Cover Story: Shake-up

Old media meets new realities at the AJC

When the Godfather of Soul died suddenly on Christmas morning in a Midtown hospital suite, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newsroom jumped into action. By the next day’s edition, writers hastily pulled off vacation had turned around a quartet of articles on James Brown: a short feature about his musical legacy, a longer career overview, a piece on the reaction to his death and a reworked wire story recalling Brown’s final Atlanta concert.

Reporters were dispatched to Augusta over the next few days to interview Brown’s friends and neighbors, and to Harlem’s Apollo Theater for his casket viewing. By week’s end, the paper had run stories about plans for Brown’s funeral, features quoting his fans and listing his classic albums, and a mean-spirited guest editorial by ex-99X jock Jimmy Baron effectively labeling the late Soul Brother No. 1 a thug.

Even after an end-of-December funeral, the coverage continued, running mostly in the Metro section. Staff-written articles provided frequent updates on the confused state of the Brown estate, whether he’d been legally married and when, oh, when he might actually be buried.

Over the nearly three months between the singer’s untimely death and eventual interment, the AJC could rightly say, in journalism parlance, that it owned James Brown coverage. That’s a good thing. But Editor Julia Wallace now has doubts about how her organization made use of that ownership. It’s likely, she suggests, that the AJC overdid it a little – at least on paper.

“We served our online readers well, but I’m not sure we served our print readers well,” she says. “Our Online Department couldn’t get enough James Brown, but I would argue that our print readers didn’t need every little development recapped a day later.”

Wallace’s concerns over the Brown coverage are part of a larger problem we’ll call the digital riddle: How can a daily metropolitan print newspaper maintain its relevance while shifting resources to appeal to a readership that increasingly prefers to get its news and information online?

The AJC isn’t the only paper trying to answer that question. In response to ever-sliding circulation numbers – and the resulting corporate pressure to shore up the bottom line – Wallace is the latest big-city editor to oversee sizable staff cuts and a substantial makeover of her company’s approach to news coverage.

Perhaps you’ve heard something about this.

Movie critic Eleanor Ringel Gillespie. Political writer Tom Baxter. Star investigative reporter Jane Hansen. Pulitzer-winning science reporter Mike Toner. These are some of the marquee bylines that vanished from the paper July 1, when a large-scale buyout, combined with attrition, cleared out somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 reporters and editors from what Wallace says had been a news force of close to 500.

Along the way, at least half the remaining staff had to reapply for their jobs or seek new assignments, a directive that created opportunities for some but caused much angst among longtime reporters worried about getting stuck with a crummy gig. In turn, the lack of information surrounding the staff reshuffling sparked concerns among readers, particularly in the Atlanta arts community, that local coverage would suffer.

The newsroom population is only part of the picture. With daily newspaper circulation in a slow-motion plunge across the country, the AJC is struggling to transform itself from a lumbering print-media dinosaur into a nimble multiplatform information provider able to reach customers in print, online, by mobile download – however future generations will get their news.

To meet such challenges, the AJC has thrown out traditional news departments in favor of a radical restructuring that assigns new priority to website needs. And, as part of an effort to serve the older readers who form the core print audience, Wallace pledges the refocused newspaper will – despite its smaller staff – somehow provide more substantive, better-written and more aggressive local coverage.

On the rapidly shifting media landscape, however, there are no firm guarantees. Even if the AJC lives up to Wallace’s bold promise, it’s uncertain that strong content will be enough to ensure the vitality of Atlanta’s daily newspaper.

MONTHS BEFORE WALLACE told the staff about plans for a newsroom reshuffling last February, corporate brass had been dropping tantalizing hints about the paper’s future.

When Jay Smith, president of Cox Newspapers, announced at an October meeting of the Atlanta Press Club that the “all-purpose, one-size-fits-all newspaper is obsolete,” it was clear he was talking about Cox’s flagship daily. And AJC Publisher John Mellott perked up local ears when he allowed that the paper would soon concentrate on writing for “settled adults.”

