Press: The Madison Connection

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Strikers make Wisconsin's capital a three-paper town

Madison, Wis. (pop. 176,100), is distinguished as the state capital, the home of the University of Wisconsin, and is a city blessed with three separately owned, competing newspapers. Madison used to have two such newspapers, but last Oct. 1 members of editorial and production unions struck both dailies, the morning Wisconsin State Journal (circ. 78,000), the afternoon Capital Times (39,000) and Madison Newspapers, Inc., the papers' shared production and business arm. The cause of the strike: automation-related layoffs and pay cuts at MNI. Although about 40% of the workers walked out, the dailies have not missed an issue. Nor has their newest competitor: the weekly Press Connection, launched on Oct. 9 by members of the striking unions, who are working for it without pay.

The Press Connection is not your typical, antimanagement picket-line broadside. It is a full-size, 16-page weekly crowded with local news features and advertising and distributed free to 65,700 Madison-area homes. The paper's first issue scooped the competition with disclosures of a proposed local property-tax increase, and two weeks ago the Connection published an exclusive about CIA spying in Madison during the 1960s. "We had all that talent out on the streets," says Connection Editor Ron McCrea, 34, who used to be news editor of the Capital Times. "We wanted to offer the community an alternative."

The community, a heavily liberal, white-collar mecca, has been notably appreciative. Mayor Paul Soglin, 32, a one-time student activist, canceled his subscriptions to the Capital Times and State Journal, and has given the weekly some scoops, like his plan to veto the city council's ban on nude dancing. The county district attorney and several religious leaders and university professors have issued statements backing the strikers. A striker-sponsored poll showed that 20% of readers had canceled their subscriptions or stopped buying either of the dailies since the strike began; the papers, however, report that circulation is down only 5% at the Capital Times and 3% at the more conservative State Journal.

More important, local businesses are supporting the Connection, and a recent issue contained so much advertising that staffers were embarrassed. Joked Copy Desk Chief Skip Frank, former State Journal late-news editor: "It's a financial success and an editorial disaster." Though Connection advertising has fallen off a bit in recent weeks, the strike paper is solidly in the black.

Yet, despite its admirable record, the Press Connection does not match the thorough local and state coverage of its competitors, nor does it try to cover national and international news. It remains very much a shoestring operation, printed on rented presses and edited in three cramped rooms of a warehouse. Some strikers are performing the same tasks for the Connection as they did for its rivals, but one of the paper's star ad salesmen is a former feature writer, the production chief was an art critic and the author of the trivia quiz a political reporter.

Nearly all Connection staffers would clearly prefer to have their old jobs back. Yet both the State Journal, owned by Lee Enterprises of Davenport, Iowa, and the locally owned Capital Times have hired permanent replacements for some strikers, and negotiations to end the dispute are at an impasse.

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