Cover Story: ‘Burbs or bust

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has left Atlanta – literally and figuratively – in its quest for suburban readers

One Sunday in mid-2006, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution arts writer posed a bit of a loaded question in the paper’s culture section — one that seemed benign enough at the time, but now serves as a prime example of what a different creature the city’s daily newspaper has become: Would the Atlanta Opera enjoy success in its new home, the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre?

The city’s 27-year-old opera company had just announced its move out of downtown Atlanta and into a venue still under construction in, as the story put it, “an area of unincorporated Cobb between Smyrna and Vinings known as ‘Sminings.’”

The article’s subtext — at least as perceived by affronted Cobb Countians — was disdainful, something along the lines of, Could an organization representing the pinnacle of cultural sophistication maintain its urbanity in the wilds of the suburbs?

Taking his own paper — and intown snobbishness — to task, AJC editorial columnist Mike King responded with a piece entitled, “Cobb’s not the boondocks, OK?”

The umbrage was not unjustified. The opera feature was arguably rife with implied condescension toward suburbia, invoking the image of a “generic strip mall” in its opening sentence. The story dropped references to sprawl (a soon-to-be banned word at the AJC — seriously), gridlock and even the county’s notorious anti-gay resolution of a decade earlier — and ended by pointing out that the Cobb Energy Centre is a solid 11 miles from downtown Atlanta.

It’s safe to say your chances of reading such an article in the AJC these days are somewhat more slim than seeing Clark Howard tooling around Buckhead in a Ferrari convertible with carbon-fiber rims.

The past three years have been a schizophrenic and often depressing ride for Atlanta’s daily paper. As subscriptions and advertising revenue plummeted for most dailies, the AJC cut its newsroom by more than half, stopped distributing in most Georgia counties, closed its suburban news bureaus, disbanded its editorial board, discontinued its daily business section, launched complete redesigns of the weekday and Sunday papers, and reorganized its editorial staff at least four different times.

Also during this crisis, the newspaper has altered editorial course seemingly every few months — wooing younger readers with pop-culture tidbits, seeking older readers with parenting tips, bringing in Neal Boortz to appeal to angry white guys, etc. — all in a desperate bid to persuade folks not to cancel their subscriptions.

And then, it seems, the paper finally settled on an identity. The transformation became symbolically complete this April, when the paper moved its newsroom and offices out of downtown Atlanta (its home for more than 130 years) and relocated to a six-story office building in Dunwoody across the street from Perimeter Mall — a solid 15 miles away and smack-dab in the middle of the most affluent of OTP communities.

Decamping for the suburbs was only the most visible sign of the AJC’s current strategy for long-term survival in an age of print-journalism decay. It’s a strategy that calls for the AJC to effectively transform itself into the hometown paper not for a booming urban metropolis but, rather, for Atlanta’s more homogenous, conservative northern neighbors.

“The majority of the population lives up here and we need to do a better job of serving them,” explains AJC Editor Julia Wallace in a recent interview with CL. “The people in the city were pretty satisfied with our coverage of community news, but people in Cobb, Gwinnett and North Fulton were not.”

To satisfy suburban readers, the paper intends to give them what AJC’s honchos believe they want: plenty of intensely local news, certainly, but also coverage of issues they care about, reported in a way that reflects their values — including their politics.

To catch the eyes of Northside conservatives, the paper has ratcheted up coverage of such issues as illegal immigration, government waste and that old standby, taxes.

Last month, the paper ran a boosterish, 1,200-word feature about the Johns Creek Symphony Orchestra — a three-year-old group that performs in the local high school auditorium and lacks enough musicians to tackle a Beethoven symphony — with nary a snide reference to soccer moms or McMansions.

Just last week, the AJC doubled the size of its Community News section — the repository for news briefs from across the metro area — from one full page to two to accommodate more coverage of Gwinnett and Cobb. (The areas with the least amount of ink devoted to community news? Atlanta.)

And, by an internal decree that smacks of editorial sycophancy, reporters are now forbidden from using the word “sprawl” and other terms that seem to cast judgment on the suburban way of life. The paper has even appointed a “bias editor” to ferret out even the unwitting inclusion of a turn of phrase that might cause offense to Northside readers.

With its newsroom whittled down to less than half its peak strength — and with a mission to please the northern ‘burbs first and foremost — is it still possible for the AJC to provide meaningful coverage of the city of Atlanta? Is that even a practical goal, considering intowners are typically dismissive of the ‘burbs, while suburbanites are often openly hostile toward the capital city?

