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Monday, April 27, 2009

AJC: A more colorful tomorrow!

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Tomorrow's a big day for the AJC, which is launching its much-vaunted redesign with Tuesday's print edition. An editor who sat on a redesign committee told me the paper would look more "featury," with color-coded sections, smaller photos, lots of front-page headlines and fewer graphics (which is good, seeing as the AJC laid off its graphics department).

Using smaller photos seems somewhat counterintuitive if your aim to grab readers' attention — which, at the struggling daily, is very much the aim — but I'm told that virtually every element of the redesign is the product of exhaustive focus-group research. Apparently, readers also said they wanted more headlines on the front page, even if most of those stories jumped to an inside page. This is the antithesis of the famous USA Today design model, which mandates that only the lead story can jump. As you can see from the mock-up above, stories will also be set off by colored boxes.

If you want a closer look at some of the changes, visit the AJC's marketing website. If you're a graphics obsessive, check out this blog, which walks you through the various stages in the redesign process. If you'd like to have a top editor explain why you're going to love the redesign, read the AJC management blog. If you yearn to read a veteran Atlanta journalist's scathing criticism of the AJC's efforts to boost readership with bright colors, go here. Or you can simply wait for tomorrow's paper to land on your doorstep.

To some of the lower-tier editors, however, the redesign seems poorly timed, coming just a week after the most sweeping newsroom reshuffling in memory. Half the staff is just starting to figure out how to do an unfamiliar job and now they're going to have to deal with an overhauled print design as well.

On the other hand, the sense of urgency is understandable. Over the weekend, the Audit Bureau of Circulations released its latest figures and the AJC has again been singled out for poor performance. Among the top 25 dailies, the AJC's 20-percent plunge in daily circulation was second only to the The New York Post, which fell by 20.5 points. Sunday circulation at the AJC suffered a 7-percent drop, which was better than most.

The AJC immediately ran an un-bylined story in its business section that sought to explain the decrease:

Bob Eickhoff, senior vice president of operations, said the declines stem largely from moves to boost efficiency and cut costs amid the revenue slide squeezing the newspaper industry.

The AJC cut its distribution area from 74 to 49 counties in mid-2008, and to 27 counties this winter. Another cut, to 20 counties, happens this month. The paper is reducing its footprint in outlying counties to cut cost while continuing to focus on its core metro Atlanta distribution area.

All this may be true and, certainly, it's a factor. But it's also true that nearly every major daily across the country has been scrambling to cut losses by trimming staff, bureaus, editions, sections and, in many cases, distribution area. Just about everyone's in the same boat, but, for whatever reason, the AJC's end seems to be sinking faster.

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