Sunday, April 27, 2008

Lighting a funeral pyre brings closure to my long relationship with The Capital Times

Funeral Pyre for the Death of the Print Edition of The Capital Times
The Capital Times, the liberal daily started by William T. Evjue in 1917, ceased to be a daily print newspaper yesterday. As an afternoon paper The Capital Times has been dying for years, and its condition became terminal some weeks ago with the announcement that April 26 would be its last day as a print daily.

I've been in mourning for weeks. Partly, it's a personal connection. The first photograph I ever sold was sold to the Cap Times. The first freelance writing I ever sold was to the Cap Times. As a reader, the newspaper has been part of my life forever. But that's just the personal stuff that doesn't matter to anybody but me.

The real loss is that Madison is losing a unique liberal voice that appeared every day but Sunday for more than 90 years, and which gave Madison some of its unique character as a city. Madison had been unusual for a city its size in having a liberal daily newspaper. Now it doesn't. Nothing lasts forever.

They say it's not the end, and maybe it's not. The Cap Times hopes to be reborn as an internet newspaper with 2x weekly free print distribution. But so many people have taken voluntary or involuntary severance packages that, under the best of circumstances, it won't be the same paper. And, really, who ever spends more than a few minutes a day with even the best internet newspapers? Millions of people read newspapers online -- but a lot of that traffic is search engine driven, and most gets funneled right to the big national dailies with their multimillion-dollar websites.

I was eagerly awaiting the last print edition -- partly so the long deathwatch would finally be over. But I was also curious what sort of closure they would bring to their history as a daily, and what sort of sendoff they would provide to launch their journey into the unknown on the Web. Would they appeal to a different, younger audience that never reads daily newspapers anymore?

The final paper that arrived yesterday was a distinct anticlimax. There was no real closure, and not much of a sendoff. Less a bang than a whimper. The front page, their last real chance to drive traffic to their new incarnation on the Web, was a dud. It featured a picture of an unidentified dead white guy surrounded by men in funny paper hats.

Longtime readers recognized founder Bill Evjue, of course. But everyone else had to read Dave Zweifel's column on the editorial page to find out that it was Evjue pushing the button on a new printing press at their Carroll Street plant in 1961. To the kids who didn't read it, the man was just a white-haired old guy. And the headline "Beam Us Up," came off as a lame attempt to be -- what? hip and high-tech?

Since the Cap Times was not going to provide this subscriber any real closure (except for an offer to try the Wisconsin State Journal free for a few weeks), I decided to provide my own. A funeral pyre seemed appropriate. I would have set the funeral conflagration yesterday, but it was so windy I might have burned down the neighborhood in the attempt. So I nursed my grief and waited for the winds to die down.

Tonight after dinner the time seemed right. With the aid of a match and some charcoal lighter fluid, the Cap Times burst into one final, incandescent blaze of glory. The flames danced around the white-haired face of the indomitable Bill Evjue, and his visage continued to preside serenely over the middle of the page as the flames had their way all around. For an instant it seemed to flicker like a spirit, and then he was gone.


george h. said...

To me the loss is in literacy, literature and knowledge. Newspapers are stepping stones to literacy, especially for people trying to find their way in a new culture. They are also a beginning guide to literature, not that they include literature, but when you read something - a sentence, a phrase, even a headline - that you like it makes you look for more. And knowledge? You cannot know too much. I know, The Cap Times is not leaving, but its vacancy leaves one less access to knowledge. I have never understood people who brag about not reading one newspaper or the other, as if one source of information is plenty because it is the source I agree with. And it is a constant source of amusemenet that Madison is filled with media critics who never pay any attention to the media. Boasting of ignorance is a Madison tradition. I met a guy once who was in charge of building a hockey rink inside of a mountain. (Olympics, 1994) Things were not going well, but he was happy as a puppy, and I asked him why? This is turbulence, he said, and turbulence is energy, and energy is good. Something is happening. Well, something is happening. We'll need more than one source of information to find out what it is.

Iowa Victory Gardener said...

So... you're stuck with what we used to not so fondly refer to as the Wisconsin State Urinal? Sad to hear about that, but the Cap Times did have a bit of a checkered labor history back in the early 80's, when it was referred to as The Scab Times. That particular strike struck a chord with lots of us Unionist type folks (I'm an old TAA member who was on strike in 1980). Still, it was the voice of semi-reason in those times. Looks like it went the way of the dinosaur ... good luck w/the net incarnation. Is Isthmus still any good? I thought it had declined a lot when I left in 1988...

Dr Bud Diablo, Letter from Here cub reporter said...

As a kid growing up in Racine, I would lie in bed at night and spin the radio dial in search of songs I liked. Now and then, I would happen upon Evjue's Cap Times radio broadcasts. Although I was more focused on girls and cars than State politics, I would usually listen. It reassured me that somebody was keeping an eye on the rascals up there.

When I moved to Madison, I read the Cap Times a lot despite my frequent disagreement with it. Its style was lively and, while reading what you agree with gladdens the heart, reading opposing views stimulates the mind. The Cap Times represented journalistic vigilance to me. I was especially intrigued with it because the Racine Journal Times, while a charming local paper, did not play a watchdog role. It supported everything--local sports teams, elected officials, and industry.

I'll miss the Cap Times. Still, it's a blessing that it's not suffering anymore. It was not struck down in its prime, but expired after a protracted illness. I do believe someone may eventually find a way to revive it. I wish it would reincarnate as a morning paper and duke it out with the State Journal. Maybe that would divide an already dwindling readership--or maybe some crackling dialogue would renew interest in both papers.