Old Question, New Answers for Atlanta’s Struggling Media

Who will tell the people?

That oft-repeated line was first written by Mary Anne Evans, the Victorian novelist who was best known by her pen name, George Eliot.

Don’t get me wrong; I wouldn’t know George Eliot from George Foreman. Frankly, until I sat down to write this column, I was clueless about the fact that Eliot (who more famously authored the classic, Silas Marner) was a woman.

But that trenchant question, asked rhetorically by one of Eliot’s fictional characters, has been nagging at me lately.

Considering what’s happening to the newspaper industry, in general and metro Atlanta media, in particular, I wonder ‘who will tell the people?’

As a lifelong reporter, the meltdown of modern journalism has me understandably worried. As a citizen of this region, the implosion of our local newspapers has me terrified.

My former employer and the state’s largest daily newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has shrunk – literally and figuratively – into a shadow of its former self as its readership and revenues have tanked.

In the two years since I left the AJC, the staff has been cut dramatically, key departments have been downsized or eliminated and the reporters still working there are stretched far too thin to do their best work.

Recently, the paper’s publisher announced the decision to shutter the AJC’s storied downtown headquarters and move the bulk of its operations out to the suburbs by the middle of 2010.

I sincerely hope the AJC isn’t throwing in the towel and intends to honor the obligation it has to its namesake city. Actually, I’m praying the AJC will survive.

Still, it’s hard to be optimistic about the commitment of its owners, Cox Enterprises, to continue the kind of coverage of the central city that’s critical to keeping citizens informed about the issues that matter most.

And make no mistake: Whether you love or loathe the AJC, its presence and influence is still profoundly important. Without the type, and depth of reporting that keeps our leaders and institutions accountable, we will all be worse off.

The situation is more dire at Creative Loafing, the city’s alternative weekly that has been hanging on by its fingernails with a skeleton staff after declaring bankruptcy. Last week, CL and several other newspapers that had been acquired by the previous owner, was sold to group of its former investors.

The Loaf’s new owners have vowed to make the paper a must-read and promised there’d be no more crippling layoffs. I hope they can return CL to financial solvency and journalistic credibility, but clearly the paper is facing long odds.

So if the worst-case scenario materializes and the AJC is no longer a viable source of news while Creative Loafing continues to fade who, or what, will fill the resulting void?

The local TV stations have mostly failed at trying to pick up the slack. With rare exceptions, Atlanta’s TV news coverage has devolved into “chalk outline” reporting that provides little more than the daily police blotter of fires, murders and mindless mayhem — with little substance.

Doug Richards
, a former TV reporter has captured the “if it bleeds, it leads” zeitgeist of his former industry with his snarky and dead-on blog “Live Apartment Fire,” that’s definitely worth a look. I just learned that Richards is back on the air again, this time at WXIA, Channel 11. That’s a positive development.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that my own earnest attempts to plug the gaps in local news coverage also flopped. Last year, I co-founded the Georgia Online News Service – affectionately referred to as GONSO.

The company’s business plan (such as it was) entailed recruiting a team of former journalists who had departed the AJC or Creative Loafing, voluntarily or otherwise. We put them to work covering the big issues affecting our region and our state and sent email blasts of their stories to newspapers, key decision-makers and top influencers.

GONSO’s other co-founders – PR maven Rick White, veteran journalist John F. Sugg and radio entrepreneur Jon Sinton – were initially well-intentioned but ultimately ill-equipped to run the enterprise successfully.

Lacking money to pay our elite team of writers and bereft of sufficient startup capital, GONSO was, as someone cleverly pointed out “gone so fast it made your head swim.”

GONSO’s collapse notwithstanding, there are glimmers of hope. I’m grateful that many of my former colleagues at the AJC, as well as a band of fearless newcomers, are admirably trying to fill the news hole being left by the ever- shrinking AJC.

Jim Walls, a former investigations editor for the AJC, has launched “Atlanta Unfiltered,” a take-no-prisoners website that uses Georgia’s under-utilized Open Records Act to keep public officials and others accountable.

Walls recently won a $1,000 award from Investigative Reporters and Editors, a respected nonprofit organization that’s dedicated to improving the quality of investigative reporting. You go, Jim.

One of my favorite new media websites is “Like the Dew,” which bills itself as a “journal of Southern culture and politics.”
Keith Graham, a former editor at the AJC, should be right proud of this high-minded, top-shelf online publication he’s helped create which features some truly gifted writers.