No one has a more direct hand in the transformation than Hank Klibanoff, one of four managing editors under the new structure. “We’re not chasing the young and teenage reader anymore by doing more stories about the Drive-By Truckers,” he says. “But there probably is a really good story that could be done about the Drive-By Truckers that would appeal to our audience.”

As head of the newly formed Enterprise Department, Klibanoff oversees a group of about 50 handpicked writers tasked with producing the bulk of the investigative stories, long-form narratives, personality profiles and government exposés that will appear in print.

Presumably, his elite crew is also expected to bring home the awards. Klibanoff himself provides a strong role model, having won last year’s Pulitzer Prize for history for The Race Beat, a book about Civil Rights-era journalism co-authored with Gene Roberts, his former boss at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Wallace says that, in addition to ordering a reduction of newsroom staff, Mellott called for a new strategic vision for the paper, centered around the mantralike imperative to “grow digital and reinvent print.”

“Young people are increasingly going to go online for information, so the newspaper is going to appeal more to people who care about news and have strong local connections,” Wallace says. She adds: “We’re still in the process of figuring out what that will look like.”

But here’s what they do know. Instead of nearly a dozen topic-driven departments, each with its own editor – Metro, Sports, features, Business, etc. – the newsroom now has a mere four divisions organized by function and format.

The flip side to Klibanoff’s Enterprise desk is News & Information, which includes beat writers who’ll cover everything from Georgia politics to corporate mergers to Braves games, as well as so-called “mojos,” or mobile journalists, who patrol the streets with laptops and digital cameras looking for features and news.

Much of the work produced by the 170 or so N&I reporters – whether it’s blogs or incremental updates such as February’s spate of James Brown burial stories – won’t appear in print, but will have a home online. For instance, explains N&I managing editor Mike Lupo, one newly created job is that of social – as opposed to society – reporter, whose features about book clubs, block parties and church groups will be aimed at the website. Likewise, mojos assigned to metro counties will be expected to file daily pieces to satisfy online readers’ hunger for community news.

The other two departments, Print and Online, are production-based. They’re responsible for deciding how to use content supplied by Enterprise and N&I. Wallace argues that the AJC needed to make a clean break from the now decade-old industry practice of having the print paper dictate news coverage, with the website coming only as an afterthought.

“I think newspapers around the country realize that what they’ve been doing is not going to get them where they need to go,” she says. “We couldn’t keep tweaking our way toward the future.”

IT COULD BE ARGUED that tweaks have served dailies quite well for nearly two centuries.

In a sense, the modern newspaper hasn’t really changed since the 1830s, when the New York Herald hit upon just the right combination of gruesome crime coverage, on-the-scene reporting, populist writing and eye-catching graphics. Publisher James Gordon Bennett had discovered the template for building mass readership. From the sensationalistic “yellow journalism” of the Pulitzer-Hearst rivalry in the 1890s through the mid-20th-century embrace of objectivity, audiences continued to grow, even as many big-city papers merged into media conglomerates.

But, under stiff competition from radio and television, circulation peaked nationally in the late ’60s. Since then, it’s been on a long, gradual slide. Until now.

The rise of the Internet represents the biggest crisis in the history of the print news industry – worse than Walter Cronkite, worse than CNN, worse even than the extinction of the evening paper in the ’70s and ’80s.

Even as metro dailies were losing audience share to the 6 o’clock news, big-city papers were able to ratchet up advertising rates because by that point most of them, including the AJC, were hometown monopolies. They continued to enjoy enviable profit margins of around 20 percent. But that was before Craigslist and Monster.com helped knock the floor out from under traditional classified advertising, and news websites and bloggers began to steal more print readers than ever before.

“The business model is broken, and nobody has yet figured out how to fix it, so papers are in free fall,” says Charles Haddad, a former AJC media reporter who has taught journalism at Emory University. “Newspapers have an online audience, but they can’t charge enough for advertising to replace print revenue.”

According to “The State of the News Media,” an annual report prepared by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, newspaper websites typically contribute only 7 percent to a paper’s total ad revenue.

“Online revenue is growing, but the money is falling off faster in print, so it’s not making up for the losses,” says Rick Edmonds, a media analyst at the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Poynter Institute and an author of the report.

