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News - Musical beats

Will big changes at the AJC mean a better paper?

These should be the Atlanta Journal and Constitution's salad days. After all, the city's daily newspaper saw its number of potential customers skyrocket in the 1990s, as metro Atlanta expanded from 2.96 million people in 1990 to 4.11 million in 2000.

That should have meant higher circulation, which would have justified charging more for ads, which would have led to fatter editorial budgets and bigger, more informative papers.

Instead, the reverse happened. In 10 years, Atlanta's daily saw its average daily circulation (for the morning and evening editions combined) plummet from 508,604 to 398,101, according to Audit Bureau of Circulation numbers.

That's a 22 percent drop. At the same time, the Atlanta metro population climbed 39 percent.

Even allowing for the industry's stock defenses — people are sharing newspapers more, so readership is still high; people are going online to get their news; and so on — the AJC's steep decline in such a fast-growing market suggests there's more at work here than just industry fluctuations. When you've got a corner on an expanding market and your product isn't selling, it has to be a problem with the product.

To find that problem, look no further than the front page. My favorite example came June 8, when the centerpiece story — headlined "A dubious rite of passage" — gave us a ringside view of local high schoolers partying it up in Cancun, Mexico. Apparently, recent grads — some from Atlanta — "dance alone, or with a partner, or with partners" while on vacation south of the border. And they also consume copious amounts of alcohol.

Right below this story was another barnburner, this one about the mysterious woman in the black Mercedes who's stealing roses from the Ben Franklin Academy.

Those stories were frivolous and patronizing — the kind unfortunately found in American newspapers with depressing regularity these days.

Even the AJC's ambitious efforts sometimes smack of yesterday's news. Sunday's front page boasted an extensive and well-researched story on what's at stake in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which President Bush wants to open for oil exploration; the problem is, The New York Times ran a similar story four months ago and has followed the issue extensively since then. If the AJC, which should be one of the country's most influential dailies, is going to send a reporter and photographer practically all the way to the North Pole, it should be for more than sloppy seconds.

It's too soon to say whether the story selection will get stronger as a result of a staff overhaul announced last week by the paper's managing editor. Julia Wallace, who came to Atlanta seven months ago from the Arizona Republic, gave staffers a blunt message: The AJC's content doesn't reflect the strength of the staff.

To address that underperformance, Wallace is orchestrating a sort of musical chairs game in the newsroom. While some reporters are safe in their current positions, others — some of whom have been in the same position for years — are being asked to re-apply for their jobs. Still other beats are being axed altogether, replaced by a menu of new positions. More than 100 positions are up for grabs.

New jobs include the Newcomers beat, which will "look at metro Atlanta through a newcomer's eyes." Then there's the Nightlife/Youth Culture beat, which seems pretty self-explanatory, as does the Fitness/Health/Exercise/Diet/Psychology/Self-Help beat. On the national desk, the Old South/New South reporter will "reflect the changing culture of the South."

While Wallace and Executive Editor John Walter are taking the lead on the changes, both answer to Ron Martin, the paper's editor. How sweeping and lasting any changes will be depends, at the end of the day, on whether Martin buys into them.

"We're not saying we need to change our philosophy or approach or strategy," says Martin, who was executive editor of USA Today before he took the AJC's top post in 1989.

"We need to be responsive to what we hear from readers. We need to be adaptable to those kinds of changes. You're not going to wake up on Aug. 1 or 15 and find a different newspaper. This is an evolutionary thing."

So far, signs of that evolution aren't forthcoming. On Saturday, Walter told readers in an "Inside the AJC" column about a separate but also significant change. Come Aug. 1, the paper will shrink in width by an inch. The Atlanta paper is just the latest of dozens of papers across the country that have gone to the smaller format, in order to save newsprint costs.

Shrinking the newspaper may make good economic sense; after all, it will save millions of dollars a year in newsprint costs and possibly help forgo talk of layoffs. But you have to read Walter's column pretty closely to get that idea. With the PR tone it affects, under a headline that tells us the paper will be more "comfortable," it sounds like the decision was made on the merits of news and aesthetics, not economics. He pitches the change as going to a "new-size printed page" — a unique euphemism for "smaller."

That's poppycock. It's also just the kind of spin that readers go to a newspaper to avoid. No wonder, then, that they avoid the newspaper.??





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