A clue to the answer might lie in the way the AJC covered last month’s Atlanta Pride Festival — in a word: barely. The sole print mention of Pride came in a brief story that primarily focused on the concurrent Out on Film festival. And although tens of thousands of gay and straight Georgians — including Mayor Kasim Reed and most local politicians — took part in the city’s biggest annual parade, right down the middle of Peachtree Street, you wouldn’t have known it from reading the next day’s paper.

When AJC Public Editor Shawn McIntosh was asked by an irate reader why the paper had ignored the largest LGTB event in the Southeast, she explained it “somehow got overlooked.”

One needn’t be a conspiracy theorist to wonder if the Dunwoody-based AJC could actually have forgotten to cover Pride or whether the paper’s top brass were consciously trying to avoid ruffling the gay-phobic sensibilities of a conservative suburban audience.

Ultimately, does it matter? Whatever the reason, the AJC is, in a very real sense, no longer Atlanta’s newspaper.

Going after suburban readers is, of course, nothing new for the AJC or other metro dailies. In the 1970s, many big-city papers began launching “zoned” editions, weekly sections with localized distribution, filled with the kind of community news often trivialized as “chicken-dinner stories.”

“It would be false to claim newspapers did that in order to cover these communities better,” says King, who spent more than two decades at the AJC before leaving at the end of 2008. “They did it to sell ads to small businesses that couldn’t afford to advertise in the regular paper.”

During the late ’80s, a time when Gwinnett and Forsyth counties ranked among the fastest-growing counties in the U.S. — and the most affluent in Georgia — the northern suburbs became seen as a gold mine for the AJC, which opened news bureaus in Cobb, DeKalb and North Fulton.

Even then, suburban stories deemed important enough were cherry-picked for the daily metro section, leaving the weekly “Extra” editions largely filled with softer news.

In Gwinnett, the paper spent millions fighting, and finally winning, a print war with the New York Times-owned Gwinnett Daily News for what was seen as potentially the richest advertising market outside downtown.

“We’ve been chasing the northern suburbs forever,” says Bill Torpy, the AJC’s designated Sunday Atlanta/intown reporter. “That’s why I was hired 20 years ago, to cover Paulding, Bartow and Cherokee.”

When King became metro editor in the early ’90s, he embarked on a campaign to beef up the AJC’s suburban coverage — partly to ward off potential threats from other competitors and party because, as a longtime Marietta resident, he believed those communities deserved the same kind of attention paid to intown neighborhoods.

“There were times when it seemed there was a general recognition in our stories that the suburbs were a cultural wasteland,” recalls King.

No surprise there, since big-city newspaper reporters are typically out-of-state transplants who are likely to live intown. Former reporter David Bennett, who left the AJC in December after 12 years, says that, when interviewing suburbanites, he’d reveal that he’d grown up in Smyrna in an effort to win their trust.

“In the suburbs, the AJC was referred to as the ‘Atlanta paper,’” he remembers. “It was viewed as an outsider, sending elitist writers to write patronizing articles about the small-town hicks in the ‘burbs.”

And yet, Bennett notes, in those pre-Internet days, his family — and many of their neighbors — had daily subscriptions. In fact, by the mid-’90s, about 65 percent of the AJC’s total circulation was outside the Perimeter.

By the turn of the millennium, however, the AJC’s suburban readership had peaked and its total circulation had already entered the slow descent afflicting the rest of the newspaper industry. Even in Gwinnett, which commanded its own daily section produced by a generously staffed local bureau, subscriptions eventually hit a ceiling. By 2005, it was clear that the Atlanta daily was in virtual free fall, its circulation shrinking far faster than all but a tiny handful of the country’s major papers.

Opinions vary as to the reasons for the AJC’s precipitous decline, but as Georgia became ever-redder politically, the most commonly heard complaint — until becoming a constant drone among website commenters and Republican politicians — was that the paper was a “liberal rag.”

Conservative readers had preferred the afternoon Journal to the morning Constitution going back to the Civil Rights Era, when the latter’s editor, Ralph McGill, scolded and prodded Atlanta on issues of race. But when the two papers finally merged editorial pages in 2001, with the Constitution’s unabashedly progressive Cynthia Tucker emerging as editorial page editor and liberal columnist Jay Bookman becoming a regular fixture, many conservatives couldn’t cotton to the daily AJC.

Former Journal columnist Dick Williams, who left in 1996 to become publisher of the weekly Dunwoody Crier, believes the AJC’s roster of liberal editorial writers, as well as its story mix — with frequent articles about sprawl, “smart growth” and Atlanta City Hall — served to further estrange OTP readers.

