The Capital Times' latest marketing campaign is to proclaim that they "get Madison." It seems to me that the better question is, do Madisonians get the Cap Times?
Even after reading editor Paul Fanlund's column -- twice -- I still can't say that I understand where he's trying to take his publication. Normally a clear writer, Fanlund started by trying to explain what his paper won't do. It doesn't cover breaking news or most committee meetings, press conferences, crimes or the weather.
What that leaves was unclear. The niche he wants to fill remains a work in progress even after its editor tried to explain it in some detail.
Look, I like Paul Fanlund. He's a decent, smart and sincere man who is genuinely working hard to find a place for his newspaper to fit in in a marketplace that has been unkind to newspapers over the last decade or so. And I think I understand his dilemma. He looks around and sees a limited public appetite for straight news reporting on the one hand, and a limited market for the alternative weekly journalism of the kind practiced by Isthmus.
I want Fanlund to succeed. It's important that Madison doesn't lose the Cap Times' voice and more news outlets, whatever their niche, are better than fewer. Moreover, I think most of the reporting there is really pretty good. Every week I find well-written stories that I feel I have to read.
But it seems to me that the Cap Times' weakness is its fixation on the past.
Today's paper contained an advertisement around the "we get Madison" theme. But here's the problem. The ad featured a black and white fifty year old picture of Cap Times founder William Evjue and the copy was all about Evjue and his "hero" Fighting Bob La Follettte. And that's consistent with the paper's editorial page, which features almost daily references to Evjue and La Follette. The only thing surprising about the ad copy is that the word "savvy" did not appear. All of it says "we get Madison... one hundred years ago." This will not sell the publication to a new generation.
One final concern. Fanlund wrote that the key test for a story will be, "Is it interesting?" That's fine if you're trying to sell ads, but that's not what real journalism is about. It seems to me that the question should be, "Is this something important that the public needs to know about?" And very often the most important stuff is not inherently fascinating to the general public. It seems to me that it's the job of a good newspaper to make it interesting or to find other ways to emphasize it until the information enters the public consciousness.
On that last point, I'm pretty confident that William Evjue and even Fighting Bob would agree with me.