Doubts about the future of dailies have resulted in falling stock prices, angry shareholders, and a wholesale upheaval of the structure and ownership of their parent companies. Knight Ridder, the country’s second-largest newspaper chain – and longtime owner of Georgia’s Macon Telegraph and Columbus Ledger-Enquirer – no longer exists, having been sold last year to the smaller McClatchy Co. Then it was broken up. The owners of such top-flight dailies, from the L.A. Times to the Baltimore Sun, have closed news bureaus, initiated rounds of layoffs and taken other cost-cutting measures to offset plunging stock prices.

In this uncertain environment, the AJC counts itself lucky to be a horse of a different color.

Cox Enterprises, one of America’s largest media companies, got its start in 1898 when Ohio newsman James Middleton Cox paid $26,000 to buy the evening newspaper in Dayton. Cox later became a three-term Ohio governor and was the unsuccessful 1920 Democratic nominee for president; his then-obscure running mate was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

During the ’20s, he added other papers and then radio stations. A week before the 1939 premiere of Gone with the Wind, Cox bought the Atlanta Journal, leading to speculation that he simply wanted an invitation to party with Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. With the Journal deal came WSB radio. Cox launched WSB-TV in 1948, and acquired the Atlanta Constitution two years later.

The Journal and Constitution newsrooms merged in 1982 and the Journal ceased afternoon publication in 2001, but the Cox empire still includes 17 daily newspapers in six states, in addition to 80 radio stations; 15 TV stations; the country’s third-biggest cable-TV carrier, with 6 million subscribers in 620 communities; the nation’s largest car auction company; and AutoTrader.com, a leading classified ad site.

According to its annual report, Cox Enterprises employed 80,000 people and took in revenues of $13.2 billion in 2006, nearly a 10 percent increase from a year earlier. More than half of that figure – $7.3 billion – came from the cable subsidiary, Cox Communications, followed by Manheim auto auctions with $2.8 billion. Cox Newspapers, of which the AJC is by far the largest, ranked third with revenues of $1.4 billion.

“We are in a unique and very special situation,” Wallace says. “We’re a privately owned company in which newspapers are a small part of a very successful business that believes strongly in the importance of what we do in the community.”

Last year, Forbes magazine placed Cox Enterprises’ two owners – 87-year-old Anne Cox Chambers and sister Barbara Cox Anthony – in a tie for 17th place on a list of the richest Americans. Each was worth an estimated $12.6 billion. Anthony, whose son James Cox Kennedy is the company CEO, died in May.

Because it’s privately owned, Cox doesn’t need to meet Wall Street’s quarterly earnings expectations – or even release its earnings. And it can choose to ignore many of the same market forces that are tearing some public media companies apart. For example, the AJC plans a $30 million upgrade of its printing facilities, an outlay public companies might find difficult justifying to shareholders.

Miles Groves, a media analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based firm of Morton Groves, says private ownership gives Cox Newspapers a distinct advantage in the industry’s current sky-is-falling climate.

Says Groves: “Cox is one of those companies that will still be around in 20 years because they don’t have to answer to analysts and institutional investors who have more loyalty to the market than to the corporate mission.”

CHRIS ROUSH REMEMBERS the AJC as something other than a lean operation.

“It was the most well-staffed newsroom I’d ever been in, but there was a lot of dead wood that needed cutting,” says Roush, who joined the paper’s staff in 1994 as a business writer. “At one time my entire beat was Coke and Home Depot – did they really need one reporter for just two companies?”

Now a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina, Roush fondly recalls that the AJC’s private bankroll allowed it to spend freely to put reporters on airplanes in pursuit of stories that a publicly owned paper might have let slip away.

Those halcyon days are likely at an end.

Although insulated from the whims of the market, the AJC can’t escape readership trends that threaten the survival of metropolitan newspapers. Over the last two decades, Atlanta has seen some of the most precipitous declines in paid daily circulation among big cities. In 1988, the combined daily circulation of the then-two newspapers was 458,700; at last count, the AJC had 357,400 paid readers. Over the same period, the Sunday circulation had fallen from 650,500 to 523,687. And in the last six months, the AJC suffered the fourth-steepest Sunday drop-off in the country among metro dailies.