“Their left-wing political bent is anathema to the suburbs,” he says.

Torpy agrees that the tone of the AJC’s news coverage sometimes subtly betrayed reporters’ liberal sensibilities. In his opinion, articles running in the weekly “Atlanta and the World” section earlier this decade often seemed to celebrate the region’s growing ethnic diversity without taking a critical look at such controversial issues as illegal immigration.

Whether the problem was actual liberal news bias or simply a Republican meme that took on a life of its own, the Wallace-led AJC began pulling editorial punches a while back in a desperate effort to avoid riling conservative readers in the northern suburbs.

In 2004, the paper declined to make political endorsements in the presidential race between Bush and Kerry, although Bookman and conservative columnist Jim Wooten offered their own cancel-each-other-out picks. The following year, without explanation, the editorial board likewise ignored the Atlanta city elections — even as the paper provided breathless coverage of the creation of Sandy Springs and offered endorsements for the new city’s mayor and council.

Last year, the AJC finally gutted its editorial page altogether, disbanding the editorial board and busting Bookman and fellow board member Maureen Downey down to blogger status. Tucker, who in 2007 had brought home a Pulitzer Prize for commentary — the newspaper’s first such writing award in four years — was bundled off to Washington, D.C., where she still files twice-weekly dispatches. Last fall, the paper announced it was giving up political endorsements altogether, explaining, “You don’t need us to tell you how to vote.”

King, who had served a stint as public editor before joining the editorial board, had seen the writing on the wall and left the previous year.

“I didn’t want to be around after the editorial voice of the paper had been silenced,” he explains. “They’ve done all they can to stifle their voice to the point where it’s almost nonexistent. Who knows if it’ll work? I just think it’s a chickenshit way of doing business.”

Focus groups. Reader surveys. Media consultants. Studies, reports and spread sheets. The folks running the AJC have no stone unturned in trying to find the secret to survival.

What one former staff dubs “enslavement by numbers,” Editor Wallace describes as knowing one’s audience.

“Online readers give you instant feedback. But we have research now that shows what our print readers want, which has always been a bit of a mystery,” Wallace tells CL.

Back in early summer, Wallace called a meeting for editorial staff to deliver some sobering news: Exhaustive surveys had shown that the AJC was not well-liked in the ‘burbs — but not liked much better by intown subscribers. However, research had also shown that suburban readers were more likely to keep buying a daily newspaper, so that’s where the company would shift its resources.

As another former AJC reporter recalls, “The basic logic was, the readership is up there, the money is up there, but these people don’t like us, so we’ve got to win them over.”

The result was another full-scale staff reorganization to shift resources and sensibilities to the north, this time assigning dedicated suburban beats to 18 daily and Sunday reporters, including coverage of every sizable burg in Cobb, Gwinnett and North Fulton. There’s a news reporter whose beat is just the city of Roswell, population 90,000. And, so it doesn’t miss anything, the paper will soon bring on three new hires to cover the “Northern Arc” — the AJC’s internal shorthand for the area that represents the fertile crescent of its most valued readership.

By contrast, the paper has allotted eight out of a total 80 print reporters to cover Atlanta and the south metro region. Clayton, Fayette and South Fulton counties must share a single reporter.

Admittedly, these stats can be misleading, since it’s common practice for news beats to overlap and reporters to be sent wherever the breaking stories are. More telling, however, are anecdotes and observations from the current and former reporters and editors CL interviewed for this article, few of whom were willing to be identified out of concern for their jobs or severance packages.

According to them, the AJC is single-mindedly focused on the northern suburbs — from finding local sources to quote to reviewing OTP restaurants to using such conservative-friendly story tags as “Watching your tax dollars.”

“This is our mission right now,” says one editor. “The suburbs are a constant consideration, part of every newsroom conversation.”

The paper now gives prominent placement to stories that, a few years ago, would have been buried inside an Extra edition. One example: An article headlined, “Parents enjoy free Wi-Fi,” about Roswell providing Wi-Fi at City Hall and three city parks, began in the center spot on the Metro front, continued inside and was accompanied by two photos.

By some accounts, suburban readers are now routinely referred to in meetings and memos as the “primary audience,” with editors going so far as to break down the paper’s Metro coverage by geography: 60 percent for the northern ‘burbs, 20 percent for the southern ‘burbs and 20 percent Atlanta news. And even though its editorial page has been scrubbed clean of any liberal taint, the AJC still struggles to ensure that its news content sits well with conservatives. An article profiling a 20-year-old Roswell girl who’d been brought to the U.S. from Mexico illegally as a child and wanted to stay in Georgia to finish her college education was delayed for days as editors debated how to deal with the subject matter. When the story finally ran in early September, the term “illegal immigrant” appeared 27 times.

