If You Build It…

The Journal-Constitution gambles on a digitally driven makeover
November 15, 2007

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.

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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.”

It’s not just nonlocal cultural coverage that’s taken a hit. Roughton says the paper is unlikely to assign a staffer to cover the 2008 presidential campaign. And Mike Toner, one of forty-three journalists who accepted a buyout, says he wonders whether his 1993 Pulitzer-winning series about antibiotics and pesticides would have been conceived under the new blueprint. Toner, sixty-three, who spent twenty-three years at the paper, says that in the past “we took great pride in rubbing shoulders with and competing with other papers of comparable size and resources.” Today, he says, “We’ve lowered the bar or focused the goal—I’m not sure which.”

Still, most of those who remain at the AJC—the news staff is budgeted at 430, down from more than five hundred, and the paper is hiring—seem willing to accept the tradeoffs. “The days of being a globe-trotting correspondent at a paper of this size are done,” says Mark R. Davis, a cultural institutions reporter who once aspired to such a job. “The fact is, people do like to read about their neighbors, and we’re doing more of that.”

“We all joke about how much of the Kool-Aid we’ve drunk,” says Roughton, who nevertheless counts himself a true believer: “You can either continue to fight a defensive retreat and watch the newspaper go through a half-life and become lead at some point. Or you can say, ‘We’re going to turn and we’re going to fight. We’re going to try to rethink the way we do things to be more efficient because we have to be.’ ”

The typically ramshackle Journal-Constitution newsroom in downtown Atlanta tumbles across three floors. Among the most innovative features of the paper’s reorganization was its collapse of more than a dozen departments into just four, a move aimed in part at speeding up decision-making and short-circuiting territorial disputes. In the New World, traditional departments—Features, Business, Sports, Metro, and others—no longer exist.

On the eighth floor is News & Information, which concentrates on beat reporting and breaking news, and Enterprise, whose reporters write everything from features to major investigative series. The reporters, photographers, and assigning editors in these departments are content providers, or “pitchers,” in the new parlance.

Two floors down are Digital, which oversees the Web site, and Print, whose charge is the newspaper. Digital includes channel managers and technical experts, while Print consists of section editors, designers, and others who decide what the newspaper will contain and how it will look. They are the “catchers.” That means lots of elevator rides (and the occasional dropped ball and wild pitch, says Mark Waligore, a senior editor in Print), as assigning editors confer with those responsible for print sections and Web channels to determine what readers ultimately see.

John Kessler, a features enterprise reporter who writes a food column, explains that the system is supposed to work like the ancient Greek agora: “There’s this great open marketplace. You go with all your wares and see who wants them.” In practice, the lines of authority are apt to blur, as editors and reporters feel their way in the new system. Tom Sabulis, a section editor in Print who was formerly the deputy features editor, says that what he likes least about his new and unsought job is “not working directly with reporters.” But he adds: “I have the opportunity to go up to the eighth floor and talk to a reporter and his editor…and say, ‘I think this is a good story, I think we should do this.’”

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.

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.”

The paper’s book reviews are now assigned by Tom Sabulis, who is also responsible for overseeing Sunday’s Arts & Books section and Friday’s Movies & More. “We’ve developed a mission to try to focus more on southern topics, southern authors, even southern book reviewers who might have a better feel for what’s coming out of the university presses,” says Sabulis, who says the actual space devoted to books coverage has increased (from roughly a page and a half to two pages). The paper regularly picks up wire service reviews, however, something it rarely did in the past.

While the prospective arts reshuffling caused ripples outside the paper, the perceived status distinctions between the two content departments—News & Information and Enterprise—were probably more divisive internally.

A typical N&I reporter’s day begins at 9 a.m., and by mid-morning many are already filing quick “bursts” for Digital, before reworking their stories with “day and a half leads” for Print. The pace can be ferocious. Davis, who ended up with a revamped cultural-institutions beat that widened his responsibilities, says he had twenty-one bylines in August (up from about twelve a month in the Old World), but enjoys more freedom to choose his stories. “If you stay busy working your beat, you don’t have time to complain so much,” he says. “It works for me.”

By contrast, Enterprise’s task is to develop watchdog, explanatory, narrative, profile, and investigative stories destined mainly for the newspaper—with the help of sources and story tips from N&I. Naturally, “almost everyone who is a reporter applied for Enterprise,” which had just forty-five reporting positions, says Thomas Oliver, the department’s senior editor for specialists. “When you hear News & Information and you hear Enterprise,” says Sabulis, “as a reporter, which would you naturally gravitate to? ‘Oh, Enterprise, that’s me. I need a week to do my stories and polish them and put them on the front page.’”

According to Oliver, forty-four people applied for the four narrative/profile writing positions under Jan Winburn, a writer-friendly editor with a reputation for producing award-winning work. Moni Basu, who has made six trips to Iraq for the paper, was pleased to nab one of those plum jobs. But, she says, “the biggest challenge is to come up with stories. When you’re not covering something on a daily basis, it becomes very difficult.”

