News - Three for one

AJC will have more editorial pages, but will differing views wither?

Publisher Roger Kintzel took to his newspaper's front page last week to announce that "the Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution titles will be combined into The Atlanta Journal-Constitution seven days a week, rather than simply on Saturday and Sunday." The biggest surprise to most readers is that a separate newspaper called the Atlanta Journal, distributed in the afternoon, exists.

"It has been a long time in coming," explained Editor Ron Martin, redefining "understatement," in a meeting with the editorial boards the day before Kintzel's Oct. 18 announcement. Beginning "in the early '90s, the afternoon circulation has just been spiraling down," he said. "And in the last couple of years, it has fallen right off the cliff. In 1990-91, we probably had 190,000 readers in the afternoon. We'll probably have 90,000 this year."

While the titles will be unified as of Nov. 5, the slow death of the Journal will likely drag into the first quarter of next year, as carrier routes are reorganized and an attempt is made to convert subscribers — a feat that has proven difficult in other markets. "No one really knows how fast it will go," Martin told the assembled. (An audio tape of the meeting was acquired by CL.)

Kintzel, clearly leveraging a weak economic moment to do what he says at least four of his predecessors contemplated, contends a unified brand will assist in turning the circulation tide.

"Nobody is going to lose a paycheck," Martin reassured staff. Afternoon news cycle resources will largely be shifted to ajc.com. It is hard to fathom, after all, why trucks that easily navigate empty streets to deliver the morning edition would still bother to fight afternoon traffic that didn't exist a decade ago — only to deliver news most readers check online (if at all) from their offices.

"So where do we go from here?" Martin asked. "Obviously the main news story ... is what do we do about our opinion pages."

The plan calls for a reconstituted editorial board comprised of members of the two existing boards, though not all of them, led by Constitution Editorial Page Editor Cynthia Tucker. Journal Editorial Page Editor Jim Wooten, who now leads the more conservative afternoon opinion section, becomes her deputy. Both will continue to be featured columnists in what is being trumpeted as the country's only three-page opinion section.

The last thing Martin, Tucker and Wooten want "in the aftermath of this," Wooten said in the meeting, "is some sort of mush-mouthed editorial tradition."

So how will the Apple-Pie-Is-Good compromise editorials that some Sunday AJC readers say has become the bland norm be avoided?

"Like every other editorial board in the country," Martin said, there will be debate. And the bottom line? "Cynthia has to make the decision." With Wooten close at hand.

Durwood McAlister, whose 38 years at the soon-to-be-defunct Journal ended in 1992, hired both Tucker (whom he calls "very qualified," "very bright" and "very perceptive") and Wooten (whom he describes as "probably the best newspaperman in the state of Georgia") — first as reporters and later as members of the editorial board he led for 14 years.

"As long as there is a mutual respect," McAlister says, "then I think you can have a balanced newspaper voice without giving up the fervor of espousing a single view."

What Tucker describes as "very much a work in progress" is a plan that includes more reader reaction (leaving "Saturday Talk" detractors dreading more uninformed feedback in place of informed opinion), more syndicated columnists and aggressive pursuit of more local op-ed pieces.

Martin urged his troops to "work hard to build up our rolodexes ... to go after more varied local opinion than we've had in the past."

If the paper, in its bank of editorials, is indeed going to take a strong stand, management is decreeing the need to solicit reaction rather than wait for it. In what was clearly a fictional example meant to illustrate his point, Martin told staffers:

"If we're going to say, 'Cynthia McKinney is a fool,' " for example, "then we're going to say, 'Would you like to argue otherwise?' rather than to wait for her to tell us that she's not a fool."

Ironically, the death of the Journal may be a boon to conservative voices in Atlanta. And to the "older, white, suburban" readers from whom McAlister says he still hears "a lot." As McAlister says, "They take the Constitution" — because like seemingly everyone else, they prefer a morning paper — "and they complain."

The addition of Wooten's column, as well as new syndicated columns, to the more dominant daily will boost conservative views in Atlanta's marketplace of ideas.

But the overall impact on the morning newspaper's opinion pages remains to be seen. Engaging in debate that yields tough, thoughtful editorials and seeks out a broad range of equally engaging, local op-ed pieces will require effort. And what's the incentive? To be better — better than what?

What Tucker described in a phone interview as "uncharted territory" will renew an enterprising spirit for what will be a new editorial board. But the moment will be fleeting. Ending the chase after dwindling afternoon readers will undoubtedly help the bottom line. But does an outstanding editorial page — or even three of them — have a chance at arresting plummeting circulation amid a booming population?

One issue at stake is the legacy of Tucker, the first black editorial page editor for either of the Cox dailies. "Very hard work" is the way she described the internal debates between the two boards over the shared editorials that already appear in combined Sunday page.

"I have to be much better informed. I have to know the arguments of those with whom I disagree," she says. "I read the Wall Street Journal editorial page a lot more often."

If there is a tradition against which it seems she might one day be measured, perhaps it is that of legendary Constitution Editor and Publisher Ralph McGill.

"The McGill legacy is something I grew up with," Tucker says. "McGill meant a progressive notion of the South ... a South that would be an accommodating place for me to live.

"Ralph McGill is a very real influence for me," she says. "In discussions with the powers that be at Cox, I said I want to carry on the legacy of McGill. He was courageous because he stood up to his peers. When I believe they are doing the wrong thing, I need to stand up to my peers."

And whether it has been Dexter King or Bill Campbell, Tucker has.

The challenge is not to "lead the crusade," according to McAlister, but to provide the balanced forum in which to present compelling ideas. "Both Cynthia and Jim fit that mold," he says.

Cox hopes you'll be reading their three pages to see.

Atlanta freelance writer Howard Lalli writes about the media for Creative Loafing. ??

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