Thursday, February 7, 2008

Funeral for a friend

In the journalism business -- more specifically, the print journalism business -- the death of a daily newspaper takes on the aura of a funeral.

I remember about 27 years ago being in the office of Milwaukee Journal editor Dick Leonard when the news came that the Washington Star was folding. It was a moment of deep sadness, especially as Dick pondered the fate of the then afternoon Journal. He lamented the demise of so many afternoon publications as another nail in the coffin.

And so today comes word from Madison that The Capital Times will become a twice-weekly tabloid inserted in the rival Wisconsin State Journal. The newspaper will also move from print to electronic journalism, offering a beefed up internet news presence.

The latter may be cutting edge but the former is a moment of grief.

I've always had a soft spot for The Capital Times even though politically I'm more likely to be on the opposite side of the scrappy liberal publication. That's because the newspaper isn't a knee-jerk liberal mouthpiece but rather one born out of early 20th century populism. Along with the liberal tradition was a progressive tradition honed by founder William T. Evjue whose motto of "Let the people have the truth and the freedom to discuss it" still rings loud and clear in the soul of this former journalist.

Bill Evjue didn't just carry that message in print -- he broadcast it around the state in his "On, Wisconsin" radio broadcasts. His scrappy little newspaper wasn't afraid to take on the establishment, the money barons and even the Democratic party which former chief Miles McMillan once labeled as "fat and arrogant."

I only met Mr. Evjue once or twice as a very young man but later, after his death, I did free-lance work for the newspaper and WIBA, its radio station. Those checks helped finance my education and for that I am very grateful.

Even though the circulation dwindled to just over 17,000 daily readers, Madison was fortunate to have two competing daily newspapers -- a rarity these days. Yes, the newspapers had a joint printing agreement and shared the Madison Newspapers, Inc., offices, but they were editorially distinct.

The death of so many newspaper voices -- particularly independent local ones -- leaves the country poorer. Maybe The Capital Times will continue to be the scrappy voice for those whose voices might otherwise be muffled but slipping a tabloid inside the "enemy" newspaper twice a week just doesn't seem the same.

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