Two of the marquee columns in town are disappearing. After next week, the Wisconsin State Journal is discontinuing the columns written by Susan Lampert Smith and Melanie Conklin.
The new publisher, William Johnston, reportedly wielded the axe, saying their columns "were not working."
You had to figure that with Doug Moe coming over from The Capital Times that Melanie Conklin's column was on the endangered species list. They both traffic in the same product, celebrity news/gossip.
Both Melanie and Susan will remain on staff but they will be put in the rotation on the City Desk. "They're not too happy," one reporter I spoke with at the State Journal told me.
I have a call out to Melanie Conklin, who was crackerjack in a different role at Isthmus, and therefore I cannot not confirm her sentiments.
But I did talk to Susan Lampert Smith. Apparently, the State Journal wanted her to be another George Hesselberg, that is to say, a little harder hitting. Which raises the obvious point that they had/have a George Hesselberg. But when Ellen Foley came on board in 2004, she had to teach the staff who was boss and Hesselberg apparently offered a little blowback. So George is on general assignment, reminding readers of what they once had when he is given his head every so often.
But Susan Lampert Smith had her own style. She chronicled the very local stories underneath the breaking news of how we live and how things are changing. Like the story on the musty old houses and the grungy sofas that we '60-70s college students lived in now being replaced by the high-rise, upscale apartment buildings on West Gorham Street and University Ave. like La Ciel.
And that, apparently, was the problem.
Moi, 'perfect?' Bien sûr!
"They were always on my case," Susan told me. "I wasn't living up to their image of a big city columnist. I wasn't hard-hitting enough. Not political enough. You would have been perfect."
I asked Susan to come up with her favorite column. That is an impossible question in a quick interview but she offered this: Helping out a lady with multiple sclerosis who couldn't afford a service dog. "That was my favorite part of the job. Helping people."
One column on the to-do list that Susan never got around to writing but describes her laid-back, Badger State style: A farmer who made a rosary out of bowling balls. Now, isn't that as "Wisconsin" as a bathtub Virgin Mary? I would pay 50 cents gladly to read that, if Susan Lampert Smith wrote it. Now, as the State Journal would put it...
Five Ironies on the Fly:
1. It was Ellen Foley who lured Melanie from the mayor's office (where she worked after Isthmus) shortly after taking the helm of the morning paper four years ago but it was Ellen Foley who restricted Susan to Madison-only coverage. That cut off much of Susan's wellspring of inspiration. She has her feet in the soil of the driftless farm country and small villages of southwest Dane County, where she and her husband raise poultry and grow asparagus.
2. Who else does that in Madison journalism? No one. Maybe Art Hackett at WHA-TV. Certainly not Doug Moe. So now there is a void.
3. The women's reassignment means there are no female columnists on staff at the Wisconsin State Journal. Publisher Johnston, however, made these decisions. Editor Foley is rarely at work these days because she is caring for a very ill husband.
4. Doug Moe is a great guy but he is most definitely not "hard-hitting."
5. "Hard hitting?" The Wisconsin State Journal?
A breath mint or a floor polish?
Of course, letting Doug Moe go was incredibly stupid on the part of The Capital Times. As Bill Lueders reports, they made him reapply for his old job and that raised his hackles. Good for Doug. But the whole affair told me immediately that his old newspaper still does not know what it is doing. Even under Paul Fanlund.
The announced plan, of course, is that The Capital Times will be a vital online presence, 24/7, and a twice-weekly free-distribution newspaper: Wednesdays -- news and analysis -- and Thursdays -- arts and entertainment.
I don't get the 24/7 online thing. The newspaper is shedding 20 positions, thereby reducing its staff by one-third (it has four more involuntary cuts to make after 16 voluntary separations). That only exacerbates the discrepancy that existed even before the downsizing. So why would anyone go to The Capital Times website when you would be guaranteed more breaking news content at the Wisconsin State Journal website?
Unless you had lots of news, opinion, analysis, in-depth features and entertainment. Which I always thought would be a big sell in this university/government town. So, how do you let a Doug Moe, who provided the entertainment side of the equation, escape? (His kind of column is harder than it looks. Just ask Pat Simms.) Or, for that matter, buyout takers Rob Zaleski, who took a longer (if predictably liberal) take on events, and Mary Bergin, who did great Wisconsin travelogues?
But that is what I am hearing from the trenches at my former employer -- they don't know what they want to be. Or, at least, the writers haven't been told. Time is running out. Saturday, April 26, is the last day for the daily Capital Times.
With six weeks until that date, one reporter told me, under conditions of anonymity, "There are still a lot of questions on how this will work and what we will all be doing. We still don't know whether a full-time blog or print will be the main focus."
If the bosses know, they haven't told the staff.