Gift of building does not absolve the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s downtown departure

Call it a gift made out of guilt.

This past week, Cox Enterprises donated the former downtown headquarters of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to the City of Atlanta, a gift valued at $50 million.

Until earlier this year, the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution had been based in the center of the city and the center of region for more than 100 years. In their entire history, the newspapers had been located within a couple of blocks of Atlanta’s zero milepost.

So when the powers that be decided to move the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to a suburban office building located outside the city limits and north of I-285, it made a statement. The newspapers were deserting the city’s center in more ways than one.

This is a hard column for me to write because I spent 27 years of my career proudly working for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution when it was anchored at 72 Marietta St. N.W.

And for my entire 55 years, the Atlanta Constitution (later the AJC) was delivered to our home. I was raised by the progressive voices one could find in the Atlanta Constitution, most notably editor Ralph McGill, Bill Shipp, Reg Murphy, Hal Gulliver, (and after the papers merged) Durwood McAllister, Jeff Dickerson, Cynthia Tucker, Lyle Harris and Jay Bookman.

The Atlanta papers were the voices that steered Atlanta, Georgia and the South from a segregated, backwards state to one of the most dynamic and progressive regions in the country.

But that voice — the voice of reason, hope and progress — has been muted at today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Instead, the newspapers seem hell bent to portray the City of Atlanta and the core of the region in the worst possible light.

It is no secret that leaders in the newsroom now say that their target audience is not those living/working inside the perimeter. Instead, they openly covet readers living and working in the areas north of I-285, even telling reporters that the south side of the region is not a top priority.

This is not the first time the AJC has tried this failed strategy. A decade ago, the mantra was Gwinnett. The newspapers invested millions and about one-third of its staff to cover Gwinnett County. The logic was that Gwinnett was growing, and the AJC could save itself by catering to that growth.

It was a futile attempt. People living and working in Gwinnett did not identify with the AJC. After years of investing it a Gwinnett strategy, circulation in that county stayed flat.

Meanwhile, the newspapers failed to realize that its greatest penetration of readers and loyal customers lived and worked in the core of the region — the City of Atlanta, DeKalb County and even Clayton County.

Turning its back on its core readers has been a devastating strategy. To the best of my knowledge, Atlanta Journal-Constitution has lost more readers in the past decade than any other major newspaper in the United States.

Last month, the Audit Bureau of Circulation announced that the AJC’s daily paid circulation fell by 14 percent from a year earlier (from 211,420 to 181,504) compared to national drop of 5 percent. And the year before, daily circulation had plunged 23 percent from the year before. In the fall of 2006, daily circulation was 350,159.

Sunday circulation that same time period has gone from 523,969 to 384,110. I remember a time when there were significantly more than a half million subscribers and Sunday circulation flirted with nearly one million readers.

Now this precipitous decline in AJC’s circulation occurred in metro Atlanta, considered the fastest growing region in the United States during much of that time. Today, the Atlanta region is the ninth largest urban area in the United States. And the AJC is not even among the top 25 newspapers in the country.

So the AJC’s attempts to appeal to conservative, Republican suburbanites by alienating its urban readers is not paying off — to the detriment of Atlanta and to the detriment of itself.

Look at how the AJC has covered Atlanta’s significant win of $47.6 million for a $72 million streetcar project to connect Centennial Olympic Park with the King District.

“Pricey streetcar won’t ease traffic” — the 1A Sunday headline blared. One had to read way down in the story to find out that the project was not aimed at easing traffic. It is part of a growing understanding that transportation and land-use investments must be linked to create communities that are not dependent on automobiles.

The next day, the 1A headline blasted one of Atlanta’s greatest affordable housing developers — Progressive Redevelopment Inc. “Taxpayers’ bill: $5 million-plus. Low-income housing developer faces defaults; families likely forced out.”

In addition to making several inaccuracies, the story had a definitive anti-Atlanta and anti-poverty-fighting slant.

Sadly, the AJC has a bias editor — an editor meant to remove all liberal biases within the newspapers news pages. Unfortunately, the newspaper has no bias editor to filter out the Fox News, conservative babble that distorts the information in those same pages.

