AJC’s move from downtown to Dunwoody leaves more questions than answers
Sometimes being a journalist is a frustrating experience.
The goal is to find the answers to questions until a story makes sense.
But it’s not always easy getting answers. And even when answers are provided, some stories still leave more questions than answers.
Such a story is the recent news that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is leaving downtown, its home for more than140 years, to move to a Dunwoody office building at 223 Perimeter Center Parkway, the former Southeast headquarters for Macy’s Inc.
I’m not a disinterested party. For 26 of my 27 years with the AJC, I worked at 72 Marietta St. It’s a location that holds great sentimental and professional value for me. I’m not alone. In conversations with business and civic leaders this past week, AJC’s decision to leave its namesake to move outside the city limits has been an unsettling experience.
What does the move mean for our beloved daily newspaper and its future? How will the move dilute the historical ties between the AJC and its core readers? Will the move signal a change in the way stories are covered?
It is hard to quantify the answers to those kind of questions.
But perhaps most confusing to me is that Cox Enterprises, the parent company of the AJC, has said the move will help cut costs.
And that’s what doesn’t make sense.
I asked for a sit-down interview with a couple of executives from Cox Enterprises so I could better understand the rationale for the move.
In lieu of a sit-down interview, Cox spokesman Bobby Amirshahi said he would try to get some of my questions answered by email, but that I would not have an opportunity to pose follow-up questions.
Now that you know why this was a frustrating reporting experience, I’ll try to walk you through my questions and present to you the answers that were emailed back to me.
First and foremost, how does this move save the company money?
The AJC will be moving from a building that is wholly-owned by Cox to a building where it will be leasing about 127,000 square feet.
According to my colleague at the Atlanta Business Chronicle Doug Sams, the AJC will be paying about $14.50 per square foot a month in rent, putting the annual value of the lease close to $9 million.
(That does not include $7 per square foot for additional operating expenses that had been advertised with the lease specifications. We also don’t know what kind of lease sweetners were offered to the AJC).
When I asked Amirshahi how such a deal would save the company money, he emailed back:
“The savings for AJC are in the millions each year. Since moving production to Gwinnett, we occupy less than 30 percent of the facility downtown. The cost of operating the building is exorbitant. Our new Perimeter office location will provide us with the scalability to meet today’s needs and future growth.”
The implication here is that the utility costs and property taxes for the downtown location are greater than the lease and operating expenses at the Perimeter building.
But that’s hard to figure. Cox has said it has no plans to sell the building, which means it will still have to pay taxes on the property and maintain the building so it won’t fall into disarray.
As far as only using a third of its downtown campus, Cox actually has separate buildings connected by bridges. The now-vacant production plant, which once housed the printing presses, could have been sealed off from the 72 Marietta St. office building. Despite many consecutive years of employee cutbacks, the office building built in 1972 is still mostly full.
I also asked if Cox sought any incentives from the city of Atlanta as a way to reduce its operating expenses and help keep the AJC downtown. Amirshahi might have misunderstood that question because his emailed answer just said that the city did not provide incentives to keep the AJC downtown. What I still don’t know is if there had been any conversation with the city to keep the newspaper downtown.
Cox also has said it plans to operate a bureau intown in addition to its existing capitol bureau so it can continue to “cover the news and views from downtown Atlanta.”
But it is not known where that bureau will be located or whether Cox will have to lease that space, a move that would add to its operating expenses.
Cox also has not disclosed how much it will cost to move the remaining 800 employees to a new location.
Beyond dollars and cents, there’s the intangible historic connection that the newspaper has had with the city of Atlanta.
I asked Amirshahi whether there was a nostalgic or symbolic loss with leaving downtown for an Atlanta suburb.
“There is no denying that our move is a big change,” he wrote in the email. “We continue to enjoy a special relationship with the city of Atlanta, covering its successes, tragedies as well as the great story of our city’s growth and progress through the stories of its people.”
Amirshahi went on to say: “This transition certainly will provide a different experience for some employees, but our move doesn’t change anything for our audience and advertisers. Because downtown is home to many significant businesses and arms of government, we will maintain a healthy presence in the area with bureaus that serve those reporting needs.”
Had I had an opportunity for a face-to-face interview, I would have asked about what will happen to the two gas lights standing in front of 72 Marietta St.
One is Shining Light Award that was put up in honor of Ralph McGill, a former editor of the Atlanta Constitution, in 1972. The other Shining Light stands in honor of Celestine Sibley, one of the newspaper’s most popular columnists. I attended that ceremony in 1997 when Celestine beamed as long time friends and colleagues gave her the praise she deserved. What will happen to them?
And what will happen to the Henry Grady statue? It’s a monument that is a testament of how intertwined the Atlanta Constitution was with Atlanta’s progress in the late 1800s when Grady served as the morning paper’s crusading editor.
From what I understand, the AJC has been maintaining that statue and its grounds, located less than a block away from ithe newspaper’s current home. Will that continue?
I did ask Amirshahi how Cox and the AJC would remain committed to downtown.
“In addition to the 72 Marietta St. location, Cox Enterprises owns nearly 350 acres of property within the Atlanta city limits where it operates WSB-TV, five radio stations and three of its Manheim auto auctions,” he wrote in the email. He repeated the company’s plans to have an intown bureau in addition to the capitol bureau.
A whole other line of questioning I had concerned how Cox justifies the move from an environmental standpoint. A couple of years ago, Cox implemented its “Cox Conserves” program to make its business operations more sustainable.
I questioned how it would be more sustainable to be located at the Perimeter, which is much more auto-dependent than downtown. The AJC currently is located just a block away from the Five Points MARTA station, the hub of rail transit in the region. The new location is about four times farther way from the Dunwoody MARTA station, a stop that has much less frequent service than Five Points.
“Our data shows that AJC employees live in all parts of metro Atlanta,” Amirshahi wrote. “We also subsidize monthly MARTA passes for our employees to encourage use of mass transit. These incentives are consistent with our corporate Cox Conserves program.”
Had I been able to interview Cox executives in person, I would have asked about how environmental it is to be located in a building where you have to drive a car to cover stories in person, or even just to go to lunch.
Compare that to being downtown within walking distance of the federal government buildings, state offices, Fulton County headquarters, Atlanta City Hall, the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, the Metro Atlanta Chamber, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the Atlanta Regional Commission, the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Georgia Dome and Philips Arena and countless other regional and statewide entities, restaurants and attractions.
By leaving downtown, the AJC is saying good-bye to its roots and to its historic heart and soul. And for the life of me, I can’t figure out how the move will save the company money and be good for business.
But if Cox executives ever want to try to explain it to me, I’m all ears. After all, that’s what good journalists do. They try to find out the answers to questions when stories just don’t make sense.