"It's been no fun dying on the vine," says Ron McCrea, senior news editor of The Capital Times.
McCrea, 65, knows something about dying. He presided over the death of the strike paper known as the Madison Press Connection in 1980 and then went to work for the Washington Star, which abruptly shut down in 1981 after 128 years.
And then there's his own near-death from a cancerous liver only to be saved by a transplant operation in April 2007. In a phone interview last Friday night, McCrea sounded like a guy who has new lease on life, in more ways than one.
Buoyant wouldn't be the right word, but he was definitely upbeat about the paper's announcement that it will cease publication as a daily on April 26 and shift to onilne publication and two weekly print editions (one news, one arts) to be distributed free in the Madison area.
"We took practically every step imaginable to sell the paper [to new readers] in the last few years, and it didn't work,' he says. The Capital Times, which approached 50,000 circulation in its heyday, has dropped to less than 17,000 and had become, in practical terms, a boutique journalistic product sustained by its very profitable half-ownership of the Capital Newspapers publishing conglomerate.
Things were getting so bad, McCrea says, that sources were becoming reluctant to give story tips to Cap Times reporters because the paper's readership was so small and the larger papers might ignore its scoops.
"I can't tell you how many times I've had the experience of talking to people about a great story we've had, and nobody has a clue that we published it," he says.
Perhaps the low point was the paper's failed attempt to woo new subscribers in Madison's "blue" neighborhoods on the near-west and near-east sides.
The mass home delivery of free papers produced precious few subscriptions, despite these being strongholds of John Kerry and Ralph Nader voters who presumably share The Capital Times' liberal philosophy.
"We thought this would be a rich target for us to fill out our circulation, but people just weren't buying," he says. "Some people even complained that we were littering! They asked that we take the papers away."
McCrea's conclusion: "You can only do so much before you finally have to face reality."
Reality is online publishing and those two weekly editions. The move will save Capital Newspapers a ton in newsprint costs and result in perhaps 15 of the paper's 60 newsroom positions being eliminated, in addition to other job cuts in production and delivery.
"I do feel upbeat because I've been there when they've simply folded the paper and told people to go home," he says. "This is war by other means. Online is clearly the future of journalism."
McCrea says the paper is being "very, very humane" in handling the job cuts by offering a buyout package that includes from ten to 52 weeks of salary, depending on longevity, some health-insurance coverage and other benefits.
With a few exceptions, all employees will have to apply for newly posted jobs by Feb. 18, McCrea says. The new staff will be announced on March 10. Those who aren't hired will receive the same severance package as the staffers who accepted the buyout.
McCrea's endorsement of the impending changes carries weight, given his long history at The Capital Times. He was a strike leader in 1977, when five unions at what was then called Madison Newspapers Inc. walked out when management unilaterally introduced new printing technology in a particularly brutal fashion.
"Madison Newspapers laid off half off its printers in one blow, [regardless] of seniority, with women and the disabled first," he recalls "Those who returned to work the next day were told that their pay was being cut by a third. They were just bleeding in total despair."
The striking unions failed to shut down the two dailies, which doomed the strike from the beginning. McCrea became editor of the strike paper, the Madison Press Connection, which never rose higher than 12,000 in circulation and folded in 1980 after employees went payless for five months.
The strike formally ended in 1982 when the last two unions finally gave up. All five unions were decertified, though the strikers had the satisfaction of collecting $1.5 million from MNI as part of their settlements. The two papers remain union-free to this day.
McCrea went to work as press secretary for the newly elected Gov. Tony Earl in 1982, but when Earl lost his re-election bid in 1986, McCrea found himself unemployable in Madison. He left town to work at the New York edition of Newsday (since shuttered as well) before he made his peace with the Cap Times and returned to the paper in 1995.
There was no clearer sign than McCrea's return that the extraordinary animosity of the strike had finally passed.
But the damage had been done. The strike had put the proudly progressive Capital Times on the same side with the then bluntly anti-union Lee Enterprises, which owns the other half of the publishing company. McCrea admits the strike cost the Cap Times readers it never regained.
The decision to cease daily publication was tightly compartmentalized within top management. The staff was kept in the dark until the announcement, and even senior news editor McCrea didn't know it was coming. He says he had no role in drawing up the job descriptions for the new online paper and its weekly news and arts editions.
Similarly, he has no insight on how the captimes.com will distinguish itself on the broader Madison.com website, which also features stories from the Wisconsin State Journal and Channel 27. But he concedes that the prospect of running a seven-day-a-week, 18-hour-a-day online paper is daunting.
"I don't know how the hell we'll staff it with basically ten editors and 20 reporters," he says. "Right now, they're saying you can expect to work nights, days, weekends -- that needs to be clarified."
A third-generation newsman, McCrea has the proverbial news ink in his veins. "I don't have the warmth of feeling for Web readers that I do for newspaper readers," he admits. "I tend to think that newspaper readers bring more worldliness and wider life experiences to their reading."
The Cap Times has announced that the two weekly print editions, each with an expected circulation of 80,000, will be distributed free. Is the company's goal to target Isthmus audience and advertisers?
McCrea says his bosses deny this. "We all love Isthmus," he says. "We did focus groups a couple of years ago, when we were looking to refashion The Capital Times one more time. In the focus groups, everybody just loved Isthmus. Everything they wanted was already in Isthmus. We came away feeling a little dispirited."
That doesn't put such questions to rest. In the compartmentalized world of Capital Newspapers, advertising strategy wouldn't be shared with editorial staffers like McCrea.
On Friday night, McCrea was unsure what his own decision would be. "These are fairly nice terms," he said. "It's a far cry from having someone from security appear at your desk and escort you out of the building to a hotel to learn about your severance."
In a follow-up interview on Monday night, McCrea was more somber. He had made up his mind -- to accept the buyout offer -- in his case, 44 weeks of pay -- and retire.
But he also hopes to consult on shaping the new Cap Times.