News - What mayor’s race?

AJC balances political coverage with new mall opening

After Nov. 6, one of these three people could be Atlanta’s new mayor, declared The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in its Sun., Oct. 21, Metro section. Readers might be forgiven for reading into this headline an air of surprise — as if the newspaper had just uncovered the fact that one of the folks whose mugs appeared on the page soon might be charged with leadership of its namesake city.

An “unscientific poll” of the sort cited in the AJC’s own mayoral coverage, reveals readers who, when questioned about the newspaper’s mayoral race coverage, typically respond: What coverage?

The AJC rationalized: “The campaign has suffered from soft interest on the part of voters and being overshadowed by a war on terrorism, anthrax and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.”

The three lengthy and largely marshmallow-soft profiles of Gloria Bromell-Tinubu, Shirley Franklin and Robb Pitts that followed were offered as a crash course to the election, by then just 16 days away. In the week that followed, the election ascended in importance on the AJC’s pages — barely seeming to overshadow the opening of The Mall at Stonecrest.

While there were twice as many words devoted to the race as were written about the opening of the mall, the enthusiasm with which the newspaper gushed over a new shopping center far exceeded the ho-humness of its political coverage.

Earlier in the month, AJC Executive Editor John Walter conceded in an interview: “The mayor’s race has been under-covered.” But he asked that judgment of the coverage be reserved until after the election, noting, as the paper did later, that no sooner did the traditional Labor Day start of the election hit than tragically, the terrorist attacks did, too.

Sept. 11 brought the creation of a crisis desk at the AJC. In the same time frame, three editors were elevated to deputy managing editor posts: James Mallory overseeing business and metro; Don Boykin continuing oversight of sports and features; and Susan Stevenson leading the Sunday paper, special projects, national and the new crisis desk.

These were merely the most recent changes in a summer — and now autumn — of evolution at the AJC, which soon will cease circulation of its afternoon edition.

In a July memo, new AJC Managing Editor Julia Wallace asked 100 news and features reporters and editors to re-apply for jobs “as an outgrowth of Better AJC — how do we improve the paper in a variety of ways?”

To what end? The AJC’s challenge, Walter says, is to “find the language to describe the way we live now.”

And how is it we live now? The answer is as complex as the new census reflects. But one thing is clear: AJC readers live far more suburban lives than a decade ago.

Which explains, at least in part, hand wringing inside and outside the paper over city political coverage, or lack thereof, in the “main sheet” — the sections of the newspaper (unlike “City Life” or “DeKalb,” for example) we all receive. The angst is not limited to journalistic types.

Candidate Pitts recalls an era for which some of the ink-stained wretches undoubtedly pine. In decades past, pols hung out (read: drank) with reporters. There were twice as many scribes then covering City Hall. “And they knew as much about the issues as we did,” Pitts says.

Constitution Editorial Page Editor Cynthia Tucker was on that beat back in the day. She’s quick to remind that the city had two, independent daily newspapers then, with two reporters each covering City Hall. And that was before huge suburban counties demanded government coverage.

AJC Public Editor Mike King hears from suburban readers who want a less city-centric newspaper. But Tucker says when she writes about City Hall, engaging e-mail pours in from “Alpharetta, Marietta and beyond.” She says more sophisticated readers recognize that “a well-run city leads to a well-run region,” and “a run-down core affects their quality of life” in the ‘burbs.

The question of the balance of coverage between a city in which only 15 percent of its readership reside and the exploding counties that surround it is as old as the creation of the City Life section itself, according to that section’s first editor, Jeff Dickerson, another long-time, former AJC reporter and editor.

When King was metro editor, he simply declared, “We’re not going to cover City Council races in the main sheet.”

Loren Ghiglione, dean of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, was a member of Emory’s journalism faculty from 1996 until two years ago. While he recalls frustration, living in Decatur, at not finding enough in the AJC about the city’s core, he points out that every major metropolitan newspaper in the country struggles with balancing resources between city and suburban coverage — particularly when sprawling demographics call for more and more suburban focus.

“Metros have never figured out how to do these things,” he says. “That’s why they vacillate.”

Just a week after jumping into race coverage in earnest, another AJC Metro story pointed out the importance of the city’s mayoral election to the entire region, quoting a developer, as if the newspaper were reminding itself: “We’re all a part of Atlanta whether we like it or not. ... To the rest of the world, the mayor of Atlanta is really the mayor of 4 million people, not just 400,000 people.”

Howard Lalli writes about the media for Creative Loafing.??

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