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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

AJC's Julia Wallace: 'We're doing the things we need to be doing'

In the morning, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Editor Julia Wallace announced the second round of newsroom cuts in a little over a year at the daily. In the afternoon, she struck a somewhat optimistic tone about the paper's future.

“I don’t think the editorial mission changes," Wallace said in an interview with Fresh Loaf. "I think that we have some opportunities and it’s incumbent on us to take advantage of those."

Wallace says the paper's overall readership is up — when you count online views — to reaching 2.2 million each week. But she also acknowledges that it'll be tough to do the same amount of work with a staff that'll be down to 350 from around 500 a little over a year ago.

The interview follows after the jump, but first some highlights:

* Wallace explained that the changes announced today aren't exactly the much-ballyhooed "AJC 2.0" reinvention and redesign of the paper. That may not come until February, when the paper's new press comes online. But the tough economy and rising gas prices forced the paper to take some steps talked about as part of 2.0 — like eliminating zoned sections — before the whole project was implemented.

* The "Enterprise" desk run until last month by Pulitzer Prize winner and former managing editor Hank Klibanoff will be merged into the "News & Information" desk. That puts a new spin on Klibanoff's announcement just three weeks ago that he was leaving the paper. Wallace would only say that Klibanoff made a "personal decision" and added that he didn't even know what the newsroom's structure would be at the time he left. I'll try to reach Hank for a comment.

* While Wallace wouldn't put it this way, it seems clear that the paper will be able to dedicate fewer resources to deep, longterm investigations — concentrating instead on trying to dig into breaking stories. You'll see her explanation of that in her answer to my question about the Enterprise desk.

* The elimination of the Sunday @issue section appears likely (my word, not hers) because — Wallace says — @issue hasn't faired well in reader and advertiser surveys. It's unclear whether @issue would be nixed, if it is nixed, in February or earlier, but it's not happening in this round of changes.

* Layoffs will begin after July 31, if not enough full-time staff members agree to a buyout. The newsroom must reduce its budgeted staff by 85 people, but 28 of those slots already are open because of attrition. (The paper says another 104 jobs will be eliminated in the sales department.)

* Wallace also took issue with a previous post of mine. Contrary to what some employees were fearing, she said buyout terms for departing employees are precisely the same as those offered last year, except this time they're open to staffers under 55, as long as they have five years with the company. Some people may have been confused because employees over 55 also were able to take advantage of retirement benefits. And this time layoffs will come if not enough staff members take the buyouts.

In the transcript below, my rambling questions are paraphrased but Wallace's quotes are pretty much verbatim:

Hard day, huh?

“We’re in the middle of transformation. There are tough choices that we’ve had to make but it’s something we’ve known about, we’ve been dealing with and working through. It’s obviously compounded by a very difficult economy and some significant increases in specific costs. But we made some tough choices today. There’s no doubt about it.”

How does the editorial mission change?

“I don’t think the editorial mission changes. I think that we have some opportunities and it’s incumbent on us to take advantage of those. With the ending of the zoned sections, we really need to make sure that in the live sections — in sections like Metro and Living and Business and Sports — that we are doing a good job of covering all of the community. And that’s an opportunity for us and a challenge for us, to ensure that there’s some great work done in those counties, and we need to continue to do that.”

But obviously you’re working with fewer resources. So there must be some things you can’t do.

“When we did the first cut [last year], I think the big differences were in layers and fewer editors. The actually number of reporters didn’t go down much. Probably the biggest change was in becoming more local and giving up [in the] national features and sports areas. This time, it is products that are going away. And so there’s actual work that goes away that’s related to that. But it’s a great staff, and we’re really committed to working hard to serve this community as well as we can. One of the things I’m really proud of is we went from, I can’t remember, from 500 to 435, depending when you start the clock, and you look at what we accomplished, with less people, and we grew digital by double what we’d been growing it before and I think print really was able to sustain itself despite a smaller staff and in some ways I think we improved it. So I feel really good about what we’ve been able to do so far, and think that the staff will be able to carry us through this next last round."

The restructuring in 2007 was a fairly radical idea, but it seems as if that’s going out the window at this point, at least at this point. Is that by design?

“I don’t think it is going out the window. The basic concept was that people are [generating] content and they’re writing for different platforms. And so if you’re writing for print, it’s going to people who are specialists in print — making that happen. If you’re writing for digital, it’s going that way, and you have experts at digital. That part maintains. The part that changes is the original idea was two content departments instead of one. Ultimately when we looked at a couple of things, we decided to re-evaluate that. One is that we've done a lot of work on the Sunday paper and what readers want , and I think we have a better idea of that. They want more enterprise, they want more watchdog, but they want it newsier. And they want specific kinds of work and specific topics. And so that was one piece of it. The second piece of it was a smaller staff. We said, 'Does it really make sense to have the complexity of another department to do it?' And we said, 'No.' But that still remains. That work still is really critical to us. And so it’ll be moving that work and defining it better based on what we know from 2.0 into one department."

Hank Klibanoff left just last week. This certainly makes it seem, his departure was about the elimination of his Enterprise desk, doesn't it?

“He made that decision as a personal decision. He didn’t know all the details of what was going to happen."

But y'all must have decided on the structure by the time he left?

“He made his decision as a personal decision."

The actual staffing numbers?

[Currently, budgeted for 435, staffers; have 408 positions filled, plus another resigned today, so it’s 407; must reduce to 350.]

One of the things I was hearing was that if you took the buyout last year, you’d be in better shape.

