The Capital Times, the feisty afternoon newspaper that helped define this city and championed a unique brand of Midwestern progressivism, publishes its final daily Saturday after a colorful 90-year history.
The paper that battled former Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy and crusaded for decades to build a Frank Lloyd Wright convention center could no longer survive after decades of circulation losses.
But the self-described champion of the little guy isn’t ready to quit. Next week, the paper starts publishing two weekly tabloids and transitions its daily coverage to the Internet with a smaller staff in a first-of-its-kind move being watched closely in the industry.
The changes have been difficult, with more than 20 newsroom staffers taking buyouts or getting laid off. Longtime readers, some whose families subscribed since the paper’s founding in 1917, are mourning the loss.
“It’s quite a calamity,” said Harold Tarkow, 95, a retired chemist who read the paper since starting college in 1930 and usually voted for whomever it endorsed. “They had good writers. They had good editors. And I seldom disagreed with them.”
Dave Zweifel, who has been editor since 1983 and becomes editor emeritus under the transition, said the staff losses “are like breaking up a family.” He spoke as he was writing his final column about how he landed his first job at the paper in 1962.
“I thought before the Internet and all these other external forces wreaked their havoc on us I’d be long gone,” he said. “But it’s happened a lot quicker than any of us expected.”
William T. Evjue, then at the Wisconsin State Journal, started The Capital Times out of frustration after his paper called then-Wisconsin Sen. Bob La Follette unpatriotic for opposing World War I. Evjue decided the paper would be a voice for the progressive causes championed by “Fighting Bob.”
Critics tried to organize advertising boycotts, had the Justice Department investigate whether it was funded by German money and even beat up its newsboys, said Madison historian Stuart Levitan. But Evjue succeeded by selling $1 subscriptions and putting out a vibrant newspaper with an attitude, he said.
The paper has continued a tradition of taking on big business, railing against government secrecy and opposing war. It was an early champion of women’s rights, gay rights and protecting the environment and won praise from Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy and Jesse Jackson.
Sen. Fred Risser, a Madison Democrat who has been in the Legislature since 1956 and read the paper even longer, said The Capital Times “has kept Madison as liberal and progressive as it is.”
That tradition won’t end with the final daily paper, said John Nichols, a prominent Capital Times columnist who also covers politics for The Nation magazine.
“As tough as this transition is, it’s about the future,” he said. “The Capital Times is very well positioned to go on the Web. We’re not a mealy-mouthed quiet little paper. We’re noisy with big elbows and we say strong things and frankly that’s what the Web is all about.”
The paper was an outspoken critic of McCarthy, first opposing his election to the Senate and then backing the “Joe must go” movement. McCarthy even accused some of its employees of being communists, Levitan said.
Starting in 1938, the paper crusaded for a convention center overlooking Lake Monona proposed by the local architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Through decades of delay, defeat and debate, the paper kept up its advocacy. When it was finally built in the 1990s, the paper’s charitable arm kicked in $3 million for construction.
Evjue cut a deal in 1948 in which The Capital Times would get the then-coveted afternoon publishing slot and the State Journal would get mornings and Sundays. That agreement continues today under Capital Newspapers Inc., which is jointly owned by Lee Enterprises Inc. and The Capital Times Co.
Since then, the morning slot has become the important one in the industry, and circulation at the State Journal stands at 89,000 daily and 141,500 on Sundays.
The Capital Times reached peak circulation of 47,000 in 1966 but steadily declined to below 17,000 today. With afternoon newspapers becoming obsolete and readers flocking to the Web, the paper made a “strategic decision” to remain viable, said editor Paul Fanlund.
Fanlund said he tried everything he could to boost circulation, even giving away the paper in overwhelmingly Democratic neighborhoods for a month. The effort yielded few new subscribers.
Starting next week, the paper will be replaced by two 48-page tabloids that will be available on newsracks and distributed to homes with the State Journal. The Wednesday edition will feature news and opinion, which Fanlund hopes will become the “Newsweek or Time for Madison.”
Thursday will debut 77 Square, which will focus on entertainment and culture. The name is a play on a nickname for Madison: “77 square miles surrounded by reality.” Both tabloids are expected to have circulation of about 80,000.
“Cities much bigger than Madison have gone a long time with only one newspaper,” said Levitan, who briefly worked as the paper’s Washington correspondent in the 1970s. “They call Madison 77 square miles surrounded by reality. Well, this is reality catching up with us. And it’s sad.”