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.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

There are 41 comments What are your thoughts?

What are your thoughts?