WisBusiness: Year later, change still afoot as Cap Times, other newspapers transition to Web

By Erik Gunn

For WisBusiness.com

A year since Madison’s Capital Times converted from a daily, printed newspaper to a mostly online product, change has only just begun.

“Things have really continued to evolve,” says Cap Times editor Paul Fanlund, who came to the paper in 2006 after a reporting-editing career at the Wisconsin State Journal and a 5 1/2-year stint as vice president of operations at Capital Newspapers.

With the news business, indeed the whole economy, imploding in the last 12 months, the once-shocking cessation of a daily ink-on-paper Cap Times “seems like five years ago now,” he says.

The Cap Times was the first established daily in the U.S. to shift from daily printing to the Web, supplementing that with two new weekly tabloids — one for news and opinion, the other for entertainment and the arts. Those are distributed inside the State Journal — something that years ago would have been heresy in the once-fiercely-competitive Madison newspaper world.

Wittingly or not, the Cap Times has turned out to be a trend-setter. In Superior, the once-daily Telegram shifted to Monday and Friday publication and directed readers to its Web site for updates. Nationally the Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer are making similar moves. The Seattle paper this week became the largest American paper to drop its print edition.

A year later in Madison, collaboration has followed. Cap Times sportswriters’ work now appears in the State Journal. Both papers’ Web sites link to stories in either publication, depending on the subject.

There’ve been casualties. The CT staff was cut by a third with the changeover; earlier this year it cut another five employees, same as the State Journal.

Look for more change. After dropping the daily the online Cap Times stressed breaking police, fire and other “this-just-in” news, a vestige of its afternoon niche in the 24-hour publishing cycle. But now, Fanlund says, madison.com — the portal that leads to both papers’ Web pages — is being reconfigured for those stories. A developing joint sports portal will feature work from both Cap Times and State Journal staffers.

So both papers are “working more closely … than we would have anticipated a year ago,” Fanlund says. Despite that, the Cap Times seeks to retain its distinctive heritage as a voice for Progressive politics since founder William Evjue quit the State Journal. Today’s goal is an online Cap Times “that does important journalism,” Fanlund says-some of it “in new multi-media story-telling forms.”

He points to several recent stories: on repeat drunken drivers, with a database of names http://www.madison.com/tct/news/stories/316879; on Madison at night http://77square.com/citylife/story_435375; on Badger football greats http://www.badgerbeat.com/news/article/id/325380; and on how 401(k) plans supplanted guaranteed conventional pensions http://www.madison.com/tct/news/stories/313886.

UW-Madison Journalism Professor Sue Robinson has been interviewing Cap Times employees, researching how papers are transforming themselves for the Web and what that means for traditional journalism. The interviews are confidential, but Robinson says staffers have been “grappling with brand-new beats and skill sets during a time of industry-wide strife and upheaval.” Amid a lot of quick-hit press-release and police-blotter items, reporters are “spending more time on longer depth pieces, going more narrow and deeper.” At the same time, many are blogging as well, creating a more informal kind of journalism. Video and other online features are added to the mix.

“One could consider these newspapers like the CT and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as pioneers here, as long as they keep focused on good journalism while experimenting with new revenue streams,” Robinson observes.

Along with the rest of its shaky industry, long-term prospects of the Cap Times are murky. Independent Internet trackers don’t break out its Web traffic distinct from the State Journal or madison.com. Fanlund won’t divulge numbers, but says that CT online readership jumped after the changeover and has held since then.

Even so, he acknowledges, reader reaction is “a really mixed bag,” with older readers especially missing the physical paper.

The weekly tabloids have found some fans. “There’s more depth, there’s more perspective, there’s more analysis, there’s more background. I pay attention to it,” says Rolf Wegenke, who heads the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Yet that’s only half of what the new publication is supposed to be. Wegenke rarely looks at the Web site, instead going to CNN.com and Web sites for national papers and The Chronicle of Higher Education, for relevant breaking news.

Risk remains that its ink-on-paper step-sibling will overshadow the online Cap Times. “The company also continues to struggle with a perception in the community that it has died,” Robinson notes. “So there is a community culture that needs to make the transition along with the staff.”

Even if the transition succeeds, the CT won’t be able to coast, Fanlund acknowledges: “I think we are going to need to continue proving ourselves.”

–Racine-based freelance writer Erik Gunn covers the media for Milwaukee Magazine and reports on politics, business, education and other topics for several publications.