“A private company like the AJC can decide to accept a lower profit margin,” Edmonds says. “But before the new business model comes along, any newspaper is reckless if it doesn’t take steps to ensure its financial viability.”

Even before the newsroom reshuffling and staff buyouts, the AJC was cutting costs by pulling back from selling the paper in every far-flung hamlet. The distribution zone was reduced from more than 200 counties in Georgia and neighboring states to 73 counties clustered around Atlanta. Though the move represented only a 5 percent cut in total distribution, it shrank the AJC’s stature as Georgia’s only statewide paper.

The danger of such cutbacks, Edmonds warns, is that they can be done too deeply or haphazardly, resulting in diminished news coverage and writing talent, giving readers even less reason to subscribe – leading to more cutbacks and an eventual death spiral. The circulation cutbacks could mean, for example, that the AJC will lose influence with opinion and business leaders across the state, who’ve viewed the paper as the primary vehicle to understand the political landscape.

Wallace and her editors argue that they’re striking a balance between reducing costs and retaining the resources to publish a quality paper. While the loss of experienced reporters cut away a big chunk of the paper’s institutional memory, in comparison with the heavy-handed slashing of staff at some storied publications – the Dallas Morning News, for example, has lost nearly a third of its editorial staff in the past three years – the Atlanta cuts amounted to a flesh wound.

Even after the recent buyouts, the AJC has one of the larger newsrooms for a city our size. One goal of the restructuring, Wallace says, was to clear out layers of midlevel editors who’d accumulated over the years and slowed the decision-making process.

As part of the attempted turnaround, the AJC is placing an almost zealous emphasis on local coverage. That doesn’t mean the paper will send reporters to every neighborhood meeting. It means the paper won’t send reporters to cover out-of-town news – say, at the NBA Finals or in Baghdad’s Green Zone – unless there’s a compelling local angle. Readers can expect instead to see more wire-service bylines on articles from faraway places.

The paper has taken a similar approach with film and music criticism. If a movie or album review is available from, say, the New York Times, why expend the resources to duplicate that work in-house? Besides, Wallace suggests, online readers are more interested in posting their own opinions and checking out those of fellow readers than they are in the pronouncements of some high-handed critic.

But don’t readers care whether a review is written by a familiar local critic? “We know they don’t,” Wallace says firmly.

That’s why Eleanor Ringel Gillespie, whose name is synonymous with AJC movie coverage, was cut loose after more than 28 years. But she won’t be retiring. As soon as he heard Gillespie was leaving the paper, Ed Bean gave her a call. Bean, editor of the Daily Report, which specializes in covering metro Atlanta’s legal industry, believes a critic’s name does mean something to a community: It offers a dependable local voice, and readers use their sense of the critic’s taste to help them decide whether they would like a particular film or album. So Gillespie will begin writing weekly reviews and features for the Daily Report in September.

Other newsroom veterans were similarly snatched up before they could even clean out their desks. Tom Baxter, whose 33 years at the paper have mostly been spent trawling the corridors of power, is now chief writer for the Southern Political Report, a subscription-based online newsletter. Jane Hansen recently started a new job as spokeswoman for the Georgia Supreme Court after a quarter-century with the AJC. Hansen was twice a Pulitzer finalist, most recently for a series of articles that spurred reform of the state’s wretched child-welfare system.

Still, AJC managers insist the recent exodus won’t result in a falloff of newspaper quality – and they say they’re not worried that staff morale has been damaged by the shake-up.

Lupo notes that departing vets have been good about leaving behind source lists and beat-covering tips, while Klibanoff contends the new staff structure will allow fewer, and less experienced, reporters to cover the same turf more aggressively. Wallace even says that, after eliminating the position of book section editor and assigning those duties to an editor also responsible for other sections, she expects book coverage to improve.

Haddad, for one, isn’t buying it. “If they’re saying this is the answer, why weren’t they doing it back when they had more resources?” he wonders. “It’s like they’re admitting they were coasting.”

