John Nichols may be the most optimistic person on the face of the planet. He surveys a hopelessly corrupted political environment and sees opportunities for progressive change. And he talks about the impending demise of The Capital Times -- a paper he's given his heart and soul to for more than a decade -- as an afternoon print newspaper as though it were a good thing.
"I think it's pretty exciting," says Nichols, the paper's associate editor and most prominent journalist. "It's pretty interesting."
Yeah, and so is a school bus careening off a bridge.
The fact is that the corporate decision to transform the Cap Times into an online daily and pair of 80,000-circulation weekly products (to be inserted into the jointly owned Wisconsin State Journal and distributed free around town) -- accompanied by an unspecified reduction in editorial staff -- was driven by cool calculation and raw greed.
As Nichols himself admitted in an interview today on WTDY, "We could have kept publishing a daily newspaper for as long as we wanted. ...This isn't a situation where we had to shut down."
That's because the Cap Times' nationally unique business arrangement allows it to share equally in the overall profits of Capital Newspapers Inc., including the State Journal and a host of regional papers. Capital Newspapers is, in turn, jointly owned by the Capital Times Co. and the State Journal division of Lee Enterprises.
Capital Newspapers remains phenomenally lucrative -- at least $14.5 million in profit last year. The arrangement hammered out by Cap Times founder Bill Evjue a half-century ago put representatives from both the State Journal and Cap Times on equal footing.
That means no decision -- like killing the Cap Times as a daily print product and downsizing its staff -- can be made without the consent of both sides. And the Cap Times' side has historically resisted moves to take such steps, in fidelity to Evjue's clear wish that his paper go on.
That was enough to sustain the Cap Times for many years (the paper turned 90 last December) despite continually plunging circulation. The paper currently has about 60 editorial employees -- likely more than any 17,000-circulation daily newspaper in the U.S. But, in the end, the corporate desire to make a few more dollars by killing the paper won out.
Of course, that's not how Nichols looks at it. He sees the change, set to take place on April 30, as logical and even visionary. The Cap Times, he says, is the first daily paper in the nation to go digital. This reflects changes in how readers want their news, and ensures the paper's continued viability.
"I love the print thing," says Nichols. But he recognizes that readership habits are changing and says he'd rather have the paper stake a claim on the future than cling to the past. As he told WTDY, "It was just harder and harder to get people to go out and buy a daily newspaper when you can get content [for free] online."
Nichols says he doesn't know how many of his colleagues will lose their jobs -- his job, apparently, is not in jeopardy. He does expect the paper to make "offers of early retirement" to existing staff.
"There will still be a big staff," Nichols promises. How he knows this is not quite clear. The paper's front-page announcement to its readers about these developments is unspecific on this score, saying only, "The changes will result in a smaller workforce..., though the size of the change has not been finalized."
Paul Fanlund, who is now the publication's new editor, easing Dave Zweifel into emeritus status, did not immediately return a phone call. Neither did Zweifel.
One more thing to ponder: Why is the Cap Times staking its future claim to viability on two weekly products -- one devoted to news and opinion, the other to arts and entertainment? Could it be that the corporate Powers That Be have decided to go after the sliver of ad revenue they don't already command by going head-to-head with Isthmus? Perhaps even put Isthmus out of business? Hmmm.
Nichols insists this never even occurred to him.
"It would be comic to think that anybody could put Isthmus out of business," he says. "My sense is that Isthmus is an institution, like the Cap Times."
Make that the soon-to-be-defunct Cap Times.