Thursday, February 07, 2008

The environment's gain is a newspaper lover's loss: No more dead tree daily for The Capital Times

The Capital Times will suspend publication as an afternoon daily newspaper with the April 26 issue and become a daily internet paper, with additional twice-a-week free distribution of two new print editions -- one for news and opinion, and one for entertainment.

The announcement on their website didn't knock the ball out of my ballpark. The caption said, "The Capital Times newsroom will be increasingly focusing its efforts on the Internet," but the photograph looked more like a random snapshot of an insurance company cube farm. This is the operation that is going to take the Madison internets by storm? Nor was talking head Paul Fanlund's video announcement exactly cutting edge new media.

All good things end. Sometimes this is signaled by an eloquent, nostalgic evocation of a proud history and past glories, invoked to put the best face on a less than proud and glorious present. That seemed to be the case with today's Cap Times editorial.
The Capital Times was founded in 1917 with the modest purpose of promoting peace and economic and social justice. We also hoped to gather all the news that mattered and to sell some papers.

Not much has changed over the past 90 years.

In 1917 we opposed an unnecessary war in Europe and defended the rights of those who dared to challenge the munitions merchants and the war profiteers.

Now we oppose an unnecessary war in the Mideast and defend those who dare to expose the excesses of Halliburton and the high crimes and misdemeanors of Dick Cheney.

In 1917 and 1918 we were on the cutting edge of information technology. Relying on better wire services and smarter judgment, we got the story of the end of World War I right while our competitors got it wrong.

Now we are still on the cutting edge of information technology. The only difference is that, instead of telegraphs and wires, we're digital and wireless.
The achievements of the past are real enough, but the present seems more iffy. Some things that come to mind:
  • The internet is an increasingly visual medium. Graphic design has never been a CT strength (either in print or online to date), nor have they demonstrated much video expertise.
  • It's tough for traditional media without very deep pockets to succeed on the internet. There seem to be two main avenues to success: Talented amateurs or volunteers with a great idea filling a unique market niche, subsidizing the gap between today's content and its future monetization with sweat equity. Or, enormous amounts of capital devoted to site design and promotion (NYT, Amazon, etc.) The CT doesn't seem to fit in either category.
  • They're trying to compete in a very crowded local market. Not only have Isthmus and Dane 101 staked out a lot of territory with their daily updates, but the local television stations are becoming compelling online presences. Not only do they have trusted weather reports, but they have a lot of video clips of local news, and they have well-known on-air personalities driving traffic.
  • Besides, once your primary identity is online, you're no longer competing in a purely local market. You're one click away from all the best known names in American media, as well as all the resources of the blogosphere, and we haven't even discussed YouTube. Most people's online habits are already formed. Carving out a successful niche against this near-infinite competition is much harder than publishing a dead tree paper.
You can't help but wish them well. 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.

They're probably not alone. Ironically, today's announcement came on the same day that the NYT published a really spooky story about the desperate state of today's newspaper industry, "An Industry Imperiled by Falling Profits and Shrinking Ads." Clearly, The Capital Times won't be the only daily newspaper facing major changes in 2008.


bro' said...

What does the Cap Times have to maintain in order for the dual-ownership (or whatever the operating agreement is called) to remain in effect? Since Madison Newspapers is owned 50/50, can TCT really disappear? How big does the fig leaf have to be?

Nonanon said...

Madison Guy,
You've got to look into the book "30: The Collapse of the Great American Newspaper," if you're interested in this sort of thing. Lots of good perspectives about what newspapers have been doing and what they might think about doing--including the fact that for much of the 20th century papers expected unbelievably huge profit margins of their ads, and maybe they just have to figure out a way to move ahead without those.