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Monday, April 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 55.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Why you should care about Capital Newspapers' changes to its arts coverage


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Andy Downing arrived at The Capital Times a music writer in 2011. He left last week as a "features reporter with music emphasis."

His departure only deepens the uncertainty about what Capital Newspapers hopes to accomplish with its changing approach to arts and entertainment coverage. Earlier this year, the company changed the job descriptions of Downing and fellow full-time Cap Times writers Lindsay Christians and Rob Thomas. Thomas was moved to a social media role, though he's continued to cover movies, and Downing and Christians' roles became more like general-assignment reporter jobs, with a bit less emphasis on Downing's music coverage and Christians' expertise in local theater and fine arts. Granted, all three continued to write about their respective specialties, but it's clear there's a change afoot in how that's done.

It's particularly sad that Capital Newspapers is undermining these three writers. It's not sad because "journalism" or "criticism" as I conceive it is some end of itself that must be preserved at all costs. It's because Thomas, Christians and Downing know their role. That is, they're smart and opinionated enough to be critics but humble and curious enough to behave like daily paper reporters. They've struck a balance, and in so doing have helped keep a great deal of quality writing in a daily newspaper world that often seems determined to reduce arts coverage to mindless fluff. They have been among the most productive journalists in town. I frequently disagree with what they write, and I don't approach my work the same way as they do, but I admire their commitment to providing thoughtful, useful coverage. Even if they're technically Isthmus' competition, what they do elevates Madison arts journalism as a whole.

As David Carr's recent article on New Orleans' Times-Picayune returning to print points out, the most infuriating thing about media organizations these days it that they can't seem to decide what they want. Business and editorial leadership seem to change the game plan so often that it's not even clear what a lot of daily newspapers (or, increasingly, the corporate husks of entities that used to produce daily newspapers) are supposed to be. And so it is with the Cap Times. One day it's a daily. Then it's a website and two weekly print products. Then, the company starts scaling back its arts-focused print product, 77 Square. And before that were Coreweekly and the Rhythm section.

All of Madison's local media organizations are flawed, and all have displayed their share of indecision. But only Capital Newspapers has given us the pure hilarity of Post, the free weekly that dared to assemble madison.com blogs into a monstrous print product. This was, of course, short-lived. Only Capital Newspapers, as a result of its franchise agreement with The Onion, runs a mindlessly tacky Facebook page for the now-defunct A.V. Club Madison, a site that I and others worked extremely hard to build. (Note to Capital Newspapers' social-media team: The Facebook page's About section still refers people to a website that has not existed for almost a year now.)

Wouldn't it be refreshing to see Capital Newspapers stick with a single course of action on arts coverage, even if it's a bad course of action? If newspaper companies want to maintain reader loyalty during this turbulent era, can they at least decide what we're supposed to be loyal to?

In the time I've worked in Madison media, I've seen Cap Times and Wisconsin State Journal arts writers burn out, get laid off and work hard to adjust to Capital Newspapers' changes in vision and approach. This stinks, because as many times as I've wondered what Capital Newspapers wants to be, it's always been pretty clear what people like Christians and Thomas want to be. I think the most damning thing you can say about any organization is that it fails to make the most out of talented, dedicated employees. In my book, that's even worse than your parent company's CEO getting a raise while the company loses money.

Established outlets like Isthmus and Capital Newspapers are hardly the only game in town. (I have my own arts-related podcast and do a weekly roundup of Madison arts writing for Dane101.) Upstart blogs have been covering local music and co-promoting shows for years, and also putting their own fun spins on food and visual art coverage. Plus, pretty much the whole town is the peanut gallery. If you want local music news or a show recommendation, you certainly don't have to turn to someone like me or Downing.

And frankly, I don't care who is or is not a "journalist." I care about the character and intent of what people put out there, whether it's writing every day for a salary or blogging intermittently for fun. I also care that professional media organizations show resolve and follow-through in their local coverage. Madison is quite heavy on arts and music for a city its size. Therefore, quality arts and entertainment coverage is a must for any publication that has any respect whatsoever for its readership. It's a question not only of good leadership and financial resources, but also of purpose. Of deciding that you're going to do something and do it well.

Also, did Downing's replacement come aboard before his last day, to ensure a smooth transition? Nope. The Capital Times will accept applications for the position through Friday, May 17.

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