Doomed to repeat itself 

The AJC just don't get it

About eight years ago, I ran a two-part interview with an artist in this space. The artist, horrified that I published certain things she said, even accused me of fabrications. She sent me photocopies of my columns with nearly all the sentences marked with highlighters. Each color corresponded to a particular kind of offense. It looked like the kind of chart God must consult when he determines whether you are going to hell.

I called the artist and at one point, she wailed: "I don't dislike you. You're a really good writer. I think you could even write for the Atlanta Constitution."

Um, no thank you. I explained that I had already put in a few years at the daily, under contract with its Sunday magazine supplement called Atlanta Weekly. I was there in the late '70s during a brief and brilliant period when the paper hired a crew of hotshots from Texas Monthly. They gave me the freedom to write 5,000-word pieces on anything I wanted, from cockroaches and mannequins to gypsy fortune tellers. Those years at Atlanta Weekly were the best writing job I've ever had. They produced multiple offers of book contracts. The editor gave me the choice of going on staff. Two weeks of that were adequate to disclose the larger paper's back-stabbing politics to which I was immune as a freelance contractor.

One by one, the Texas crew fled back to Austin. Their perspective was far too progressive and kinky. One of my own stories was among the final straws for management. I sent five drag queens to the paper to be photographed. The sight of these caused a higher-up to have a fit of apoplexy and I decided to kill the story to help my editor out. Nonetheless, she was forced to leave.

Soon thereafter, I did my first stint as editor of Creative Loafing. After about a year at the Loaf, I followed the Texas folks to Houston where my former editor had taken over a magazine. Two years later, I returned and did another stint as CL's editor.

I'm telling you all this in part to establish that I have watched, from inside and outside, our local daily's fortunes rise and fall. I'm not even going into the period during the late-'80s when the New York Times' Bill Kovach was hired to turn the rag into a briefly strong paper. Lewis Grizzard, R.I.P., hated the Yankee editor, who was, like the Texas folks, eventually forced to resign. Then came Ron Martin, the wunderkind of editorial vapidity, and the paper was turned into a local copy of the USA Today he helped shape.

The AJC has continued downhill ever since, without the occasional rises in quality we used to see. It's one of the worst big city dailies in the country -- from its clueless front page to its grim "Faith and Values" section that had an interesting start, but was immediately castrated to become a vehicle of religious promotion. It is hard to believe that a paper that once published Ralph McGill now can't even find a coherent voice for its editorial pages. Reading those pages, which are loyal to the talk-show belief that every Neanderthal opinion deserves access to expression, is like listening to 10 different people on soapboxes simultaneously. The AJC stands for everything and nothing. It has no leadership voice.

Its latest effort to rescue itself from the deeper slide into the La Brea Tar Pit of dead media takes the form, basically, of a decrepit old man donning a teenager's clothes and chasing hot chicks. I'm referring to its new Thursday accessAtlanta section, an obvious attempt to court CL's readership by ripping off ideas whose depth the daily's editors don't understand. This has management at CL angry, but of course accessAtlanta is doomed. Imitation may be flattery, but a reflection never has the substance of that which it copies.

The thing is, the AJC's geezers should already know this. Back in the '70s, it did exactly the same thing. At that time, I was editor of The Atlanta Gazette, which was CL's competitor and at the time dominated the market. The AJC, alarmed by the Gazette's popularity, created a Saturday pull-out section that attempted to duplicate our arts and entertainment coverage while studiously avoiding our controversial political viewpoints. It was, and remains, too dimwitted to understand that it's the hard edge of controversy and the spirited writing that really distinguishes alternative media.

The section hung on for years but was eventually abandoned, its listings and reviews integrated into the main paper, with many moved to Friday in order to sell three-day subscriptions. Now, of course, with this new Thursday section, the emphasis will be on selling four-day subscriptions and driving traffic to its companion website.

Honestly, how clueless can you get? If the AJC wants to attract readers, it needs to do the obvious. It needs to hire good writers and publish reporting and essays of substance longer than 8 inches. Fat chance.

Cliff Bostock, M.A., is a doctoral candidate in depth psychology. His website is www.soulworks.net.

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