Good luck, Cap Times. You'll need it. Converting from a six-day-a-week paid paper to an online news site is like jumping from a very high cliff into a very deep and mysterious pool.
The paper might be killed. Or it might be transformed.
One thing's for sure: The Capital Times that Madison has known for 90 years will be gone. Online publishing is a fundamentally different proposition for both journalists and readers. Experts consider it a classic disruptive technology that reorders daily life for just about everyone it touches and destroys what was thought to be a durable economic model for the eclipsed technology.
Newspapers won't die off as quickly as slide rules did when calculators were introduced, but the changes under way are so epochal you'd be foolish to believe anyone who speaks confidently of what publishing will be like in 10 years.
"Nobody knows anything," as veteran screenwriter William Goldman famously said of the secrets to successful movie-making. The newspaper business is even more in the dark as to how it will make its next buck.
Nobody guessed that the classified ad business, one of the richest veins in the publishing mother lode, would be gutted by Craigslist. Not even founder Craig Newmark had the foggiest idea that the listing service he began in 1995 would ultimately drain billions of dollars in newspaper advertising.
As a gray-bearded print guy, I'm just as much in the fog as the next uneasy pressie. The one thing I'll bet on is that the new weekly Capital Times that debuts April 30 with a free circulation of 80,000-plus will be aimed at the urban advertising market that Isthmus has cultivated for 32 years.
Ditto with 77 Square, the entertainment/culture weekly that the Cap Times staff will produce for free distribution and insertion in the Wisconsin State Journal.
To be sure, Cap Times editors and reporters see themselves as reimagining founder Bill Evjue's progressive vision for the Internet age. But, functionally, the new editions are all about the advertising.
Capital Newspapers, owner and publisher of the Cap Times and Wisconsin State Journal, has an impressively diversified print empire in south-central Wisconsin, with daily and weekly papers and a panoply of specialty publications serving everyone from nurses to apartment hunters to holistic body workers. But that urban weekly audience and its market of concert-goers, restaurant and tavern patrons and futon-buyers has stubbornly danced to another tune, whether it's Isthmus', The Onion's or Madison Magazine's.
So for the bean counters at Capital Newspapers, the free-distribution Capital Times and its entertainment offshoot represent yet another attempt to sell ads to a market that Rhythm, Coreweekly and Post all failed to reach.
The hard part, as I said, is divining the Cap Times' editorial future.
Helen Aarli is a faithful Capital Times reader.
Shortly after she voted on the morning of April 1, she stopped in the hallway of Marquette Elementary for a brief cell-phone conversation with her daughter, who asked how Aarli had voted. She answered: The Capital Times recommendations right down the line.
A few moments later, Aarli showed me the neatly clipped summary of Cap Times endorsements she had followed. We talked about the paper's evolution, and she said something I've heard a lot.
"For a progressive city like Madison to lose The Capital Times, it's a crime," she said with a sigh. "It's heartbreaking they're going out of business like that."
Aarli, who is co-host of "Senior Beat" on Madison City Channel, isn't alone in interpreting the shift to the web and the weekly free edition as effectively killing the paper.
Sue Robinson, a UW-Madison journalism professor, recalls that when the news broke in early February a colleague stopped her in the hall to say, "Did you see the Cap Times is dying?"
Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, an unabashed newspaper lover, is among the worried. He wonders whether a Cap Times website will have the same influence as the daily Cap Times.
"I hope they have a robust web product, but I can't say I'm particularly optimistic," he says. "There's something about a printed publication that gives a certain credibility that attracts people to look at stories on the web."
With his media preferences firmly set in the last century, the mayor questions the online ethic of posting fast and correcting later, if at all.
"Newspapers have a better vetting process," he says. "Now there is no filter when something is tossed up on a blog. It's become a Wikipedia world, where you depend on other people to correct what was wrong."
"I love newspapers," Cieslewicz feels compelled to add, sounding almost as plaintive as the saddest reporter contemplating the passing of the old regime.
BThey just don't read like their parents did.
In 2005, less than a quarter of 18- to-22-year-olds read a daily newspaper, compared to nearly half in 1972, according to University of Vermont journalism professor David Mindich in The Wilson Quarterly.
Worse, "reading habits do not change much with time," he wrote, meaning that Dylan and Kimberly don't mature into newspaper readers when they start families and buy homes. Thus, while nearly three-quarters of the 34-to-37 age cohort read a daily paper in 1972, only about a third did when Mindich's story appeared.
Have you seen the young urbanites staring intently at their laptop screens as they sip cappuccino at Ancora and Starbucks? Seldom do they read a newspaper.
So it's no surprise to read that the top 20 American newspapers suffered a circulation plunge of 1.4 million over the last four years, according to Editor and Publisher. This includes The New York Times and Wall Street Journal each shedding about 80,000 readers, The Washington Post about 100,000, and The Los Angeles Times (gulp) 200,000. Smaller dailies have had their own tales of decline.
Last month, a trade group reported more bad news: Newspapers suffered a 9.4% decline in revenue in 2007 - the single biggest plunge in the 57 years of record-keeping.
