. The paper first attacked him editorially, then expressed sympathetic concern for his right to make such statements.

Mayor Paul Soglin, a product of the campus radical movement, became a villain to the paper when he leaked his 1978 budget proposal to the Madison Press Connection, a weekly being produced by the strikers, and said he would not grant interviews to reporters who replaced them.The general softening of the liberal tone perhaps has been inevitable, said a University of Wisconsin professor who has watched Madison, politcal and social changes for years. he noted that the heroes and adversaries in past Capital Times news and editorial columns have gone and it is getting more difficult for the paper to identify their successors.To replace those past causes and personalities in order to hold its traditional readers, the professor said, the Capital Times apparently felt it had to appeal to the liberal and radical causes of a younger generation.Because of that, he suggested, the newspaper bean hiring from a generation of reporters arising from the campus unrest of the late 1960s. For the most part, he noted, they were hired from strongly left-leaning college newspapers and the underground press.

This also has brought, in the view of a Madison labor expert, a clash between reporters and management. He notes that union members perceive management as being ideologically akin to them and thus “soft” bargainers during labor negotiations.

Readers unfamiliar with the Madison media scene will note that The Capital Times is described as a daily newspaper in the Post story. That was then, this is, well, later then, as Isthmus reported:

“It’s been no fun dying on the vine,” says Ron McCrea, senior news editor of The Capital Times.

McCrea, 65, knows something about dying. He presided over the death of the strike paper known as the Madison Press Connection in 1980 and then went to work for the Washington Star, which abruptly shut down in 1981 after 128 years. …

Buoyant wouldn’t be the right word, but he was definitely upbeat about the paper’s announcement that it will cease publication as a daily on April 26 and shift to onilne publication and two weekly print editions (one news, one arts) to be distributed free in the Madison area.

“We took practically every step imaginable to sell the paper [to new readers] in the last few years, and it didn’t work,’ he says. The Capital Times, which approached 50,000 circulation in its heyday, has dropped to less than 17,000 and had become, in practical terms, a boutique journalistic product sustained by its very profitable half-ownership of the Capital Newspapers publishing conglomerate.

Things were getting so bad, McCrea says, that sources were becoming reluctant to give story tips to Cap Times reporters because the paper’s readership was so small and the larger papers might ignore its scoops.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had the experience of talking to people about a great story we’ve had, and nobody has a clue that we published it,” he says.

Perhaps the low point was the paper’s failed attempt to woo new subscribers in Madison’s “blue” neighborhoods on the near-west and near-east sides.

The mass home delivery of free papers produced precious few subscriptions, despite these being strongholds of John Kerry and Ralph Nader voters who presumably share The Capital Times‘ liberal philosophy.

“We thought this would be a rich target for us to fill out our circulation, but people just weren’t buying,” he says. “Some people even complained that we were littering! They asked that we take the papers away.”

McCrea’s conclusion: “You can only do so much before you finally have to face reality.”

Reality is online publishing and those two weekly editions. The move will save Capital Newspapers a ton in newsprint costs and result in perhaps 15 of the paper’s 60 newsroom positions being eliminated, in addition to other job cuts in production and delivery.

“I do feel upbeat because I’ve been there when they’ve simply folded the paper and told people to go home,” he says. “This is war by other means. Online is clearly the future of journalism.”

McCrea says the paper is being “very, very humane” in handling the job cuts by offering a buyout package that includes from ten to 52 weeks of salary, depending on longevity, some health-insurance coverage and other benefits.

With a few exceptions, all employees will have to apply for newly posted jobs by Feb. 18, McCrea says. The new staff will be announced on March 10. Those who aren’t hired will receive the same severance package as the staffers who accepted the buyout.

McCrea’s endorsement of the impending changes carries weight, given his long history at The Capital Times. He was a strike leader in 1977, when five unions at what was then called Madison Newspapers Inc. walked out when management unilaterally introduced new printing technology in a particularly brutal fashion.

“Madison Newspapers laid off half off its printers in one blow, [regardless] of seniority, with women and the disabled first,” he recalls “Those who returned to work the next day were told that their pay was being cut by a third. They were just bleeding in total despair.”

The striking unions failed to shut down the two dailies, which doomed the strike from the beginning. McCrea became editor of the strike paper, the Madison Press Connection, whichnever rose higher than 12,000 in circulation and folded in 1980 after employees went payless for five months.

The strike formally ended in 1982 when the last two unions finally gave up. All five unions were decertified, though the strikers had the satisfaction of collecting $1.5 million from MNI as part of their settlements. The two papers remain union-free to this day.

McCrea went to work as press secretary for the newly elected Gov. Tony Earl in 1982, but when Earl lost his re-election bid in 1986, McCrea found himself unemployable in Madison. He left town to work at the New York edition of Newsday (since shuttered as well) before he made his peace with the Cap Times and returned to the paper in 1995.

There was no clearer sign than McCrea’s return that the extraordinary animosity of the strike had finally passed.

But the damage had been done. The strike had put the proudly progressive Capital Times on the same side with the then bluntly anti-union Lee Enterprises, which owns the other half of the publishing company. McCrea admits the strike cost the Cap Times readers it never regained.

The decision to cease daily publication was tightly compartmentalized within top management. The staff was kept in the dark until the announcement, and even senior news editor McCrea didn’t know it was coming. He says he had no role in drawing up the job descriptions for the new online paper and its weekly news and arts editions. …

A third-generation newsman, McCrea has the proverbial news ink in his veins. “I don’t have the warmth of feeling for Web readers that I do for newspaper readers,” he admits. “I tend to think that newspaper readers bring more worldliness and wider life experiences to their reading.”

The Cap Times has announced that the two weekly print editions, each with an expected circulation of 80,000, will be distributed free. Is the company’s goal to target Isthmus audience and advertisers?

McCrea says his bosses deny this. “We all love Isthmus,” he says. “We did focus groups a couple of years ago, when we were looking to refashion The Capital Times one more time. In the focus groups, everybody just loved Isthmus. Everything they wanted was already in Isthmus. We came away feeling a little dispirited.”

That doesn’t put such questions to rest. In the compartmentalized world of Capital Newspapers, advertising strategy wouldn’t be shared with editorial staffers like McCrea.

Yeah, well, every media outlet competes with every other media outlet for advertising and for eyeballs. That too is economic reality.

So is this: The aforementioned Madison Press Connection, according to the always-accurate (and never biased!) Wikipedia: …
… evolved from a strike paper to one of the few cooperatively organized and owned daily newspapers ever to exist in the United States. … The staff was initially made up entirely of striking employees of MNI, with the exception of cartoonist Pete Wagner, whose controversial work spurred his firing within two weeks of being hired, but who was rehired when the staff voted to keep him in spite of numerous cancellations by irate readers. Wagner left the paper after ten months and was later replaced by Mike Konopacki, who specialized in labor-related cartoons. The Press Connections cooperative structure was credited as the reason for numerous journalistic risks that corporate media avoided, including the publication in 1979 of an article purporting to provide the “secrets” of building an H-bomb.
… but, requoting from the Isthmus story …
… never rose higher than 12,000 in circulation and folded in 1980 after employees went payless for five months.
All of this, of course, is a demonstration that economic reality trumps (!) high-minded ideas about cooperative leadership, social justice, socially responsible investing, etc. The Press Connection died, and The Capital Times eliminated four of its editions, because as with any enterprise, for-profit or non-profit, if more money goes out than comes in, it’s not long for this world. As Margaret Thatcher was fond of saying, the facts of life are fundamentally conservative.
Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: