In 2001, when she came from The Arizona Republic to the AJC as managing editor, her assessment, she says briskly, “was that this was a good paper but, based on the size and the quality of the staff, ought to be better.” That year she presided over her first reorganization of the nonunion paper, a beat realignment that forced many reporters to reapply for jobs. A week after the reorganization was implemented, the September 11 attacks prompted another course correction. “That really focused us on, ‘How do we explain the world to our audience?’” she says. Among the results was Atlanta and the World, a section tackling issues such as immigration and AIDS that contributed to Wallace’s being honored as 2005 Editor of the Year by Editor & Publisher.
But that sort of big-picture reporting is no longer a philosophical fit with the new emphasis on “distinctive local content.” “It was really hard to kill that section. I loved that section,” says Wallace. “Even harder was the fact that we had less than ten reader complaints.”
Underlying the company’s recent moves has been extensive research pinpointing who its readers are and what they value. Core print readers, research shows, particularly prize “watchdog coverage” and “in-depth analysis,” as well as “community news” and “coverage of serious issues.” Online readers are more apt to look for breaking news, useful information, multimedia, and interactivity. (In practice, the distinctions are less clear: “Our enterprise work often gets high marks online,” says Klibanoff.)
While daily newspaper readers are “baby boomers and older,” says Wallace, the Sunday edition “can pick up people in their thirties.” (Circulation, as of March 31, was 357,399 daily and 523,687 Sundays, according to figures submitted to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.) Younger Atlantans, unsurprisingly, are getting their news online. As of last year, according to Forbes.com, Atlanta led the country in broadband access and ranked third in wireless access. Partly as a result, ajc.com, even before the reorganization, was one of the country’s most heavily trafficked newspaper Web sites. That presented, Wallace says, “a huge opportunity” to offer local news and information that, unlike national and international coverage, wasn’t readily obtainable elsewhere.
“I love the Internet,” she says. “It does do breaking news better than we can do it in print. It does offer a way to have a two-way conversation that print doesn’t offer. There are a lot of things that make online a wonderful creative experience. And so, fall in love with that.” The problem, as Wallace sees it, was that the newsroom was “not structured in a way that’s going to get us where we want to go.” It was too segmented, too hierarchical—a lumbering mastodon in a world of gazelles. To compete, Wallace decided, she would need to change “half the jobs and every process in the newsroom.”
The first sign of change came more than three years ago when Mellott hired the Boston-based management consulting firm Bain & Company to help devise a company-wide strategic plan. Among the results was a decision to curtail print circulation to outlying areas, as well as discounts to home-delivery subscribers. In other words: no more chasing readers who cost more than they were worth to advertisers.
Another step was a three-week-long retreat in August 2006, during which AJC staff members brainstormed about values. From the retreat, and subsequent more high-level meetings, emerged a new mission statement and foundation principles. “We are a sophisticated, nimble, and innovative news-and-information organization that delivers local content and connects communities in Metro Atlanta,” the mission statement says. Connecting communities—that was something new.
During the winter, members of the leadership team—Lupo, Klibanoff, and Shawn McIntosh, who would become director of Culture and Change (“very Mao,” she jokes)—visited The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press, and The New York Times looking for models. On February 15, Wallace unveiled the overall “newsroom realignment,” as well as the decision to offer buyouts to about eighty newsroom employees fifty-five and older with at least ten years of service. Among those who left were investigative ace and two-time Pulitzer finalist Jane Hansen, movie critic Eleanor Ringel Gillespie, and political reporter Tom Baxter.
Wallace’s memorandum contained this rallying cry: “We will become a new newsroom—one that is bold and assertive. We will not allow ourselves to be steamrolled by events beyond our control. We will seize control of our fate.” Ironically, many reporters and editors began to feel they had lost control of theirs. In early April, by way of a form letter, accompanied by baffling new organizational charts, the newsroom learned that it had been “reorganized”—and about half the staff would have to apply, and interview, for new jobs at the paper.