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.
Mark Davis, a veteran news reporter who had been covering the Atlanta zoo and the new Georgia Aquarium, saw that his name was not “in a box” on the charts, meaning his Old World job no longer existed. “Like everybody else, I was kind of steamed about that,” he says. “I thought, ‘Wasn’t I doing a good enough job?’” He went home, he says, and “yelled at the cats,” but cooled down when he realized how many others were affected.
In features, several critics discovered that their old jobs had vanished, including Pierre Ruhe, classical music; Catherine Fox, visual arts; Jill Vejnoska, television; Nick Marino, pop music. Teresa Weaver, the books editor, was also placed in limbo. “I will go to my grave believing it should not have been handled in the way it was handled,” says Weaver, forty-seven, who had held her job for eight years and was passionate about it. “It was demeaning and insulting.”
Weaver’s situation inspired the National Book Critics Circle, already concerned about shrinking books coverage, to launch a Campaign to Save Book Reviews and led to a local read-in protest. Robert Spano, the music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and various music blogs bemoaned the possible death of music (and other) criticism at the paper. Klibanoff fired back, saying that such a death was greatly exaggerated. Indeed, Fox and Ruhe’s jobs had been replaced by “arts enterprise reporter” positions that were to include criticism—though the specialties involved were left unspecified. Overall, the paper did seem to be deemphasizing criticism in favor of reporting. It eliminated its television and movie critic positions, substituting wire reviews. Staffers would instead devote more attention to the local arts scene, in line with the new imperative: distinctive local coverage. “That wasn’t an arts decision,” Wallace points out. “That was an across-the-board decision,” affecting even Sports.
Still, says Ruhe, the paper was “blindsided” by the arts community’s reaction, and “did what needed to be done.” He ended up as the classical music critic/reporter; Fox became the visual arts critic/reporter. I asked Ruhe how much his job had, in fact, changed. “Not at all,” he said. Vejnoska became a features reporter in Enterprise. Marino left the paper to becoming managing editor of Paste, a music and culture magazine. Weaver resigned, too, and works as a writer and editor for Habitat for Humanity and a part-time books editor for Atlanta Magazine. Klibanoff says he was “stunned” that she never applied for the new Print department job that included authority over the books section. She says she had no interest in becoming “a glorified wire editor.”