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Old media meets new realities at the AJC

When the Godfather of Soul died suddenly on Christmas morning in a Midtown hospital suite, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newsroom jumped into action. By the next day's edition, writers hastily pulled off vacation had turned around a quartet of articles on James Brown: a short feature about his musical legacy, a longer career overview, a piece on the reaction to his death and a reworked wire story recalling Brown's final Atlanta concert.

Reporters were dispatched to Augusta over the next few days to interview Brown's friends and neighbors, and to Harlem's Apollo Theater for his casket viewing. By week's end, the paper had run stories about plans for Brown's funeral, features quoting his fans and listing his classic albums, and a mean-spirited guest editorial by ex-99X jock Jimmy Baron effectively labeling the late Soul Brother No. 1 a thug.

Even after an end-of-December funeral, the coverage continued, running mostly in the Metro section. Staff-written articles provided frequent updates on the confused state of the Brown estate, whether he'd been legally married and when, oh, when he might actually be buried.

Over the nearly three months between the singer's untimely death and eventual interment, the AJC could rightly say, in journalism parlance, that it owned James Brown coverage. That's a good thing. But Editor Julia Wallace now has doubts about how her organization made use of that ownership. It's likely, she suggests, that the AJC overdid it a little – at least on paper.

"We served our online readers well, but I'm not sure we served our print readers well," she says. "Our Online Department couldn't get enough James Brown, but I would argue that our print readers didn't need every little development recapped a day later."

Wallace's concerns over the Brown coverage are part of a larger problem we'll call the digital riddle: How can a daily metropolitan print newspaper maintain its relevance while shifting resources to appeal to a readership that increasingly prefers to get its news and information online?

The AJC isn't the only paper trying to answer that question. In response to ever-sliding circulation numbers – and the resulting corporate pressure to shore up the bottom line – Wallace is the latest big-city editor to oversee sizable staff cuts and a substantial makeover of her company's approach to news coverage.

Perhaps you've heard something about this.

Movie critic Eleanor Ringel Gillespie. Political writer Tom Baxter. Star investigative reporter Jane Hansen. Pulitzer-winning science reporter Mike Toner. These are some of the marquee bylines that vanished from the paper July 1, when a large-scale buyout, combined with attrition, cleared out somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 reporters and editors from what Wallace says had been a news force of close to 500.

Along the way, at least half the remaining staff had to reapply for their jobs or seek new assignments, a directive that created opportunities for some but caused much angst among longtime reporters worried about getting stuck with a crummy gig. In turn, the lack of information surrounding the staff reshuffling sparked concerns among readers, particularly in the Atlanta arts community, that local coverage would suffer.

The newsroom population is only part of the picture. With daily newspaper circulation in a slow-motion plunge across the country, the AJC is struggling to transform itself from a lumbering print-media dinosaur into a nimble multiplatform information provider able to reach customers in print, online, by mobile download – however future generations will get their news.

To meet such challenges, the AJC has thrown out traditional news departments in favor of a radical restructuring that assigns new priority to website needs. And, as part of an effort to serve the older readers who form the core print audience, Wallace pledges the refocused newspaper will – despite its smaller staff – somehow provide more substantive, better-written and more aggressive local coverage.

On the rapidly shifting media landscape, however, there are no firm guarantees. Even if the AJC lives up to Wallace's bold promise, it's uncertain that strong content will be enough to ensure the vitality of Atlanta's daily newspaper.

MONTHS BEFORE WALLACE told the staff about plans for a newsroom reshuffling last February, corporate brass had been dropping tantalizing hints about the paper's future.

When Jay Smith, president of Cox Newspapers, announced at an October meeting of the Atlanta Press Club that the "all-purpose, one-size-fits-all newspaper is obsolete," it was clear he was talking about Cox's flagship daily. And AJC Publisher John Mellott perked up local ears when he allowed that the paper would soon concentrate on writing for "settled adults."

No one has a more direct hand in the transformation than Hank Klibanoff, one of four managing editors under the new structure. "We're not chasing the young and teenage reader anymore by doing more stories about the Drive-By Truckers," he says. "But there probably is a really good story that could be done about the Drive-By Truckers that would appeal to our audience."

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