One of the pleasures of being out of public office is disregarding completely the wrath of those who buy ink by the barrel or hold an FCC license.
So, occasionally in this space I'll critique the Madison media. This is likely to provoke some pushback, as it has been my observation that editors who are quick to criticize others in their editorial pages and stories are just as quick to take deep offense at the least bit of criticism thrown back in their own direction. They're like dogs that can bark and snarl at you, but then if you blow on their faces they go nuts.
But I'm doing this not just out of the fun of turning the tables (and it is fun!), but also out of a genuine respect for journalists and what they do for democracy. Good reporting will lead to better governing. Bad reporting, or lack of reporting, will lead in the opposite direction. I always felt as mayor that as long as reporters knew what was going on, we'd be all right. It was only bad or inexperienced reporters that I feared.
So, let's start by considering the state of Madison's daily newspaper(s). It's hard to say whether there is more than one. The Wisconsin State Journal is the only published newspaper in town that can be delivered to your door every morning, but The Capital Times and publishes a weekly tabloid style newspaper. Isthmus also provides some breaking news content on The Daily Page.
I worked over the State Journal pretty good on my blog a few weeks ago, so I'll go lightly on them today, but let's do some comparison between the Journal and the Cap Times. I'll leave Isthmus out of it for now as they don't really put themselves forward as a daily news source the way the others do.
As a general rule, my problems with the Journal aren't with its reporting or editing. They have a bunch of good journalists who work hard and get it right. My problem isn't that the reporting is bad, but that there isn't enough of it. For example, a few weeks ago the paper did a good set-up piece about an upcoming vote of the Parks Commission regarding the future of the Garver Feed Mill. The problem was that there was no story the next day telling us what happened. It was as if they had written a preview story of a Saturday Badgers game, and then neglected to report the score on Sunday morning. (The Parks Commission punted and called for more information, but that was still a result that should have been reported.)
The truth is I want more of the boring stuff that I admit doesn't sell many newspapers. The who, what, when, where and why of official actions just reported down the middle. Who voted how and why.
But give this to the State Journal: they try (and usually succeed) at practicing a traditional style of straightforward journalism. They don't allow their reporters' or editors' personal opinions to enter their stories.
That can't be said for the Cap Times. They've chosen to allow their reporters' biases into their stories. Cap Times stories routinely allow first person narratives. "He certainly seemed plenty involved to me," i.e. the reporter, in a recent story on the Edgewater for example.
The fundamental systemic problem at the Cap Times is that it is the journalistic equivalent of a spoiled trust fund kid. Basically, the paper's founder left them a big pot of money so that they can never go out of business despite the best efforts of their editors. They don't have to try very hard and so they don't.
I do credit Paul Fanlund for being a good editor, though. Normally a thoughtful guy, he starts to quiver and shake and speak in tongues when the word "Edgewater" is mentioned in his presence. But even though he and his paper haven't been especially kind to me lately, I'll be kind to Paul. He has a vision for his paper that I like very much. He wants it to be the same kind of "long form" journalism that you find in the New York Times Magazine. That's a worthy goal and it would be good for the community if he could make it work.
His problem is that you need good reporters who can be given the luxury of a lot of time to get things right. And so far, even with the family trust fund, he hasn't been able to provide either.
And on the editorial side things are worse. The edit board seems incapable of writing an editorial that doesn't use the word "savvy" or the name "Fighting Bob La Follette." As a result they look hopelessly mired in the past, and aren't often taken seriously by the few people who bother to read them.Nobody I know who is under 80 uses the word "savvy," and Fighting Bob, while a hero in a lot of ways, was also humorless, self-righteous and self-obsessed. He was sort of the Ralph Nader of his time. You have to respect him, but you don't really want to.
But there's good reason for that obsession with the glorious past: Guilt. This is a paper that self-righteously sets itself up as the defender of the people, yet it's also the paper that moved its offices out of the downtown, tried to destroy its own union, and just recently viciously opposed the biggest single job creator on the horizon, the Edgewater Hotel.
The editors have a lot to make up for and a lot to cover up, which explains the many hypocritical, preachy editorials and columns, all of which would be easier to take if they were written with some style and humor.
The state of daily "print" journalism in Madison is not nearly what it could be. We have one paper that tries to do straightforward journalism but doesn't do enough of it, and another paper that tries to be the New York Times Magazine, but comes up short because of this commitment to the personal voice.
The editors of both papers need to hear this. I've had numerous conversations with leaders across the community in business, government, nonprofits and labor who lament the poor state of journalism in Madison. Yet, just the other day I had lunch with one of those leaders who said that she would never tell the editors what she really thought because she wanted their support for her nonprofit. This kind of reticence to speak up to the editors is pervasive among those opinion leaders. But being afraid to speak up won't help improve things.
What's needed is a strong dose of candor. Freed from my fear of ink and editors, I'm going to try to provide just that. Now that I've blown on the face of the dog, let's see how they react.