“The difference is we’re offering it to a lot more people. We’re offering it to anybody with five years of Cox experience”

Rather than they have to be 55 years old like last year?

“At 55 years, you can retire so I guess that gives you an advantage – that type of thing … and it’s pretty much the offer that’s been throughout the organization."

What's the basic buyout deal?

“Two weeks pay and benefits continuation for every year of Cox service up to 52 weeks of pay

Any takers yet?

[Laughs] “We just handed out the packets."

If you don't get to 350 by July 31, then you have to do layoffs?

"Uh-huh."

Let me jump back to what you were saying about Enterprise and investigation. What you do you mean by "newsier?"

“A good example is the work we did on CRCT [public school testing]. You know a story breaks, and you’re sort of quickly lifting up the hood and figuring out what’s underneath. An example would be [former U.S. Rep.] Bob Barr announces [his Libertarian candidacy for president], and we’re quickly sort of turning around and taking a look at, so: ‘What is this about his PAC?’ I think we’ve had some great examples of aggressive newsy coverage. People are really interested in bad politicians. They’re interested in education. It was one of the interesting findings [of reader research], how much they want us to investigate the education process. So it’s much more sort of tied to what’s happening. That’s what I’m talking about."

As opposed to longterm investigations that might take six months or a year?

“We would still do those — just like you do them — if the content's worth it. I mean let’s make sure on what we’re getting out of this. My sort of perfect example of this is [the paper's ongoing coverage of the state's mental health system], where we began and we just kept getting more and more tips, until we kept digging and digging. The reporters there have spent a lot of time on it, but it was really because they kept finding new leads versus let me go off for a year and look at the mental health system."

And they’ve done a great job.

“Haven’t they. I’m so proud of that work. It’s really been spectacular work."

Is this AJC 2.0?

“No. No! 2.0 is about Sunday, and it obviously gives us insight into the daily — into what readers want. This was about two things. There was a daily simplification process, that took a look at the economics of all these daily sections. And it was also the result of all the economic changes upon us. Once these two things came together, I said, 'Well if I’m going to do some things, I might as well deal with 2.0 now instead later, so that we’re not going back.' 2.0 it’s not – we have a bunch of information, we’ve shared a bunch with the staff, but we haven’t gone through the final review process of exactly what that’s going to be. A lot of it we can’t do until the presses come on in February, so it’s got some time before it’s launched."

Long time coming. What exactly is AJC 2.0?

“The background was: We came out of some strategy work, and said the paper is going to be more and more for certain readers who love print, and that online is increasingly going to be the place where younger readers, and out of that we said we have to grow digital faster than we have been, and we have to reinvent print so it serves our most loyal reader. Then there was some work done that said if that’s true our greatest opportunity is on Sunday, and let’s really put our effort into making Sunday what we can and then sort of say what does that tell us about daily – but really put significant effort into Sunday, it’s the day that we have the most readers, the day we have the most advertisers, and let’s see what we can focus on on Sunday. So there was then a process that took a look at what do readers want, and what do advertisers and what are the press opportunities with the new presses for Sunday. And we did a lot of work. We talked to 3,500 people – advertisers, readers – I mean: 'What do you want. What’s going to work for you?'"

How many people?

"3,500. We’ve done scientific surveys. We’ve done focus groups. We have an online focus group – you know a lot of outreach to understand what people want. Basically what we heard is people want us to be a newspaper. They want it very newsy. They have a high expectation on watchdog news. They want us to be local. They want that national and international mix, so they can go to one place and be efficient about it but they depend on us for local news and expect that. And I think they expect us to be a major metro at a pretty high level. When you get into these meeting as with them, they’re not saying ‘Oh, I need to know if that traffic light on my corner is going out.’ They’re expectations are sort of major metro expectations for us. They want good pacing. They want short. They want long. But they want to make sure that if it’s long, it’s worth it. They want differing forms. They want Q & As and pros and cons. We’ve tried a bunch of different forms with them that have been very popular. ... It’s a redesign that we’ve worked with a designer out of Montreal on that is very focused on making it easy to navigate and find what you want, and it’s gotten rave reviews."

Name of designer?

"Lucy Lacava."

All seven days to be redesigned?

“This is the part I haven’t quite figured out yet: Will we phase it in or do we do all it at once, because we have to wait for the presses, and that’s something we don’t know. ... The press will be operational in February

I've been told that there's been talk about eliminating the Monday paper.

“News to me."

What about the @issue section?

“Here’s the deal with @issue. We’ve looked at what sections are most important to readers if we need to collapse sections. We did two tests with readers. We did of Business versus @issue. And in several different tests Business did substantially better with readers than did @issue. We also looked at three feature sections, two feature sections or one feature section for Sunday. The general view was that they liked three better, but it wasn’t nearly as overwhelming as Business vs. @issue."

Where does that leave you?

“Once we get to the final phase, we’ll know. We haven’t gotten there yet."

That doesn’t sound like it bodes well for @issue.

“No. I cannot predict the future. We have not made a decision yet

“Let me just say one more thing. Everybody is somewhat fascinated with the covering the troubles of newspapers, but all media’s going through significant changes — you know better than I do. And we are in the middle of transformation. We’re still one of the most viewed local websites in the country. We reach 2.2 million readers weekly in print and online. The last Scarborough [readership survey] numbers were great … We actually had growth in print, which none of use were expecting. So we are clearly going through change. There is no doubt about that. But we think we’re doing the things we need to be doing to get to where we need to go."

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