On the seventh floor are the paper’s executive offices, the apex of the new, flatter hierarchy. Julia Wallace’s office is a room with a view of the modernist skyscrapers of Atlanta (and Ted Turner’s penthouse, which Wallace points out). Behind her desk is a brilliantly colored landscape painted by her father. Along one wall are framed mementos of two of her icons: a typed anti-segregation column by former AJC editor and publisher Ralph McGill, punctuated with hand-written notes, and a letter praising Wallace’s reporting (for the now-defunct Dallas Times Herald) from Benigno Aquino, the Filipino dissident who was later assassinated. Wallace herself is a spiky, elegant figure in black-framed glasses decorated with rhinestones.
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.