Newsroom musical chairs at the AJC 

AJC loses top talent and familiar names; many who stay will have to find new beats

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's long-anticipated editorial restructuring has turned out to be far more sweeping than nearly anyone outside the company's boardroom might have anticipated. Not only is the paper poised to lose a Who's Who of senior talent, but about half the remaining staff have been bounced from their current positions and forced to compete for newly created jobs or vacancies.

By most accounts, newsroom morale is lower than a snake's belly, with reports of open sobbing among the cubicles. According to employees we contacted, writers and editors are understandably worried about ending up with a thankless job – or none at all, despite corporate assurances that there'll be a place for everybody who remains.

Last week, AJC editor Julia Wallace sent out a memo listing about 40 senior staffers who'd accepted the paper's early-retirement buyout. Among the more familiar names on the roster:

Political reporter Tom Baxter

City Life editor Jingle Davis

News writer Mae Gentry

Film critic Eleanor Ringel Gillespie

Investigative reporter Jane Hansen

Fashion writer Marilyn Johnson

Government reporter Paul Kaplan

Investigative reporter Ron Martz

Crime reporter Bill Montgomery

Editorial writer David McNaughton

Human-interest reporter Bill Osinski

Travel writer Paula Crouch Thrasher

Science writer Mike Toner

Until Monday's announcement that editorial page editor Cynthia Tucker had won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, the outgoing Toner was the AJC's sole remaining writer with such an honor. Hansen had been a perennial finalist for her reporting on the state's shameful track record of protecting abused children.

Add to that list several marquee writers who simply decided it was time to jump ship, including former Baghdad correspondent Larry Kaplow, who joined Newsweek, and business reporter Walter Woods, who left to do real-estate marketing for GCI Group.

Two days after the list of buyouts, the newsroom received an even bigger shock in the form of a second "names in boxes" memo that listed which beats would stay under a newsroom restructuring. More importantly, it also conveys which jobs aren't going to be kept. About half the staff had their names "in the box." The rest are going to have to apply for new jobs within the newsroom and the fear is, of course, that if they don't receive a job, they'll be fired.

It was announced weeks ago that the small-county news bureaus would be closed. But last week, other staffers – many well-established – discovered their jobs weren't safe from what is now obviously a radical rethinking of the newspaper business in Atlanta. For example, the six-person Capitol bureau was cut in half, forcing even 28-year AJC vet Jim Galloway to reapply for a different position. The science/medical team that covers hospitals and the environment was whittled down from four beats to one.

The features department fared similarly, with the elimination of most critics' jobs, including those of visual-arts critic Cathy Fox and classical-music critic Pierre Ruhe. Under the new plan, there'll be one pop-music critic and a single film critic, instead of three, and the TV and radio reporters' beats will be merged.

In metro news, which covers such meat-and-potato beats as cops, courts and local government, many reporters will have additional responsibilities to take up the slack for jobs that have been cut or combined.

Staffers who didn't get bounced from their positions had until this past Monday to indicate whether they wanted to keep their current jobs or go for what's behind Door No. 2 – that is, to apply for an open post with no way to know for certain against whom they might be competing. That likely was a worthwhile gamble for those who don't like their current assignments, but others told CL they didn't want to risk ending up as a "mojo" (new-media slang for "mobile journalist") in the wilds of Gwinnett.

To ease the transition, the paper has offered in-house workshops to help staffers brush up on being on the receiving end of an interview, as well as meetings where managers tried (with varying degrees of success, we're told) to explain the duties associated with the dozens of newly created positions.

Most predictions hold that it will take months for the dust to settle in the AJC newsroom.

For additional information on the reporters who kept their current beats and those who have to reapply, plus a list of those who accepted buyouts, go to www.clfreshloaf.com.

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