Wednesday, September 18, 2013

AJC staffers told that layoffs are possible

Posted By on Wed, Sep 18, 2013 at 9:37 AM

Staffers from metro regions largest daily paper have learned next years spending plan could be tight
  • Joeff Davis/CL File
  • Staffers from metro region's largest daily paper have learned that next year's spending plan could be tight
Atlanta Journal-Constitution staffers gathered on Monday and Tuesday in Dunwoody to hear from the paper's top brass.

Things have changed from several years back, when the metro region's largest daily newspaper was reportedly bleeding $1 million a week. According to several sources, Editor Kevin Riley, who's led the AJC for two years, told newsroom employees that the paper was on track to meeting its targets. A decision by parent company Cox Media Group in 2011 to centralize its newspapers' copy editing at the Dayton Daily News, one of the AJC's several sister papers, helped save some cash as well.

But next year's budget is expected to be more conservative. And it's possible that spending plan will need to be addressed with layoffs, followed in 2014 by a reorganization of the newsroom, which in the last six years has shrunk from approximately 500 budgeted positions to the current figure we've heard of around 180 full-time employees.

Staff buyouts, which the paper has used in the past few years to cut expenses, are not an option, Riley is said to have told employees. Previous voluntary buyouts by his predecessor Julia Wallace resulted in an exodus of talent, including some of the paper's veterans. (Here's a list of the 2007 and 2008 names.) It also included some younger workhorses who could have proven useful in a bare-bones news operation.

Riley, who responded to our request for comment yesterday from the airport, declined to confirm or deny specifics, citing in part the fact that he was about to jump on a plane. But he did say that he had discussions with the staff to be more transparent and keep them informed about the AJC's workings.

"Since I came to the newspaper, one of the things I've tried to do is be much more open with the staff about what's going on in our business, the news business, and the economy," he said. "They're smart people and I wanted them to know what's going on. And what's going on is pretty straightforward. We're in the season of doing business planning and that process has started. I wanted to let them know where we are with it and say, 'Hey, this might be a tough budget year,' so if we get in a spot where we need to reduce the staff they're not taken by surprise. This newspaper and this staff deserves to be treated that way." (From what we've heard, the staff appreciates Riley's approach and interest in staffers' ideas.)

As Riley said, budget planning is still underway, so it's not known how many pink slips would be delivered or to what departments. Or specifically when, though we've heard it could be around the end of the year. Or, as Riley said, if at all.

There's an inkling among some that the management structure, rather than the rank-and-file, will get a closer look this go-round. Some have said the paper's still structured as if there were 500 newsroom employees printing a publication that was delivered to 25 counties throughout North Georgia. That could mean fewer managers and more editors serving in a "coaching" capacity that includes writing duties. We've also heard that AJC higher-ups plan to visit other newsrooms across the country, including the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, New York Daily News, Boston Globe, and the Atlantic's Quartz, a business news site, to see how they've adapted.

But amid the firing, the paper will also be hiring. We're told that key positions considered vital to the paper's mission, including politics, investigative reports, and education, will get filled. Staffers who survive the cuts might receive new equipment, including phones, in addition to raises and bonuses.

The bigger question is whether whatever measures the paper decides to implement will be enough to help it continue to produce journalism while cash from print advertising drops faster than digital advertising revenues rise. We've seen no specifics on whether the myajc.com paywall that launched in April has been a success. Going digital-only would drastically cut the paper's expenses, but, like many newspapers, print ads remain its bread and butter. We're told that for the next five years at least, it's likely you'll see a paper version of the AJC seven days a week.

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