AJC to cut photo department in half

Editor: '... we need to be focused on the core and important things we do'

Roughly three weeks ago, Atlanta Journal-Constitution staffers were told by Editor Kevin Riley that layoffs in the newsroom of the metro region's paper of record were possible. The upcoming budget was expected to be tight. Now they know that cuts are indeed happening.

Yesterday at the news outlet's Dunwoody headquarters, Riley gave staffers the tally. The photo department staffed by award-winning journalists would be reduced from 11 people to six, which includes one photo editor. (Two other Cox-owned newspapers are offering voluntary buyouts to photographers.)

In addition, two "news technologists" who, among other things, make sure that journalists' laptops function and Air Cards can transmit stories, will also be cut. The four-member customer-care team that screened some readers' calls and helped handle the complaints of print subscribers who missed their morning paper will also be eliminated. An editor who oversaw the county-by-county news page will also be cut.

"We care about those people," he said. "They made important contributions."

The news comes at a tough time, especially after the paper has, from what we've heard, met its targets and produced several high-profile investigative pieces. In addition, these are probably the most high-profile cuts Riley's had to make since moving to Atlanta three years ago from a Cox sister paper in Ohio. The news he delivered yesterday, according to one source, looked to take a toll on him. But his approach and transparency about the AJC's operations and inner workings, our sources say, helped blunt some of the frustration and win respect.

In a phone interview this afternoon with CL, Riley said that the decisions about which jobs to eliminate were "guided by the newspaper's core journalistic mission and consistent with where we need to go with our long-term strategy."

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"We're about reporting the news," said Riley. "Reporting the deeper story, investigative journalism, telling deeper stories."

The cuts are scheduled to take effect in late December. The rationale behind the decision to announce the layoffs now rather than later was to allow affected employees time to apply for other jobs at the AJC, send off resumes to other Cox-owned companies, or make other personal decisions.

In some cases, the new work created by the cuts could be spread around to other departments. For example, calls to customer care could be re-routed to the circulation department. Or the news technologists' duties could be picked up by the company's IT department.

It's the five-person cut to the photo department, a vital part of journalism that has faced increasing scrutiny in newsroom budgeting decisions, that was most surprising. Though not as drastic as the steps that other newspapers have made - the Chicago Sun-Times cut its entire photography department earlier this year - it's still a blow to a paper that covers a metro region inhabited by more than 5 million people. Photographers would have to re-apply for the five positions, which will require them to shoot still photography, produce digital work, and record video. The department's freelance budget will increase, but the logistics of making sure the AJC can document various sports events on one night while also being able to cover breaking news could be difficult.

Riley, who said he's optimistic about the AJC, noted that the paper did not cut any reporting staff - it's actually been making additions on the news gathering side, most recently with the hiring of Pulitzer Prize winner (and former AJC-er) Brad Schrade and Rose French, who are married.

"That is consistent with where we need to go," he said. "More and more we need to be focused on the core and important things we do. If we need to have a smaller staff, the cuts need to come from areas that are not crucial to our readers."

Spared from any job cuts, however, were managers and higher-ups, something we're told one staffer inquired about during yesterday's powwow with Riley. The editor told us today that, considering the budgeting schedule, it was important in the short-term to focus on areas of the newsroom that weren't crucial to the paper's mission. But he said that, over the next year, it will continue to "examine whether we have the right number of people in management and leadership. We expect to do a lot of that over the next year."

"As we build a 21st century newsroom we will recognize that it requires a different kind of and style of leadership," he said. "We are working on that now. I'm optimistic about where we're going and how it will turn out."

NOTE: This post has been altered to correct a transcription error.