Yes, I commend Cox Enterprises and Jim Kennedy for donating the AJC’s downtown offices and former printing plant to the City of Atlanta to help our local government house some of its workers.

Please know I have nothing but the highest respect for Kennedy; his wife, Sarah; and his aunt, Anne Cox Chambers. I truly believe they have Atlanta’s best interests at heart.

But the company’s gift of 72 Marietta St. to the City of Atlanta does not come close to wiping the slate clean.

The fact remains that the AJC has pulled up its Atlanta roots and has turned its back on the city — a move that has hurt the newspaper as much as it has hurt our urban heart and our region.

This entry was posted in Maria's Metro. Bookmark the permalink.
39 comments
Sally Flocks
Sally Flocks

The AJC continues its assault on the streetcar funding this morning with a column by Mark Arum, aka "The Gridlock Guy" -- suggesting that the $25 million in local funds that will support the downtown streetcar instead be used to add left turn lanes to Peachtree Road. This would widen intersections to eight lanes, making them inaccessible to most pedestrians.

The right of way costs alone would far exceed $25 million. And since much of that money is coming from the self-taxing Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, using it in Buckhead is not an option. What will it take to get suburban writers to understand that streets have many purposes, only one of which is moving cars?

Paul Spencer
Paul Spencer

As a native of Georgia who grew up near Atlanta I have always read the AJC. I've lived somewhere near Ellijay for the last 25 years and I've always been a faithful reader. Then last year they stopped circulation north of Canton. I didn't quit the AJC they quit me. Now I read the Chattanooga Times-Free Press. Since I don't know what goes on in Atlanta I never go there anymore. But me and my family go to Chattanooga several times a year and we spend our money there. So it is not just the urban center that suffers but rural Georgia as well.

T. Clark
T. Clark

Right on, Maria.

Don't forget rural Georgians. My family have been loyal readers of the Atlanta Journal and the the AJC for decades until they decided to stab their readers in the back and eliminate rural delivery 2 years ago. Now people in my county, only 50 miles from Atlanta, are forced to rely on the Chattanooga paper. This is an outrage and it costs metro Atlanta dearly. When rural Georgians have no access to, and thus no opinion on the success of Atlanta, all Georgians loose.

PJ in NC
PJ in NC

When people ask me why I don't expand my thriving urban business in NC to Atlanta, it's stuff like this that I point to that explains why I don't want to do business in Atlanta.

the beacon
the beacon

howzaboutthis: since the "AJC" is largely complete with a complete redesign and makeover, why not go with a name change and finish the job? how about "the metro journal" or something "all-encompassing" like that. It would seal the deal once and for all, and would help thrust their sales to folks like my parents who currently only watch fox news for all their daily needs.

They should sell the name to CL, who could come up with a spinoff of their current weekly or something (even if only online at first) for those of us who still have our sanity.

Burroughston Broch
Burroughston Broch

One more thing, Maria. Stephanie Ramage at Sunday Paper has been ringing this same bell for some months now. Why don't you contact her and the two of you come up with a plan?

Burroughston Broch
Burroughston Broch

Maria, you seem to have touched most of the traditional AJC readers inside the Perimeter. You've struck a sympathetic chord amongst like minded people. If you owned the AJC and wanted to keep its tradition alive, how would you change things to maintain the tradition and stay in business?

Wendy
Wendy

Did anyone think that they might have moved because of the decrease in their workforce and the building was too large? I contracted for the AJC years back and half of the building was un-used back then.

JayInAtlanta
JayInAtlanta

Thank you so much for this passionate and enlightening piece, Maria.

The Atlanta Constitution (and to an extent, the Journal) has been dear to my heart since my earliest memories of reading. In fact, when I went to college in Boston, I even tried to get it delivered to me daily.

Of course, when the J&C merged, I was pleased to be a subscriber of the single paper. But there has indeed been a noticable shift in the paper's tone, as well as some decisions that horrified me. For example, the paper very recently refused to issue any political endorsements, stating "you don't need us to tell you how to vote." That smacked of suburban sycophancy, since I don't remember any paper ever TELLING me how to vote. But I always valued the reasons the editors gave for wanting to support specific candidates.