Inevitably, some intown news has fallen through the cracks. When the Fulton County Commission seat representing central Atlanta came open for the first time in more than 20 years, the AJC ignored the race. The paper likewise didn’t cover the runoff between two African-American, lesbian Democrats.

Discerning intown readers also have noticed a more negative tone to the paper’s recent city coverage. Just last Sunday, Maria Saporta, who left the AJC in 2008 after 27 years as a business writer and columnist, published an online column taking issue with its use of the provocative headline “Pricey streetcar won’t ease traffic” for a story about Atlanta winning a $47.6 million federal grant.

“The voice of reason, hope and progress has been muted at today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution.” Saporta writes. “Instead, the newspapers seem hell bent to portray the city of Atlanta and the core of the region in the worst possible light.”

Most recently, the AJC approached several suburban papers — including the Dunwoody Crier, the weekly Roswell Revue and the Marietta Daily Journal — with an offer to share editorial content. The papers apparently declined.

The Crier’s Williams says he couldn’t imagine the benefits from aligning his paper with the big daily. “It sounded like a one-way street,” he says. “I have no interest in giving them our City Council stories so they don’t have to cover it.”

Wallace would not address the news-sharing strategy, but it’s likely not a move born of panic. As a result of its frenzied cost-cutting, the AJC is, after several years of double-digit circulation losses, newly in the black.

“We’ve been able to reduce our overall expense load and are in pretty good shape right now,” confirms Publisher Michael Joseph, who joined the paper last year.

According to insiders, Cox executives no longer expect the AJC to return the kind of profits it did during the ’80s and ’90s — only that it doesn’t lose huge sums of money, as in late 2008 when it was bleeding $1 million a week.

Once a national publishing empire, the family-owned Cox has sold off all of its papers except for four dailies. Today, nearly 85 percent of Cox’s revenues come from its cable-TV and auto-auction divisions, with newspapers contributing less than eight percent. In less than two decades, the AJC has gone from being Cox’s crown jewel to an obsolete afterthought.

In fact, rumors persist that Cox Enterprises has plans to get out of the newspaper business altogether as soon as Anne Cox Chambers, the surviving daughter of founder James Cox, passes on. Cox Chambers, who splits her time between Buckhead and her wine estate in the South of France, will turn 91 on Dec. 1.

In the meantime, Wallace is clearly determined to restore some potency to her paper’s news coverage and has been allowed to make a few new hires to beef up the staff.

By any measure, the AJC has had an impressive run of successes in the past year: uncovering suspicious test scores in Atlanta public schools that have led to a state investigation and a school board meltdown; revealing sketchy contacts that have led to the indictments of some DeKalb school leaders; ferreting out questionable land deals that in Gwinnett that led to the indictment of a county commissioner; and, for what it was worth, leading the way on reporting former Congressman Nathan Deal’s ethics issues and financial woes.

But investigative reporting alone won’t be enough to win readers in the northern suburbs, hence the recent concentration on highly local community news.

“I think they’re improving the tone of their suburban coverage,” notes Williams. “But even though they’ve sent Cynthia Tucker to D.C., dissolved the editorial board and put Bookman online, they’re trapped because people still think of them as the liberal paper.”

Politics aside, former Metro editor King doesn’t believe covering small-town community news makes long-term sense for a large daily newspaper, in part because readers who want to know what happened at last night’s Milton City Council meeting aren’t likely to care about a rezoning in East Cobb and vice versa — and few suburbanites want Atlanta news. That wasn’t a problem when each community had its own Extra edition, but when all the stories have to go into the same news section, it arguably dilutes the impact for any one community.

“In the long run, this is a tough strategy to pull off,” says King. “I think the only way to do that is with zoned sections, but that ship has sailed.”

It could be that, in a few months, the newspaper could change course once more and come up with a new editorial strategy. But for the AJC, one thing is certain: you can’t go home again. Last week, Cox donated the AJC’s former headquarters at 72 Marietta Street to the city of Atlanta. Consider the 475,000-square-foot, $50 million gift a peace offering — one delivered in the final hour of a divorce case. However amicably, the AJC and Atlanta have parted ways.

Saporta, in her column, adds, “The company’s gift of 72 Marietta St. to the City of Atlanta does not come close to wiping the slate clean. The fact remains that the AJC has pulled up its Atlanta roots and has turned its back on the city — a move that has hurt the newspaper as much as it has hurt our urban heart and our region.”