Perhaps fearing that Enterprise reporters would malinger, editors have imposed story quotas: sixty a year for explanatory and narrative/profile writers, and twelve for the investigative reporters. It’s unclear how two of the paper’s most significant, and time-consuming, projects this year—one on problems in state mental-health institutions and the other on the inequitable application of the death penalty in Georgia—would have fared under the quota system. But Oliver says that the reorganization did free the death-penalty series, which ran in late September, from the perennial plague of “serial editing.”

Ariel Hart, an N&I transportation reporter, says that one “huge fear,” that N&I reporters would be unable to do enterprise stories, has “been allayed somewhat.” Hart, who added public transit to her former roads/commuting beat, says that “the first and primary fear was that enterprise reporting would not be allowed for non-Enterprise folk, that the policy was: ‘We don’t do enterprise, Enterprise does enterprise.’” Now, she says, “I feel encouraged to the nth degree to do enterprise—if I can find time.”

The overall workload at the AJC has increased, says Roughton. “If you were to break this down into a factory, I think we’re being called upon to produce more product, and we do have fewer people,” he says. As a result, there are “some reporters who feel that they’re running as hard as they can and it’s not quite hard enough.”

It’s also true that some N&I reporters—including Eileen M. Drennen, a “mojo” reporter in Gwinnett County, who proudly shows off her digital pictures; Mary Lou Pickel, who writes “newsy enterprise” off her immigration beat; and Jennifer Brett, who blogs as The Social Butterfly—seem invigorated by the challenges of the New World. “We have a plan to march us into the future,” says Brett. “A lot of newspapers are writing the Book of Revelation. You know, ‘These are the end times.’ It’s almost like we’re writing the Book of Genesis.”

The streamlining of the newsroom may, in fact, give reporters more voice in shaping the newspaper. Take the page-one meeting, which Nancy Albritton, senior editor of page one in Print, presides over with sardonic grace. In the New World, this 1:30 p.m. meeting was supposed to be a stand-up huddle in the newsroom—a step toward inclusiveness—but that quickly proved unworkable. “It was chaos,” Albritton says. So instead, editors from N&I, Enterprise, and Print all gather in the conference room.

Today, Bill Sanders, an Enterprise reporter, is there, too, pitching a feature on a school for troubled kids that rewards good behavior with dirt-bike-riding privileges. He speaks with a trace of nervousness, while his editor stands supportively beside him. “It’s a purely motivational way to try to keep kids who are on their last chance in school, and the early anecdotal evidence is that it’s a huge success,” he says.

“And it doesn’t hurt at all that your editor is also a biker, right?” Albritton says, smiling.

In the end, Albritton, who has been taking assiduous notes, issues a decision: “So with very, very tight space, we’re going to take a bat [“big ass tease”] on the Fed. I would like to have something on Blackwater, something on the [DeKalb County] home invasion—I think it’s stunning that someone can go in and shoot and kill kids and get out—and then I think the cycles story [Sanders’s feature] is probably good for us. Is that suitable for all involved?”

Albritton seems like a natural at the job, bantering later with Roughton in a way reminiscent of newsrooms of old. “It isn’t my fault,” she says of the day’s slim news pickings. “I’m merely the catcher. I have to cook whatever groceries are brought.”

That wasn’t always the case. “In the Old World, I had the best job ever, ever, ever,” she says, when she was editor of the mesh desk—medicine, environment, science, and health. She likes her new work: “This is no small job at all. It is as fun as anything I’ve ever done. I love it.” But she loved the old one more. “That doesn’t mean that this will not eventually mesmerize me as much.”

She also frets about the way the reorganization has severed enterprise from beat reporting—a move Klibanoff says was made, in part, to ensure that enterprise stories didn’t wither away undone. “I know that this model is working beautifully for online,” Albritton says. “But I worry that we have to find our equilibrium here for print.”

But Albritton can also grow emotional in defense of the Journal-Constitution. “This is a very friendly and very caring, hard-working, work-together, play-together newsroom,” she says, “and everyone is determined that we’re going to make it work. They love this newspaper and they love each other, and I think that’s going to trump a lot of the trouble that they’ve had.”

It’s mid-afternoon, and Chris Stanfield, a senior editor for photography in N&I, interrupts our conversation, ready to leave but wanting to talk. He has been working since about 6 a.m. in the slot—a position akin to a day managing editor, presiding over news assignments. It’s an unusual, perhaps daunting task for a photo editor—but his is just the sort of adaptability the AJC is banking on.

When I ask pointedly if he’s drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid, Stanfield insists that he is “just as much a skeptic as anyone” about the reorganization. But he goes on: “We’re changing the way we do something entirely—and it’s not just a little change.” For some, he says, it’s “cumbersome; for some, intimidating; for others, not possible.” But having worked at eight newspapers in thirteen years, Stanfield says: “I like living in a little turmoil and change.” 

Julia M. Klein is a longtime CJR contributor and a contributing book critic for The Forward. She is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.