I was taken aback at the same headline you mentioned, right there on the front page of my Sunday paper. The article itself was slightly more balanced than the headline made it seem, but the bias was clear and the damage was done.

And finally, is it really true that editors disallow the use of the word "sprawl" in AJC articles? Banishing the word "sprawl" in an Atlanta newspaper is just laughable.

It's a sad time for newspapers in general, but recent statistics showed that the downtown population is actually climbing. Yesterday, Creative Loafing lamented that "Atlanta Deserves a Daily Paper." I couldn't agree more. Here's a thought: how about Georgia State University stepping up and turning the Signal into a daily?

John Sugg
John Sugg

With it's rapidly plunging circulation, maybe it's better for Atlanta's image if it doesn't have to claim one of the saddest newspaper failures in the nation. The moniker Dunwoody Journal-Constitution works for me -- although the good folks in Dunwoody (especially Dick Williams) might protest the slur. Good job, Maria, and thanks for the passion in this column.

John
John

the ajc can go on out and stay out. those of us that remain intown know we have something good that keeps on getting better. the void will be filled and the coxes will miss out. pity.

Julia
Julia

Bravo Maria!
I am a WestCoast transplant who has lived in Atlanta's Northern Burbs for 12 years. I wish that we had originally moved ITP, but hindsight is 20/20. I LOVE newspapers and tried to love the AJC, but it never had the hard hitting, insightful, progressive voice that I expected. I subscribe to Atlantic, Harper's, Vanity Fair, and the NYT and voted for Obama. Even though I live in East Cobb, I have more of an urban mindset, and look forward to ditching my car one day. Moving downtown would be a dream. Let's not give up on the great city of Atlanta!

George Chidi
George Chidi

Hey, Maria, long time no see. Former AJC-er here. Good piece.

Maria's sentiment is spot on. There's one more element of the AJC's "donation" to the city of its $50 million Marietta Street building that should be mentioned, though. The gift to the city has enormous profitability implications for the paper. Assuming that the $50 million is fair market value (a big if, given the cost to renovate and the value of rental office space downtown), I think the paper will be able to write off a big chunk of that donation on its taxes, for a short-term benefit. I've been saying all along that the AJC is in the process of withdrawing its operating capital -- raising prices to take advantage of loyal readers while they still can, cutting distribution area, coverage area, et cetera. They're milking it.

The AJC stopped being a real newspaper when it stopped endorsing candidates.

I think it's reasonable to assume that the publisher and financial leaders of the paper see the point in the future when the paper will only publish online. They're in the process of developing an iPad app that will keep content behind a paywall. The trouble with running a digital publication -- real estate adds no value. The AJC is preparing for that point. Understand that a purely digital publication will require only about a quarter to a third of the staff it carries now. Maybe less. And if the Seattle papers' example is instructive, it will have 30 to 40 reporters, tops. Probably less.

The AJC has been shifting rightward, opinions of the 20 percent of the public that only gets its news from Fox notwithstanding. The paper will never get "credit" for that change from the more vocal conservatives around Atlanta, of course. Conservatism in the media today is defined by hyperbole, not bias, and the paper is unlikely to embrace the New York Daily News style that would catch the attention of the Tea Party crowd.

Frankly, I suspect that part of the shift in the paper's tone has something to do with its relationship to power these days. There's still a small core of investigative-type diggers exposing problems in the schools, in the cities and in the governor's office. But most of the time, when the subject is a Republican with any clout, little or nothing comes of the reporting. Meanwhile, the paper's mighty leaders may have some concern about legislative backlash of some kind or another.

Burroughston Broch
Burroughston Broch

@ Scott
Wingfield a partisan hack removed from fact? Minor complaints in comparison with Cynthia Tucker. Read her apologia for Rep. Charles Rangel in today's edition.

Jay Bookman has some redeeming virtues.

