Don’t Stop the Presses: AJC move to Dunwoody is Desperate, but no Death Knell

Witnessing the downward spiral of the Atlanta Journal- Constitution reminded me how it felt watching my father die. I wanted him to keep fighting for his life, but it seemed he’d just stopped trying.

I can only hope that’s not happening at the AJC.

Vincent Grover Harris passed away two years ago. He’d been in faltering health and, at one point, my family was faced with a decision that’s painfully familiar to children with aging parents; whether to move him out of the comfortable home where he lived with my Mom into a medical facility some distance away where he’d get better care.

We visited several places, but deep down, we knew moving him wouldn’t make much difference. We’d never cheat death but, perhaps, we hoped it would buy us more time.

It was a wrenching choice and it seems the situation may be just as grave for the city’s biggest and oldest daily newspaper.

A week ago, my colleague Maria Saporta, broke the story that the AJC was considering a move from its gritty downtown headquarters on Marietta Street to the sanitized Perimeter Center office complex in suburban DeKalb County.

On Monday, Michael Joseph, the newspaper’s publisher du jour, essentially confirmed Saporta’s earlier account; the building that has been a fixture in the heart of the city since 1972, and the paper which had been based there for more than 140 years, would be decamping for the Perimeter by mid-2010.

Like the medical doctors who tried in vain to soothe my family’s worries when my Dad fell and broke his hip, Joseph offered a predictably upbeat prognosis.

In an e-mail to the staff, Joseph ticked off a bulleted list of reasons that this money-saving maneuver made sense; ample parking, better shops and restaurants, easy access to interstates as well as proximity to MARTA, Perimeter Mall and the headquarters of Cox Enterprises, the eponymous corporation which owns the AJC.

“A significant fact in the decision to relocate is our customers and how we continue meeting their needs today and in the future,” Joseph wrote, pointing out that the paper will retain its existing bureaus in the state capital and in Gwinnett County.

“Paramount to our future is rebuilding a sustainable and profitable business model. The move will make us a financially stronger company.”

Nobody can blame Joseph for playing spin doctor to employees who have endured a series of depressing staff buyouts, layoffs and painful cost-cutting measures as the AJC’s financial prospects have worsened.

I wish I shared Joseph’s optimism. But I don’t know the man, nor am I convinced he believes the wan assurances he offered employees in his own e-mail. How could he?

The AJC’s business model – and that of every other print newspaper in this country– has been very sick for awhile. It will take nothing short of a miracle for it to improve and it doesn’t appear that any are on the horizon.

For a decade or longer, the journalistic illuminati had ignored, misunderstood or downplayed the forces of creative destruction that the web and other profound social were unleashing on our lives.

Truth is, even if those who were running newspapers had been any smarter or prescient, they still might have been powerless to prevent what is now coming to pass.

The Internet was the biggest game-changer, upending a once profitable business model that had been around for centuries and nudging conventional, “dead tree” journalism to the very brink of extinction.

But there were other factors at play as well, including the hard reality that younger consumers never developed the newspaper reading habits of their parents. Nowadays, we’re overwhelmed with raw information often masquerading as news that comes and goes with breakneck speed but lacks depth of relevance. Speed trumps substance.

My Dad saw that coming. Before he retired, he spent most of his working life as a linotype operator at the big daily newspapers in New York.

During his shift, he’d operate a hulking piece of machinery that would set individual lines of “hot type” made of lead that would be placed on the paper’s printing presses and then run off on giant rolls of newsprint.

The process was archaic and no match for the speed and efficiency of computers that would eventually render linotype machines obsolete. Dad and members of his union begrudgingly made the switch from linotype machines to “cold type” computer keyboards in order to keep their jobs and feed their families.

But to a man (and they were all men), they also had a gut feeling it was beginning of the end.

Years later, when I went to college to study journalism, my Dad warned me that my chosen profession was doomed. Frankly, I thought he was nuts.

Although I’m saddened and disturbed by the paper’s imminent move, I pray the AJC and other newspapers can somehow thrive again, and make a lie of my father’s dire predictions.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion about the relative quality of the AJC. After working there as a journalist for nearly 18 years, I too was often frustrated because it didn’t always live up to my expectations or to its own potential for excellence. My critiques have not always been kind.

But anyone who claims that the city of Atlanta, our region or our state would be better off without a vibrant, financially healthy AJC is just a damned fool.

Journalism and journalists still matter. Even in their weakened state, they have an unrivaled capacity – and a constitutionally protected obligation – to hold our leaders accountable and to keep us informed about the issues that matter most.

The chunky building at the corner of Marietta and Fairlie Streets is indeed an institution where some of the best and brightest journalists in the country have chronicled indelible moments in our history. When the remaining writers leave downtown and move out to Dunwoody, a good bit of that amazing history will go with them.

Still, an obituary for the AJC in particular (or newspapers in general) would be premature. But, as it was with my family even before my father died, there’s a deeply human impulse to begin romanticizing the past in order to find solace in the present.

The shape of the future is always more difficult to divine but I’m certain about this: we’re still far better off with an AJC – even in a different ZIP code – than with none at all.

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3 comments
Mark
Mark

Like you, Lyle, I watch with eagerness to see what is to come from newspaper decline. I fervently hope the future is not in what passes for television news. I use RSS to keep up with a wide range of sources including newspapers, magazines, and blogs. Many fine blogs exist out there with thoughtful commentary. I have today added this one to my list of feeds now that I've found you. However, most blogs I read ultimately get their information from the substantial resources of print media. The problem, in part as I see it, is that many folks don't give a damn about substance. I hope that something worthwhile will come from the current mess that is gutting print news rooms. I am among those who let the AJC print version go because most of it had no meaning or significance for me, and it left me with a big pile of paper at the end of the week. I do include the web site's RSS feeds of interest in my daily reading. I know that experiments in subscription for online content have mostly failed, but for my part, some sources may be worth a subscription fee. I suspect another means of sustenance will reveal itself in time. I doubt that many of the wounds suffered by newspapers, often self-inflicted, will heal where we'll see a resurgence. I do hope that a new means of insuring a high quality, investigative, assertive, and independent news media will come soon.

It is good to read you again.

PS - I live in the PCID portion of Dunwoody and the jokes about "The Dunwoody Journal-Constitution" started even before the formal announcement was made.

Intownwriter
Intownwriter

Wow, Lyle, terrific piece. I hope you're right about the future of newspapers, but in the form they were before, not today's marketing-driven creations.

Myles Greene Smith, FAICP
Myles Greene Smith, FAICP

Fine article, Lyle. Thanks for expressing your views and feelings. I certainly share them. For 68 years the AJC has been important to my life. Myles