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The AJC's Mini-Me 

The daily imitates CL -- but not too well

A journalist visiting Atlanta a few weeks ago stopped by The Daily Newspaper of Dramatically Declining Circulation (hereinafter referred to as the AJC). When the scribe offhandedly made a laudatory remark about The Rapidly Growing Alternative Newspaper (aka Creative Loafing or, to save a little ink, CL), an AJC poobah sniffed that the alt-weekly was "free." That disparagement was meant to end discussion -- "free" equals "not worthy."

Later that day, the journalist, BBC's Greg Palast, would quip to an overflow crowd at Emory U that he found it a relief that CL was "free" because the AJC was obviously still "enslaved."

The crowd roared with delight. And all Atlantans -- at least those remaining few souls who for one reason or the other must clench their teeth and read the AJC -- are likely roaring in derision at the daily's pitiable excuse at competition aimed at CL.

Something -- it's not quite clear from the jumbled mess exactly what -- called accessAtlanta debuted April 24. I'm going to call the newsprint creature by the more apt name of Mini-Me. It is indeed a genetically flawed clone of CL, short on stature and with little to say.

(The only glitch with the Mini-Me analogy is that the Austin Powers flicks are crudely hilarious. The AJC boss-weenies would get the vapors at the thought of being crude, and the only humor they're capable of is a variation of Rodney Dangerfield -- the paper sure doesn't get any respect from the community, from journalism watchers or even from many of its own staff.)

Mini-Me is supposedly aimed at that elusive Holy Grail of the increasing-irrelevant daily press: the youth market. But the Mini-Me message to young readers apparently is: Our theory is that you're really stupid and gullible, so we think we can con you into believing that this warmed-over sack of pap is cool.

One senior AJCer (clearly not a Coxopoly loyalist) responded to my inquiries with a sigh: "The AJC features department is not run by people who are ever going to do anything creative or understand what young readers want. After all, you're talking about a paper that two Thursdays ago [April 10] had as its lead feature section story an article on kitchen wipes. Can you believe that, the fucking lead story? We're talking about really sad, inadequate people running the show."

Mini-Me is anchoring its arrival with "free" distribution. Gee, now they're copying what they criticized just the other day. It also will be crammed into the Thursday AJC, and a four-day subscription package will be offered.

A disillusioned AJCer opined: "Basically, we're telling readers, 'You know our paper sucks and we can't get you to buy it every day. But you might buy it four days.'"

What you haven't read in the AJC, and aren't likely to, is the background on Mini-Me, a tale of betrayal and abysmal lack of corporate ethics by the daily's masters at Cox Enterprises.

The first whiffs of Mini-Me began floating from the AJC in March. We were curious, and had a right to be. Two years ago, control of the CL group of weekly newspapers moved from Debby and Elton Eason, who had founded the CL/Atlanta in 1972, to their son, Ben. Ben already owned and ran the Weekly Planet, an alt-weekly in Tampa. The deal needed an equity partner, and Cox anted about $5 million for 25 percent. Those of us who long had been Ben Eason's cohorts were wary of the relationship. Two Coxites, newspaper division CEO Jay Smith and CFO Buddy Solomon, sat on our eight-person board, where they appeared to be congenially passive.

Little did we suspect the bonhomie was a ruse. Those we considered allies were really enemies. As our lawyer, Dave Snyder, expressed at an April board meeting when the Mini-Me deceit exploded, "When you invite a skunk into the parlor, you shouldn't be surprised when it starts to stink."

In March, Ben Eason had asked Smith if something was afoot. Smith, in an e-mail to Eason, disingenuously intoned: "Just as I do not disclose to the AJC what CL is doing, I don't feel I should share information the other way, either."

In corporate-speak, that's equivalent to Bill Clinton dissembling: "I never had sexual relations with that woman." Smith is parsing the difference between degrees of corporate underhandedness -- just as Clinton did with blowjobs and full-fledged screwing. I don't know if Smith and Solomon looted our corporate secrets in planning Mini-Me. They didn't need to. What they got was a two-year education on alternative newspapers and a proprietary peek on our strategy in Atlanta, and that is clearly evident in the AJC's underachieving attempt at coolness and edginess.

At CL, we no longer trust Smith and Solomon, and we've taken steps to insulate knowledge about Atlanta's CL from them. "This action has exposed [Smith and Solomon] to charges of conflict of interest and the appearance of bad faith and ethics," Ben Eason says. "We intend to wage this war with everything we have."

We discovered the knife in our back April 19 via the weekly column of AJC public relations editor Mike King. Now, keep in mind, Mikey is a real hoot. "Atlanta Mike" is to fearless "media reporting" what Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf -- you remember him, "Baghdad Bob," the Iraqi minister of information -- is to war reporting.

The AJC minister of information effused: "The creation of a Thursday special section devoted to entertainment and leisure activities is yet another evolution point for newspapers trying to keep pace with the lifestyle of readers." Interpreted: We're thrashing about and hoping our desperate attempts will stem a hemorrhaging readership.

I have to read the AJC. It goes with the turf. Many people don't have to suffer what I must go through on a daily basis -- and they don't. The numbers tell the story.