SpaceyG
SpaceyG

Hey, why worry?! Rejoice. Matthew Cardinale just re-vamped his website.

Scott
Scott

It is sad but true. With opinion pieces from partisan hacks like Kyle Wingfield who are so removed from fact that its shocking, its no wonder that the paper is in steep decline. All you have to do is read the comments section after just to see how far it has fallen. I gave up a long time ago trying to comment on those pieces. Nobody seems to be concerned there with facts or the truth

Hank
Hank

Way to go, Maria. You know that I have for decades maintained that one of a newspaper's greatest obligations is To Rub Their Snouts In It. You've done it again, and with great accuracy and elan. You're right about Jim Kennedy, and painfully right about the current regime at the Journal-Constitution. Thanks.

Burroughston Broch
Burroughston Broch

I appreciate your anguish but you're going to have to deal with this: The Atlanta that you love doesn't exist any more. When I was at Tech in the 60s Atlanta was the heart of the region and all of the shakers and movers were in the city. Today there are almost no shakers and movers in the City - they're in the suburbs. The suburbs have been the growth area for years and the City has become the rotten hole in the middle of the doughnut. The Atlanta Chamber of Commerce has tried to project a different image but has been unsuccessful. They cannot gloss over the mind-bogling errors and corruption in City government.

The AJC is facing at least quandries - (1) most of their potential readers are not in the City (and particularly not in the southside), and (2) most of their potential readers are not political "progressives." Put your personal biases aside, take a clean sheet, and see if you can come up with a business plan to save a dying newspaper.

By the way, I have been a subscriber since 1968.

Beth
Beth

Great column. I don't understand what's to be gained by tearing down the heart of the metropolitan area that drives the state's economy.

DH_ATL
DH_ATL

Maria,

Sadly, your commentary is so accurate and true. It has been disappointing to watch the AJC tarnish its proud heritage by pandering to right-wing views, for the sake of "balance". (Then missing balance altogether by excluding left-of-center perspectives.) The move to the suburbs is both regrettable and stupefying, given that many suburbanites and newcomers are choosing to relocate inside the Perimeter in significant numbers.

The economic vitality of the U.S. in the 21st will largely be driven by the development of the core regions. Metro Atlanta will be no different. Yet this is a "story" that will be largely missed by a paper that has chosen to remove itself from the central city and that has chosen to constantly bash anything the City does.

I changed my subscription to Sundays only, in direct response and protest to the move from Downtown. When it expires, I will likely drop it altogether.

Thank goodness for you and your contributors at The Saporta Report. Keep up the good work!

DH_ATL

Tamra
Tamra

I sunk myself into a lot of debt to finally get a master's degree in journalism two years ago. (Little did I know I'd chosen the worst possible time.) I could have stayed in DC - where I had the very beginnings of some professional connections - after graduation, but I was bound and determined to come back to Atlanta and be a reporter here. I secretly imagined myself very slowly working up to writing for the AJC, going to work every day in that building on Marietta Street.

But, while I was away in J-school I noticed things changing. First were the repeated solicitations of opinions as to the content of the paper. The AJC seemed to have lost all confidence in itself, essentially saying to readers "Tell us what to do so you'll like us again!" Then I read that the paper was moving out of the city that is the very first word of its name, that the place that had once been its home would now be a bureau. I knew something had gone terribly wrong.

The editors apparently took to heart the opinions of people who think the AJC's primary defect is "liberal bias." So now we get these incongruous headlines and stories written from puzzling angles, all in the name of courting the approval of people who won't be satisfied with anything that's not overtly anti-Atlanta. It's really discouraging to see the only daily newspaper in a city this size bending so easily to the whims of people who don't even care to see it succeed.

progressive dem
progressive dem

Yeaaaa Maria. The anti-Atlanta bias is so obvious with the AJC these days. It is about time somebody broke out a stick on them.

They used the Truth O Meter to contradict the Chairman of the Marta Board when he complained that Georgia was the only state that didn't contribute towards mass transit. They somehow found that statement to be barely true.

And where is their voice? They don't make political ensorsements anymore. Is that modeled after the USA Today?