Meanwhile, Cathy Fox, Pierre Ruhe and Wendell Brock – a formidable trio of former AJC arts and culture critics – have also taken up the challenge and are continuing to offer their erudite insights about the city’s art scene with their own blog, “Arts Critic Atlanta,”

Former CL editor Ken Edelstein has teamed up with tireless rookie reporter Jeanne Bonner and they’ve been kicking butt and taking names with “Atlanta Unsheltered.”
And although it’s not a conventional news site, “Drifting Through The Grift” is another example of the high-minded analysis and opinion that has mostly gone missing from the AJC but is increasingly showing up online.

And lastly, at the risk of tooting our own horn, I’ve partnered with veteran business writer and columnist Maria Saporta to publish this website that focuses on local and regional issues such as transportation, land use, politics and the local economy.

Frankly, none of these sites I’ve mentioned is making much money – if any at all. Between us, we don’t amount to even a tiny fraction of the readership of the AJC’s website. It’s a safe bet that many of them, like GONSO, will eventually go extinct.

No matter.

To all of those ink-stained wretches toiling in near-poverty and anonymity because they still believe in journalism’s responsibility to inform, to enlighten and to entertain, I suggest they read the entire quote from author George Eliot’s work which answers the question that has been wracking my brain lately:

“I want to be a demagogue of a new sort;
an honest one, if possible, who will tell the people they are
blind and foolish, and neither flatter them nor fatten on them.”

Who will tell the people? I don’t know, but we’re going to try.

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6 comments
Jaime Dalene
Jaime Dalene

Howdy! I'm at work surfing around your blog from my new iphone 4! Just wanted to say I love reading through your blog and look forward to all your posts! Carry on the outstanding work!

Montana
Montana

I'm not so quick to dis blogs ...

Plenty of bloggers out there would make/already are fine journalists -- hey, it's not that long ago journalism was a trade, not a university-taught profession. It was something you learned by guidance and it was thought any ape could pick it up. (Check your recent Economist archives in Books & Arts.)

Bloggers, in aggregate, are already a "fairly large" group. Apes perhaps, but apes capable of learning and doing more if they don't have to spend so much time earning a living.

And when bloggers know each other they are a network and call on each other.

What's missing is money and editors.

It won't take a lot of money to lure good blogging journalists into the trade full-time -- especially considering the "pay" now. I would hope nonprofits could do it.

It's the editorial lead that's hard -- who can tell me what's libel, who can suggest directions & contacts, who has institutional knowledge, who's balanced? Who can help me improve my writing?

What we need is an editorial guru to help us shape our stories and just a little funding to quit our jobs but still buy groceries. Then you'll see what independent journalists can do -- free from bosses and advertisers.

BPJ
BPJ

The most promising model for sustaining quality professional journalism is the one that funds the best broadcast news in Atlanta, which is NPR and WABE. That's the nonprofit model.

Think about it: the other, for-profit broadcast news outlets are a bad joke; they play journalists on TV. Mindless, "if it bleeds, it leads" chuckleheads. Radio news is almost nonexistent in for-profit radio.

For a long time, professional journalism was subsidized by want-ads, and it was necessary to pay for the object printed on paper in order to read the news. Lacking this support, the only realistic option I see is the funding model that supports NPR. Recently, WABE has been ramping up its local news coverage; over time, and with funding from local foundations, it could become the primary go-to source for local news. And it need not be purely broadcast; the website could carry longer articles, including (dare I say it?) serious arts coverage for grownups.

Individual blogs are a nice supplement, but not an adequate substitute for news coverage by a fairly large organization of professional journalists.

Ken Edelstein
Ken Edelstein

Thanks for the kind props for Atlanta Unsheltered, Lyle. Regarding Brian's comment: Since we're still trying to figure how to make money with these things, maybe we should start a new blog called Atlanta UNemployed. (That's a joke, by the way.)

Brian
Brian

The second mention of "Atlanta Unfiltered" should actually read "Atlanta Unsheltered "(the link works correctly, though). With so many similarily named websites, such a typo, though UNdesireable, is totally UNderstandable.

SpaceyG on Twitter
SpaceyG on Twitter

Still ROFLing here over this prose-y gem. But let me catch my breath a sec and bring your attention to the exhaustive list of Georgia-only blogs and bloggers... under the "Blogging Georgians" header to your right here:
http://mymindisongeorgia.blogspot.com/

Most of these hundreds of GEORGIANS have been at it, and simultaneously building strong social networks too (those are key, Sherlock), while you GONZO media clowns were still puffing about declaring the Internets nothing but a CB radio-like fad.

The world awaits your inspired, intrepid, badass new media conglomerates, no doubt. Personally, given this classic Julia Wallace-style of chest-thumping post about how you're gonna rule the world now that you alone have discovered the hidden treasures of the Internets, I can't help but think of the Flip Wilson "Chris Columbus" sketch where the "fine little Western Indian girl" yells at Chris, "You cain't discover nobody 'less they want to be discovered. You better 'scover your ass away from here."