John C. Mellott, the affable publisher of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is moving his forearm up and down like a lever. “This,” he explains, “is the skillful management of a toggle.” Where is a photographer when you really need one? Of course, if I were a “mojo”—“mobile journalist”—for the AJC, I’d have my digital point-and-shoot at the ready, and then I’d whip out my laptop and file something online. That is, if I could figure out precisely what Mellott’s arm gesture means for the future of journalism and the Journal-Constitution.
I’ve been asking Mellott to describe the business model behind the AJC’s recent restructuring, designed, among other things, to put digital operations on an equal footing with print. The fifty-year-old Mellott, an avid golfer who took over as publisher in 2004 “with a mandate for change,” has watched print advertising revenue drop precipitously, in line with industry trends. Cox Enterprises, which owns the paper, is privately held, and Mellott won’t release any data, but he says that the decline, particularly in classifieds, over the last twelve to eighteen months, “has been steeper than in the prior five-year period,” imbuing his mandate with some urgency.
And so, after visits by consultants, company-wide brainstorming, seemingly endless meetings, and a mounting pile of information-dense binders that still clutter Mellott’s office, a plan took shape. “What our business will be about going forward,” he says, “is the skillful management of the slow decline of the printed product and the accelerated growth of the Internet”—i.e., the toggle.
The goal is to make the still-profitable print newspaper more vital than ever for the “settled adults” who are its core audience, but to give up on chasing marginal readers. At the same time, the company is pouring resources into ajc.com, trying to lure more readers to the Web in the hope that advertising dollars will follow. So far, so good: Mellott cites “double-digit revenue growth” for ajc.com, and the fact that advertising demand currently exceeds supply. “We are sold out,” he says.
Mellott is betting that a rejuvenated Web site won’t contribute significantly to print’s demise, that some readers will continue to prefer the newspaper. “Each medium works differently,” he says. “You can’t say that one is a pure substitute for the other.”
In other newsrooms, changes provoked by the Internet and sagging print ad sales have suggested the proverbial rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic. Buyouts have provided lifeboats for some, but they often left behind a foundering ship. At the Journal-Constitution, Mellott and editor Julia Wallace want nothing less than to dodge the iceberg with an abrupt shift in course.
So far, outside the newsroom, the new direction has entailed a deliberate pullback in the newspaper’s circulation “footprint” and a reduction in home-delivery discounting. Inside the newsroom, it has meant buyouts targeting older journalists, a tighter focus on local coverage, and most of all, a radical reorganization, announced in February and implemented in July.
One result: the Web site already is feeling an infusion of energy. AJC managers credit the new mantra—“Serve it while it’s hot”—with a nearly 22 percent rise in year-to-date page views as of August 31. July set a record and August broke it, with over a hundred million page views, says Robin M. Henry, managing editor of Digital. “The person with the scoop is king,” says Mike Lupo, the managing editor of News & Information.
Along with its accelerating metabolism and nearly round-the-clock staffing, the Journal-Constitution can point to a renewed focus on enterprise reporting, now with its own department, along with still-gestating plans to “reinvent” the print product. To no one’s surprise, the transition has entailed costs: the trauma of change, procedural glitches that are still being worked out, and the departure of dozens of journalists unwilling or unable to adapt to the New World.
An increased emphasis on local news—a trend at many dailies—should not be mistaken for parochialism, says Hank Klibanoff, the managing editor of Enterprise. But it does mean that wire stories will replace some staff coverage. “Our film critic is Roger Ebert,” jokes Pierre Ruhe, the AJC’s classical music critic/reporter, whose own job status was for a while imperiled. Bert Roughton Jr., managing editor of Print, says, “I don’t think any thinking person thinks it’s good to see the total number of critical voices diminished.”