What the AJC reorganization means for Atlanta news

The latest AJC reorg is the most sweeping and game-changing yet

Much like the overall economy, the Fourth Estate seems to be in free-fall. Advertising revenues have dropped 23 percent over the past two years. Newspaper stocks are close to worthless. Big-city papers across the country have slashed staff, cut coverage areas, closed bureaus, quit publishing on certain days and even shut down altogether.

Far from being an exception, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is among the hardest hit. For reasons that have been the subject of fierce speculation, the AJC has suffered from one of the steepest declines in paid readership among major dailies. And earlier this year, in prefacing the need for cutbacks, its new publisher revealed that the AJC was losing $1 million a week, which placed it in the company of the Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle and other papers perilously close to going belly up.

That’s the background for last week’s sweeping downsizing and reorganization of the AJC newsroom. The paper is in the process of shedding 78 veteran editors, reporters and other journalists through voluntary buyouts — its third such program in three years — and another dozen or so graphic artists, news researchers and customer care employees as a result of a round of post-buyout layoffs. Two weeks ago, more than 40 part-time newsroom employees were told by phone that they no longer had jobs.

In the flush times of a decade ago, the AJC was home to about 500 full-time journalists; when the buyout dust settles, that number will have been pared back to slightly more than 200, most of whom will have heavier workloads and fewer resources than ever before.

Whatever your opinion of the AJC’s virtues, the newspaper going forward can’t escape being a diminished version of its former self. The question is: What kind of news coverage can Atlanta still expect from its daily newspaper?

That’s difficult to answer in part because many AJC staffers don’t yet fully understand their new job descriptions. And, if recent history is any guide, each new reorg is a work in progress, subject to weeks of fine-tuning and additional staff changes.

Moreover, some job descriptions have already been amended before they’ve even been implemented. Early last week, popular food writer John Kessler alerted his Facebook friends that, as the new Sunday profile writer, he’d been told he’d no longer be writing about food. By week’s end, Kessler got word from up the food chain that, in addition to profile pieces, he was to keep writing his weekly “Restaurant Stories” column.

“Pardon me while I readjust my whiplash collar,” Kessler quipped on Facebook.

But a few of the changes at the AJC are so fundamental they can be seen as indicative of new priorities and direction for the paper. For this story, CL spoke to a number of AJC journalists — writers and editors, news and features, some leaving, some staying — all of whom asked to remain anonymous to protect their jobs or severance packages. Editor Julia Wallace, however, declined to address a list of submitted questions.

It’s no secret the newspaper has steadily reduced arts coverage. Last year, staff-written film reviews were replaced with wire copy, while the space devoted to other criticism and arts features shrank. Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, visual arts critic Cathy Fox, theater critic Wendell Brock, classical music critic Pierre Ruhe and pop music critic Sonia Murray all took last week’s buyout. While it would make sense for the paper to have some or all of them continue to write reviews on a freelance basis, the AJC will clearly be offering less arts reporting at a time of crisis in the local arts industry.

The newspaper has also overhauled its entire beat structure — again — in order to give most reporters much broader responsibilities. So broad, in some cases, that it’s difficult to imagine how the job could be done without entire coverage areas falling through the cracks. Whereas, a few years back, the AJC had various reporters each assigned to particular state agencies, the paper now has two reporters covering nearly the whole of state government — one on a daily basis and the other for the Sunday edition.

Each county government reporter is also supposed to cover the local board of education, although there’s seldom any overlap between the two. There’s one reporter responsible for covering the Fulton and DeKalb courts systems and the crime beats for both of the state’s largest counties. His counterpart is expected to do the same for Cobb, North Fulton and Gwinnett.

Meanwhile, the AJC has shifted resources to the Sunday edition — which is the most profitable for most newspapers — and to the Internet. The paper will have 10 “breaking news” reporters who will chase down hourly news stories, sometimes posting them directly to the website in the interest of beating the TV competition. Other reporters will effectively be bloggers, on such subjects as UGA, politics and living cheaply, with some of their updates repackaged for print.

In a year in which the mayoral election is likely to be dominated by the subject of crime, however, there’s no longer a reporter dedicated to covering Atlanta police.

Another troubling change is the introduction of an editing process euphemistically called “launch and land,” in which one editor will green-light a story, but won’t edit the completed article; that job will fall to someone on the copy desk. While a similar system is used at blue-chip dailies such as the New York Times, where reporters may need less guidance and tutelage, the post-buyout AJC will soon have the youngest, least experienced staff it’s ever had — with many folks freshly reassigned to unfamiliar jobs. In the words of one veteran AJC staffer: “It’ll be reporting without a net.”

Finally, ears perked up last week when Wallace announced that Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Cynthia Tucker would move to Washington, D.C., to write about national politics from an Atlanta-centric perspective.

What Wallace didn’t announce is that AJC executives have quietly taken direct control of the paper’s editorial board, bumping Tucker, columnist Jay Bookman and staff editorial writer Maureen Downey, who’s been shifted to an education beat. The board, which is responsible for the paper’s institutional voice, now consists of Wallace; publisher Doug Franklin; James Mallory, a senior VP; and Andre Jackson, Tucker’s replacement as editorial page editor, whose column has yet to appear.

One obvious conclusion to be drawn is that Wallace, who’s publicly acknowledged reader complaints that the editorial page is too liberal, aims to swing the pendulum in the other direction.

“This concerns me on so many levels I don’t know where to start,” says Lyle Harris, a former editorial board member who left the paper in early 2008. Harris recalls the former board holding spirited debates on the topics of the day to fashion positions that were often strong and sometimes unpopular, but always independent. He fears the executive-led board will be more interested in reassuring readers than in challenging them.

“Just giving people what they want isn’t doing them any favors,” Harris says. “Georgia is years behind the curve and the paper needs to foster a civic dialogue that prepares readers for the political changes they face.”

Most of the bought-out bylines will disappear from the paper on May 1, but by then, AJC readers will already have something new to talk about. The print redesign, product of thousands of hours of focus-group research, is scheduled to debut Tuesday, April 28.

At that point, the AJC will not only be a different paper; it’ll look like one, too.

(Photo by Joeff Davis)