Bean also suspects the loss of top-shelf writers will hurt the AJC. “Certainly, you can’t do good journalism if the newspaper isn’t financially healthy,” he says. “But it strains credibility to say you can let that level of talent walk out the door and not have the organization suffer in the short term.”

Poynter’s Edmunds admits the paper’s new editorial structure “baffles me a little bit.” But, he says, the paper should be at least credited for its decisiveness in grappling with the growing shift of reader interest away from print. “In sympathy to the AJC, sitting on your hands and doing nothing is not a smart strategy.”

BY ALL ACCOUNTS, ajc.com is one of the most effective of all newspaper websites. It expands the AJC’s total readership by 10 percent by reaching people who wouldn’t otherwise pick up the paper, according to “The State of the News Media.” And in a youthful, wired, white-collar town such as Atlanta, it makes sense to funnel resources online.

But what will Atlanta’s daily print paper look like in five years?

Will it still have separate sections for news, sports and business? Will there still be News for Kids and Faith & Values? Will it still offer breathless coverage of baby pandas, hometown “American Idol” contestants and the latest PR stunt by Coke? In other words, what do “settled adults” want to read?

Those questions and others will have to wait until this fall, when Wallace & Co. embark on the next round of changes. They call it “AJC 2.0.”

“Through this project, we hope to better understand our daily and Sunday readers and how we can serve them best,” Wallace says. “We are now analyzing the research and have just begun the brainstorming, so it’s premature to know what will change.”

No additional staff cuts are planned at this time, she adds. It’s a safe bet, however, that, like its payroll, the paper itself will get thinner. Some readers say the hernia-inducing bulk of the Sunday paper is too overwhelming, Wallace says, while others look forward to spending their Sabbath thumbing through its voluminous sections. One goal of AJC 2.0 is to determine a middle ground, size-wise, she says.

Apart from its newsroom structure, the AJC seems to be following a familiar script for big-city dailies, even if the changes here haven’t been as drastic as at many. “The State of the News Media” report predicts that 2007 “could well be the year when a smaller American newspaper, more analytical and targeted to older, well-educated readers, emerges as the new model.”

And if so, will that new model manage to hang on until newspapers figure out how to successfully – that is, profitably – make the online transition, or will metro dailies continue to decline until they waste away?

Haddad compares the current plight of print dailies to where the cable TV industry was in the ’70s – equipped with new technology and a potential audience but lacking the right formula for making money. Cable eventually was able to turn that corner. It’s anybody’s guess whether newspapers will be able to do that or if they’ll find themselves supplanted by entirely new kinds of media organizations.

At the same time, it’s vital to remember that a daily newspaper represents more to a city than just another employer and taxpayer. When longtime Constitution Editor Ralph McGill died in the late ’60s, he was widely considered the conscience of the New South. His writing about race and social change is seen as having helped drag Atlanta into a more progressive era. In the previous century, Editor Henry Grady successfully spurred the city toward economic recovery and industrialization.

At its most effective, the AJC serves a vital role in defining Atlanta and helping citizens confront the region’s issues. Like McGill, Editorial Page Editor Cynthia Tucker, who picked up her own Pulitzer this year for column writing, has consistently articulated a thoughtful vision for a progressive South. While TV newscasts command a huge audience, the AJC still has a larger newsroom than all other Atlanta local print and broadcast media organizations combined. Community papers and radio stations simply don’t have the resources to keep tabs on government, courts, business and politics as comprehensively as a metro daily. Bloggers, talk-show hosts and even TV pundits would have little to talk about if they hadn’t read about it first in the daily newspaper.

For the past century, the best big-city newspapers have reflected their cities’ identities and even helped to create them.

“You can argue that the daily newspaper can provide the glue that binds a city culturally, socially, even morally and spiritually,” says the Daily Report’s Bean.

“Atlanta is young and still defining itself as a city,” he adds, “So a newspaper that provides leadership and gives voice to the community’s concerns is even more important.”

And as a competitor, Bean wishes the AJC success. “As the largest media outlet, they set a tone for journalism in Atlanta,” he says. “If they do well, we all benefit. If their credibility slips, we all suffer.”