One of their more laughable decisions was to invest in machinery that could create more/better color. If I want color, I'll watch TV. Another advancement was more "quick reads" and indecies. Believe me; it reads very quickly. They are hellbent on dumbing it down, which is ironic given the number of college grads in 2010 compared to 50 years ago.

tomitron
tomitron

thank you, maria --- well said or written or whatever!!!

Melissa
Melissa

Interesting idea, but I would love to learn more about the decision to donate the AJC building to the city. Was it really an attempt to reconcile with the city? Was it a cost-saving measure? Or was there something else?

shirley
shirley

Atlanta is the brand and has been for over 100 years. The city is far better run and managed than it has been in years whether the local media thinks so or not. The state still struggles with their deficit as do other local governments, school systems. The city of Atlanta does not. Maria, I am glad the AJC did donate the property, if the alternative was a huge vacant property downtown. Even better if the city can develop it in a way to return it to the tax base. In early 2008 I asked a newspaper executive whether newspapers including the AJC would survive, when he asked me whether I could manage a balanced budget in the midst of a recession. He admitted he couldn't predict the success of the AJC. I knew then as now that the city will more than survive. It will thrive because of decades of public and private investment and creative leaders from all walks of life. Most people who bash Atlanta don't know Atlanta and its leaders' determination to make good on the 19th century dream to be the "Jewel of the South".

Cormac
Cormac

The Atlanta JOurnal tries its best to put cream frosting on a cow pattie when it comes to Atlanta. This city is a wretched place, dangerous and as uninviting. It is filled with cronyism, ineptitude, and greed. We're surrounded by well-run cities like Chattanooga, Birmingham, Nashville, and Charlotte, but Atlanta is doomed because of poor leadership and a greedy tax base. If anything, the Atlanta paper is guilty of making Atlanta sound too good...

Bring back "Babe Alley" to the Georgia Capitol! (U
Bring back "Babe Alley" to the Georgia Capitol! (U

Man, I really feel for progressives and those who happen to be left-of-center on the political spectrum right now. It's no secret that anything or anyone remotely liberal, left-leaning or even Democrat-affiliated is pretty much radioactive right now while the nation makes a sharp turn to the hard right. Heck, where I grew up, being called a "liberal" was and is one of the worst things anybody could ever be called, being even worse than being called a "traitor" or "coward". I do agree with you Maria that the AJC has put itself on a suicide march by trying somewhat to covet a much more conservative "Fox News" demographic that will never identify with or quit despising the AJC. Trying to covet hard-line red meat OTP conservatives is pretty much useless because those conservatives will always view the AJC as a treasonous moonbat left-wing rag no matter how far right the AJC tries to bend over backwards to appease them and trust me, as you can tell from my name, I know ALOT about being pleased by certain individual and collective "parties" trying to bend over backwards.
Anyways, no matter how far right the AJC tries to lean, or in this case, fall over, we all know that deep inside that conservative-wannabe rag beats the heart of a left-of-center ITP progressive blue-dog liberal democrat, or even dare I say, a socially liberal, but strictly business-minded fiscally conservative R.I.N.O. (Republican In Name Only) loves nothing more than the color, smell and feel of one thing and one thing only: $$$ MONEY $$$ (CH-CHING!!!!), LOL. I know that it's supposedly "hot-and-trendy" to be called a conservative these days, but it makes no sense for a newspaper to alienate its core readership and try to be what its clearly not.

Henry Batten
Henry Batten

Thank you so much for articulating what I have felt for a long time, but could not put into words.

Ryan
Ryan

The AJC didn't even cover Atlanta Pride, one of the largest annual festivals in the city. There were 7 or 8 pictures online. No print coverage and no other mentions on their website that weekend. A huge shame.

BPJ
BPJ

If the AJC can afford to give away that building, could they afford to hire a book critic?

Saporta is right. Newspapers everywhere are hurting, but the AJC is worse off than most, because of a stupid strategy. Trying to placate people who think FoxNews is real journalism will never work. And targeting semi-literate, incurious ignoramuses.....that's just not a promising demographic for a newspaper. They promised us a Sunday paper with real substance worth reading....and then gutted the arts coverage, which is one of the few things that a local paper can give us that the NY Times, etc. can't.