In 1990, the then Atlanta Constitution and Atlanta Journal had combined daily circulations of about 512,000. Today, the castrated combination called the AJC can scratch up a circulation of only 382,000, a decline in 13 years of 25 percent.

More devastating is comparing those figures to Atlanta's growth. In 1990, with a metro population of 2.5 million, one out of every five Atlantans ponied up the cash for the daily newspaper. Today, barely one in 10 of Atlanta's 3.7 million residents bother with the AJC. Not exactly a corporate success story.

Why the exodus of readers from the AJC? It might, just might, have something to do with the fact that the paper has jettisoned most of the red meat of journalism -- skeptical and investigative reporting -- and replaced it with fluff. What can you say about a newspaper that, as the AJC did, gives much more enthusiastic coverage to two shopping center openings than it did to the last Atlanta's mayor's race?

When it comes to arts and entertainment, the AJC's strategy has been to focus in a hopelessly fatuous way on A) the lowest common denominator, and B) some aging nerd's idea of what "the young people want." Mini-Me is a testament to that.

Mini-Me alternates between rip-offs of CL (its "Ask Godiva" column aspires to imitate our "Karma Cleanser") and anemic versions of what alternative papers have been providing for decades. Mini-Me lacks, of course, any of the news and commentary -- with their non-mainstream attitude -- that give CL and our brethren their souls.

A good question is why the AJC bothers. Answer: It's called monopoly.

The first time I reported on Cox stemmed from digging through old Federal Communications Commission documents. There is a tawdry incident from the 1960s that keeps popping up. Cox and Knight Newspapers (now Knight-Ridder) held the license for one of the large Miami TV stations. Both companies then owned newspapers in the city, and they wanted to protect their symbiotic hegemony over Miami media. As two-time Pulitzer winning Miami Herald reporter Gene Miller recounted last September, "illegal ex parte conversations between the Cox-Knight-owned TV station WCKT and the Federal Communications Commission ... raised havoc. Eventually the government pulled the license." Don't look for that history in the AJC.

In the early 1970s, Cox was one of several newspaper chains that, as I've previously reported in this column, bribed Richard Nixon with 1972 campaign endorsements in order to get anti-trust exemptions from the government.

Today, Cox and the other newspaper owners are fielding squadrons of big-money lobbyists (bad when they work for someone else, good but never-reported-on when they work for the publishers) to try and scuttle the final restraints on media consolidation. As an honest journalist, famed conservative columnist William Safire, wrote in January: You won't "find many newspaper chains assigning reporters to reveal the effect of media giantism on local coverage or cover the way publishers induce coverage-hungry politicians to loosen anti-trust restraints."

And, if you noticed that the AJC's coverage of the Iraq war is so sanitized that you might conclude the paper was reporting on a Boy Scout jamboree -- well, giving cover to George Bush's drive to empire is a transparent quid pro quo as the next round in media deregulation approaches.

Locally, having lost its market, a paper such as AJC might well fail -- if it had competition. In a way, it does. Bright, savvy people are now using the Internet to access the news they can't get from the mainstream American media. If you want to know what's really happening in Iraq or in Washington, you won't find it on Faux News or in the AJC.

And it's not just national and world affairs. In Atlanta, Cox isn't just the voice of the establishment. It is The Establishment. The elite and wealthy are protected on its pages. Don't look in the AJC for the news that Andy Young is on the board of a gold mining company accused of burying miners alive in Africa. And certainly don't seek reports that Cox matron Anne Cox Chambers' fortune shrunk by $1.8 billion last year.

So, to stop the newest drain of readers -- especially ones that trend young -- the scheme is Mini-Me. It's another lap in the race to monopoly. Cox has a history of eliminating media voices, even killing profitable newspapers it owns if the money is right.

Chambers and her billionaire sister would like an Atlanta totally beholden to the Coxopoly. It owns the largest TV station in town, the biggest radio station and a formidable website -- not to mention, regrettably, a quarter of us.

With Mini-Me, however, the AJC is hardly original. Dailies in Miami, Chicago and other cities have tried to cook up competition to the alternative weekly papers. None has been much of a success. Critics have scoffed at the bloodless, soulless creations. The authentic alternatives haven't suffered.

And, what's wonderfully ironic, Mini-Me is essentially an endorsement of CL and an indictment of the AJC. Ben Eason says, "If Rich's can buy an ad in their little [Mini-Me] for $2,000 and reach the young readers, why the hell should Rich's keep buying $15,000 ads in the daily each day to reach grandma and grandpa as well as the handful of young readers who still pick up the daily?" More important, why bother with Mini-Me's ersatz trendiness when Rich's -- and, much more important, readers -- can get the real thing with CL?

Mini-Me also makes our point that "free" isn't an issue if people pick up, read and use the paper -- as they do with CL.

So, zip it, Mini-Me. You're a fraud and your masters can't spell the word "ethics." We're free and you're still enslaved.

Senior Editor John Sugg owns stock in CL's parent company. "Yeah," Sugg says, "this column is self-serving as hell. You want to make something of it, huh?" He can be reached while letting the air out of Cox executives' tires, or at 404-614-1241 or at john.sugg@creativeloafing.com.

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