But hold the tears. Historically, daily newspapers have been cash cows because of their quasi-monopoly hold on print advertising. Even in the dreadful year of 2007, newspaper ad sales totaled $42 billion.
You wouldn't know it from the drumbeat of scare stories, but daily newspapers remain preternaturally profitable, including Capital Newspapers. On the average, dailies retain 20 cents on the dollar, about twice the profit margin for the typical Fortune 500 company, according to Rachel Smokin's analysis in the American Journalism Review.
But healthy profits mean zip to Wall Street, which instead dwells on the industry's downward trend and the tectonic shift to the web economy. Newspaper stocks are dismissed as hopelessly old-fashioned, as if publishers are selling buggy whips to the carriage trade.
Shares of the McClatchey Co., for instance, have plunged 80% since the chain bought the Knight Ridder papers in 2005, as Eric Alterman pointed out in his fine New Yorker piece on the newspaper industry's senescence. Lee Enterprises, which, along with the Capital Times Co., is half-owner of Capital Newspapers, saw a calamitous 75% decline in stock value since that same year, when it purchased the Pulitzer papers.
Wall Street's no-confidence verdict is uncontested: Print is sooo yesterday. No wonder the industry is beset by fear and trembling - and subject to dire trade magazine stories starkly headlined "Adapt or Die."
Capital Times editor Paul Fanlund is light on details when he talks about the future, probably both for competitive reasons and plain uncertainty. "I'm sure I'll know things in three months or six months that I don't know now," he says.
Traditional news beats will continue at Madison.com/tct, he says, but the newsroom will focus on breaking news - "weather, crime, accidents and so forth" - on a seven-day-a-week, 18-hour (or so)-a-day basis. How better to entice repeat web visitors?
The stress will be on timeliness and a multimedia approach to stories. "It's impossible to argue that we won't be different," Fanlund says, "but we will pay a lot of attention to what made The Capital Times distinctive through the decades - strong opinion and commentary, playing a watchdog role and [doing] important and timely journalism."
The Wednesday print edition will focus on news, analysis and commentary, Fanlund says, suggesting an obvious magazine approach. "But I don't dispute that [The Capital Times online] will be different than a general-interest daily newspaper."
To succeed it has to be. The switch from paper to pixels to deliver the news represents far more than a change in transmission. The definition of news itself changes online.
This is big stuff, truly a shift in the paradigm.
As the advent of bloggers, listservs and reader comments attest, online news is "less of a lecture, more of a conversation," as media analyst Jay Rosen has put it. This is hard for old-school journalists to accept. They're used to hiding behind either the fig leaf of "objective" reporting or the omniscience of magazine-style journalism.
Now stories are picked apart online by citizen commenters and bloggers. (Newspapers want you to sound off, because that drives traffic to their websites.) Rosen argues that this intellectual give-and-take offers a better chance of reaching truth and accuracy than traditional top-down journalism.
I'm not so sure, but Rosen and others are certainly right to declare that the old order of editors as august arbiters of the news agenda is fast fading. Readers now "roll their own" when they follow the news online, as one commentator quaintly put it. They dart from link to link, website to website, following stories and columns that interest them.
This poses a profound problem for newspapers. Simply put: People seldom read newspapers online. They read a story or two and in a keystroke are 10,000 miles away on the Manchester Guardian website.
Hence, while a typical newspaper subscriber might spend 15 to 30 minutes paging through the Daily Blatherer, the typical Blatherer.com visitor might spend three to six minutes on the site. The dynamic has only accelerated as popular news "aggregator" sites like Google, Yahoo and Digg have become go-to portals for finding news links. Not to mention Drudge and Huffington Post for politics.
This is seriously worrisome. Aggregators, who do little or no reporting themselves, build audiences and sell ads to these audiences by featuring stories generated by newspaper sites. This is ad revenue that would otherwise help send a reporter to cover the town water board meeting or follow a presidential candidate on a campaign swing.
Bummer, man. The economic model that supports the costly exercise of professional journalism - all those reporters, editors, photographers, page designers and other cranky members of the newspaper priesthood - is losing its mojo.
What could revive it?
The "Newspaper Next" project, the brainchild of the American Press Institute, probably represents the best thinking on the future of newspapers, and it's kind of scary.
The N2 architects envision the newspaper website of tomorrow as a "local information and connection utility." This awkward formulation is thought to contain a sturdy idea.
These civic utilities should present a mix of community databases (say, on real estate, schools and crime), social networking, community forums, various calendars, content sharing among readers, shopping help, newspaper archives and, yes, even the news of the day as brought to you by The Daily Blatherer's remaining reporters.
It's sobering that traditional news is considered only one of many features in a successful online portfolio. Chalk it up to both the web's democratic spirit and the inability of newspapers to box up and control the news.
Whether this smorgasbord of online functions will cohere with the authority and vision of a good newspaper is the unanswered question.
The best that papers like the Cap Times can do is make an informed guess as to the future, cross their fingers and bravely take a flying leap into the unknown.