I still subscribe, as there are a few items in each day's paper which I wouldn't get anywhere else, and which make it worthwhile. I subscribe because (a) I think good journalism needs to be paid for, and (b) there are some items (especially in the arts) which never show up on the website.
There are still good journalists doing good work at the AJC. The problem starts at the top: a fishwrapper rots from the head.

L
L

In my circle of ITP and OTP friends and colleagues, only two households subscribe to the AJC anymore, and very few consider it relevant to their work -- other than getting events that appeal to an older population listed in the event section. That's pretty serious lack of relevance for the AJC when you consider that my circle monitors Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Christian Science Monitor, etc., daily, and used to include the AJC in that mix. Miss the days of investigative team that included the incredible Jane O. Hansen. Who knows what's happening now and not being picked up? Just sign me -- Just Barely OTP with an ITP Heart

Wendy D
Wendy D

Thank you for this column, which carries even more weight because you grew up in Atlanta and also had a long career with the paper. My readership of the AJC has dropped off massively in the past couple of years and part of it is definitely the anti-urban bias you describe. I live just two blocks from the old AJC building, at the Healey building, and I loathe reading about my own neighborhood as if it's a scary foreign country a la Beirut.

winkasdad29
winkasdad29

Never have I seen a local newspaper that polarizes its urban population as much as the AJC. You can also add WSB-TV and WSB-AM radio to that list as well. There's no more objective reporting - if you're not conservative, then you don't count. To these outlets, urban Atlanta is a cancer that they want to cut out - even though they were told no cancer exists.

Big Sam
Big Sam

Maria - THANK YOU!!! You hit the nail dead on the head. I agree 100% with your comments. The AJC of today is not the paper I grew up with. The paper has become very anti urban Atlanta. Additionally, the writing is horrendous and typos are numerous. I have given up notifying the AJC of their errors.

ATLGAL
ATLGAL

AJC gives the citizens of Atlanta an albatross that will cost millions of tax payer dollars to renovate before it can be used, so that the AJC does not have to market, renovate or pay taxes on an empty building abandoned in the middle of downtown and somehow we are suppose to appreciate this 'gift'!!?? Am I missing something?

rlj
rlj

Spot-on analysis, and a welcome articulation of what has become so clear and so revolting of late. Utterly amazing bias and negativity in recent finger-to-the-wind headlines, where the lead is not how great it is to land streetcar funds but rather a cynical and smug posture toward the very idea of spending money on anything so progressive as urban transit. Inclining toward lowering the urban subscription rate by another unit,
rlj

Sally Flocks
Sally Flocks

I share your concern about the AJC's anti-urban bias. The Decatur Street road diet -- which PEDS recognized with a Golden Shoe Award last week -- was blasted in the AJC last December for eliminating "a swift backdoor chute into the heart of downtown Atlanta."

GSU students are the lifeblood of downtown Atlanta. As a long-time AJC subscriber, it's disappointing to know that our newspaper cares more about enabling suburban commuters to use local streets to speed through downtown Atlanta than it does about student safety or the quality of life here. The paper lacks understanding of the importance of linking transportation investments to land use -- a principal subscribed to by both the Atlanta Regional Commission and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.

People who live ITP typically have shorter commutes than those OTP -- which means we also have more time to read the newspaper before leaving for work. Why, then, does AJC ignore this important market?

At the State of the Region breakfast last week, the keynote speaker emphasized the dependence of regional prosperity on the health of its core city. What will it take to ensure the AJC understands the dependence of suburban prosperity on the continued vitality of the City of Atlanta?

Trackbacks

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Atlanta DNA, Wendy Darling. Wendy Darling said: Thank you @mariasaporta for great blog post on AJC's growing anti-urban, anti-Atlanta bias. http://is.gd/h8UT0 #atlanta #media [...]

  2. [...] her blog last week, former AJC columnist Maria Saporta suggested that the AJC’s effort to win the [...]