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Book beat hits warpath 

AJC plan to retool critics' jobs meets vocal opposition

The ongoing reorganization of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newsroom proves once again that change can be upsetting, and not just to reporters worried about their jobs. Word that the AJC will eliminate positions relating to arts coverage – including visual arts, classical music and books – has sparked an outcry from local arts leaders, with the loudest complaints coming from the normally well-behaved literary community.

Local booksellers and authors have rallied behind an online petition opposing the loss of the book editor's post; sent out newsletters and mass e-mails to alert fellow book lovers to their concerns; and even scheduled a protest rally – dubbed a "read-in" – in front of the AJC offices this week. In other words, the bookworm has turned.

"I've seen this happen at newspapers in cities like Orlando that have dumped their book editors," says Shannon Byrne, an Atlanta-based publicist for Little, Brown. "Where it's happened, book coverage has become more generic and less interesting. I really think it marks the beginning of the end."

As an organizer of the rally at 72 Marietta St., Byrne is urging people to bring their favorite books to read aloud in front of the AJC offices starting at 10 a.m. Thursday, May 3. The goal is to spur AJC executives not to bump book editor Teresa Weaver from her position.

Some of Weaver's duties are slated to be rolled into a newly created position overseeing both the Sunday "Arts & Books" section and the Friday "Movies & More" section, according to memos sent to AJC staff. Currently, there are separate positions for book editor and arts editor. It's unclear who will decide which books get reviewed and who will write those reviews.

Frank Reiss, owner of A Cappella Books, has been busy directing his customers to an online petition tagged "Help Protect Atlanta's Book Review" that was posted last week by New Yorker John Freeman, who serves as president of the National Book Critics Circle and is a frequent contributor to the AJC's book reviews. As of Monday, the petition had attracted more than 4,000 co-signers.

"I understand that the newspaper business is a challenging environment right now," Reiss says. "But these changes seem counterproductive – I mean, who's more likely to support a daily newspaper than book lovers?"

Reiss is also concerned about the AJC's commitment as sponsor of the Decatur Book Festival, which drew more than 125 authors and 50,000 attendees to its successful debut this past Labor Day.

A widely distributed letter by AJC editor Julia Wallace seeks to ease concerns by stating flatly that the paper is not doing away with its two-page book section. "While we will no longer have a book editor, we will have an editor responsible for directing our book coverage," the letter reads.

Wallace also responded to CL's questions with a message saying the reorganization of positions will not result in fewer arts reporters. "We anticipate that the changes will provide more, not less, coverage in these areas," she says.

While she concedes that the paper will run fewer local film reviews, Wallace says: "Contrary to some rumors, we are not eliminating visual arts criticism." She adds that she hopes to expand book coverage.

Still, Melissa Fay Greene, celebrated author of Praying for Sheetrock, believes the AJC's move to eliminate positions dedicated to specific artistic disciplines is part of a national downhill trend in cultural criticism.

"Without the direction of a book editor, the AJC will rely more on wire stories and we'll lose original voices in criticism," Greene says. "The newspaper is just surrendering. It's like saying, 'We're in over our head trying to compete with national arts coverage.' It's an abdication of critical intelligence."

Arguably, the loss of the arts critics' positions may have more impact on the local creative community than that of book editor. If the AJC has no visual-arts critic, will the paper cover fewer gallery openings and slash reviews in favor of feature stories? Atlanta artist Cinque Hicks, who writes a popular local arts blog, hopes to explain the negative impact of cutting back on arts criticism to AJC editors.

"Artists in Atlanta see themselves as operating on a national stage, and the language of that stage is reviews that can be shown to gallery owners in other cities," he says. "Without reviews, the Atlanta arts scene will be relegated even more to the boondocks."

Robert Spano, artistic director of the Atlanta Symphony, is also troubled that the daily newspaper will no longer have a classical-music critic. "The fact that we won't have a designated music critic in town would make us the only major symphony without that," he says.

Joe Bankoff, who, as CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center, oversees the High Museum, the ASO and the Alliance Theatre, says he's disappointed by the paper's decision.

"I'm assured that there won't be a reduction of arts coverage, but the absence of consistent arts criticism is damaging to the newspaper and diminishes the stature of the city," Bankoff explains. "Usually, I don't get into how other people run their business, but this is something that affects the community as a whole."

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