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Kevin Murphy

Capital Times freelancer Kevin Murphy, who since 1992 has questioned citizens on issues of the day for the Cap Times' opinion feature Quick Question (originally called What Do You Think?). 

There are usually five or six photos in the space dedicated to "Quick Question," but this week there’s only one — mine.

I’m the guy who compiled this weekly “Man on the Street” column on issues of topical interest since 1992 by taking to the streets in search of your opinions. But after more than 1,200 questions and 6,200 photos, it’s done.

Budget cuts, not enough webpage clicks and increasingly frequent calls to the boss from people changing their minds about appearing in the paper sealed this feature’s fate.

I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s missed only by me. Individuals now have more ways to get their opinions made public than when I took over this feature, from a journalist I no longer remember. They can post their comments to stories on websites, email the editor, and there’s Facebook and other platforms for people to volunteer their views.

In the days when newspapers weren’t on the web, individuals had one less reason to be reluctant to publicly express their ideas. But now they can be potentially made famous or infamous globally, and that brings more perceived consequences. Adding your photo ensures that your anonymity vanishes.

People have posted a lot of embarrassing personal antics on social media but those can be deleted. Not so, when remarks appear in print. Corrections can be published for misquoting someone, but not because they changed their mind.

Some people who had appeared in "Quick Question," or "What Do You Think?" as it was previously called, would later tell me they were congratulated for what they said in print or received a good-natured razzing from friends or co-workers. Others didn’t like getting criticized by someone they didn’t know and would not participate again.

Even if you aren't razzed or abused, it takes some nerve to give your opinion and have your photo taken for publication when approached by a stranger. Of course, it’s anyone’s right to decline, but I always thought that was the only wrong answer to the question.

This paper's editorial board has taken Gov. Scott Walker to task since the state “budget crisis” of 2011, and many people welcomed the chance to speak up against how Walker was governing the state. Those opposed to the paper’s editorial stance gave that as a reason not to talk to me. Replying that this is their opportunity to tell off Editor Emeritus Dave Zweifel wasn’t always enough to convince them otherwise.

Too many state employees in the area no longer felt confident that they wouldn’t face some retaliation for publicly sharing their opinion. That response came more frequently in recent years, and while some may have just used that as a dodge, it seemed legitimate coming from many others.

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Denied access to Madison’s two regional shopping malls, I would frequently walk State Street, where I could find people on their lunch hour. I’ve joked that people who recognized me coming their way would cross State Street to avoid an encounter.

For the thousands who did talk, I will be forever grateful. Talking off the cuff on serious subjects isn’t easy, but relatively few needed a second take to produce a thoughtful response. I was repeatedly impressed by the knowledge and compassion people expressed and learned a lot listening to them. Innovative restaurateur Odessa Piper paused before giving a well-informed answer about the roles the Hutus and Tutsis had in a Rwandan civil war when that wasn’t an everyday topic of conversation. That happened in the mid-1990s but recurred over and over as people shared viewpoints and information that I didn’t anticipate despite reading up on the topics.

I received assistance in compiling this feature and want to thank mall managers Marge at Westgate and Carrie at Hilldale for letting me inside when it was too cold, wet or windy to work outdoors. And to The Capital Times for the providing the forum, and the opinion editors over the years for suggesting topics that found their way into the feature.

Last but not least, to you readers. Thank you.

Kevin Murphy is a Madison-based freelance journalist.

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