This past Monday, AJC staffers were informed about the sudden "retirement" of their boss, publisher John Mellott. Perhaps the first question that popped into everyone's mind was, Who retires at 51?
On Wednesday, during the newspaper's quarterly staff meeting, employees got to meet the new publisher, one Doug Franklin, who has years of experience as a veteran newspaper executive. (Mellott, by contrast, had previously run another Cox subsidiary, Dent Wizard.)
They were told that the bottom had fallen out of the embattled paper's revenues sometime around October, which served to confirm the widely held suspicion that Mellott had been pushed out.
Franklin also told the assembled crowd that the AJC is currently losing about $1 million every week.
From what I understand, that little news flash got everybody's attention.
These are tough times to be in this business and the AJC isn't alone in its predicament. Hearst announced last June that the San Francisco Chronicle, one of the chain's most storied and most respected papers, was losing $1 million a week and counting. Earlier this month, Hearst said it would close down another major daily, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, unless it could find a buyer in the next two months.
Given the size of the fiscal crisis facing the AJC and other big-city papers, it seems unlikely that another round of staff cuts would stem the flow of red ink. The only move big enough to make a real difference at this point would be to do away with home delivery or stop publishing a print edition on money-losing days. Last month, the Detroit Free Press announced it would discontinue home delivery except on Thursday, Friday and Sunday.
It's been rumored for months that Cox executives are looking at eliminating at least the Monday print edition. AJC honchos have previously told staff they are evaluating daily revenue figures, but a newspaper spokesperson told me that cutting back on print days isn't under consideration at this time.
Cox put most of its newspaper chain — more than a dozen dailies and two dozen weeklies — up for sale over the summer. None have been sold yet. Also last year, the company laid off 300 employees at the Palm Beach Post, one of its three flagship papers, including about half of the newsroom. The guy who pulled the trigger? That'd be one Doug Franklin, who was then that paper's publisher.
What's next for the AJC? I'm not convinced that anyone — even Cox Newspapers capo di tutti capi Jay Smith — has the answer to that question. The situation puts me in mind of the scene in Citizen Kane in which someone complains that Kane's newspaper is losing money. Kane's answer: "You're right, I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars next year. You know, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I'll have to close this place in ... 60 years"
The AJC is owned by a private trust, but ultimately controlled by family scion Anne Cox Chambers, a charter member of Forbes' "Richest People in America." The story goes that Cox bean-counters are afraid to suggest to the company matriarch that they want to shit-can her hometown paper, the one her daddy bought back in '39. But even with a reported $13 billion in assets, how long will Cox Chambers, who's pushing 90, want to float the family newspaper in its present form?
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