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Monday, August 4, 2008

AJC loses well-known bylines; Bisher may keep column

Furman Bisher, the dean of America's newspaper sports columnists, appears on a stunning list of talent set to leave the AJC staff voluntarily as part of the daily's downsizing.

Unlike others on the list, Bisher actually may continue to produce work for the paper. There was talk inside the newsroom about him staying on as a contracted columnist rather than an employee.

But colleagues were able to confirm the names of more than two dozen other journalists who'll be leaving the paper over the next few months — most at the end of August. A handful are relatively young talents; most are newsroom veterans who represent whole blocks of the AJC's institutional knowledge.

Among them: film reviewer Bob Longino, investigations editor Jim Walls, and a slew of familiar bylines responsible for some of the paper's best work over the last two or three decades. Opinion column editor David Beasley also appears on lists circulating among newsroom staffers, but colleagues I contacted weren't sure whether he did take the paper's buyout offer. (UPDATE: Beasley confirmed this morning that he's taking the buyout.)

Talking Biz News reported last week that another high-profile columnist, Maria Saporta, was accepting the buyout. Her thrice-weekly column has been the AJC's most consistent link to the business and civic communities since the 1980s.

But, should the list circulating among newsroom staff be accurate, Bisher, 89, would be by far the longest term employee to leave a staff position. He started with the old Atlanta Constitution in 195o, after spending time as a sports writer and editor in North Carolina. He reputedly was the last journalist to interview banned baseball great "Shoeless" Joe Jackson and, for the Atlanta papers, he's covered every Super Bowl except for the first one.

While Bisher generally doesn't come into the office, his column currently appears twice a week. It's unclear how frequently he'd write under a contractual arrangement. Bisher himself couldn't be reached for comment, and an AJC spokeswoman wouldn't confirm his status.

The departures are part of an 8 percent workforce reduction announced two weeks ago by Publisher John Mellott. On Friday, Editor Julia Wallace told the editorial staff that 73 of their colleagues had accepted buyouts. In a sense, that was good news because it meant the editorial department would avoid layoffs.

"It's really emotional," said one employee who's leaving. "They really compressed the time we had to make this decision. I don't know a lot of people who really feel great right now."

According to sources who said they had direct knowledge, the familiar bylines taking the buyout include golf writer Stan Awtrey, college football editor Tony Barnhart, city and regional editor Arthur Brice, high school sports writer Curtis Bunn, real estate (and former government) reporter Julie Hairston, investigative reporter Ann Hardie, veteran reporter Bill Hendrick, news feature writer Michelle Hiskey, "Technobuddy" columnist Bill Husted, higher ed reporter Andrea Jones, film reviewer Longino, Gwinnett reporter Rebecca McCarthy, Cobb reporter Tom Opdyke, Horizon reporter David Pendered and Saporta.

Veteran staff members appeared particularly concerned about the impending departure of longtime editor Walls, who as a leader on the enterprise desk oversaw some of the paper's most notable investigations, including recent revelations of financial shenanigans at the Cobb Electric Membership Cooperative.

Other editors who are leaving include senior business and state government editor Kathy Brister, auto editor Rob Douthit, Gwinnett editor Susan Gast, North Fulton bureau chief Glenn Hannigan, travel editor Amanda Miller, copy editor Jill Miller; food and health editor Susan Puckett, photo editor Minla Shields and Homefinder editor Susan Wells.

Walter Cumming, a longtime staff artist, is among those said to be leaving, as are photographers Andy Sharp, Chris Hunt, Renee Hannans and Frank Niemeir.

More names were on the lists circulated by staff members, but — other than Beasley and Bisher — I've only included the names of people whom colleagues were certain were taking the buyout. (We'll try to update.)

The newsroom lost another high-ranking member shortly before the buyout plan was announced, when former managing editor and Pulitzer Prize winning author Hank Klibanoff announced he was leaving.

One employee said remaining staff members found themselves "looking at the loss of bodies and saying, 'Who's going to get all this work done?'" Meanwhile, departing employees, many of whom spent the bulk of their careers at the AJC, were leaving ambivalently. "All the people who are leaving wish they were staying; all the people who are staying wish they were leaving."

In the workforce reduction plan announced last month, the paper's sales department was to lose 104 positions. I was unable to get details on the outcome of the buyout offer there.

Editorial was set to lose 85 positions. With 27 open slots and 73 newsroom staffers who've accepted the buyout, however, the department apparently will be cut by 100 positions. That brings the newsroom staff down from approximately 500 budgeted positions just 14 months ago to 335 people once the staff reductions are complete in the fall.

Several lists of departing staff members were circulating in the AJC newsroom Friday — one day after a deadline for staff members to apply for the buyout. But departing employees were hesitant to speak on the record because, to receive the buyout, they were required to sign an agreement not to make any "disparaging or untrue statements" about the paper.

The buyout terms allow qualifying employees to receive two weeks' pay and benefits for each year employed by the AJC or another Cox Enterprises company.

More high-profile staff members didn't leave because they were barred from the buyout "essential" employees, according to one staff member. Because they were identified by job type, it's unclear who was in that category, although one "essential" employee — "cartoonist" — was a dead giveaway. In other words, it was foregone conclusion that Pulitzer Prize winner Mike Lukovich would stay at the paper.

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