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The AJC's Mini-Me 

The daily imitates CL -- but not too well

A journalist visiting Atlanta a few weeks ago stopped by The Daily Newspaper of Dramatically Declining Circulation (hereinafter referred to as the AJC). When the scribe offhandedly made a laudatory remark about The Rapidly Growing Alternative Newspaper (aka Creative Loafing or, to save a little ink, CL), an AJC poobah sniffed that the alt-weekly was "free." That disparagement was meant to end discussion -- "free" equals "not worthy."

Later that day, the journalist, BBC's Greg Palast, would quip to an overflow crowd at Emory U that he found it a relief that CL was "free" because the AJC was obviously still "enslaved."

The crowd roared with delight. And all Atlantans -- at least those remaining few souls who for one reason or the other must clench their teeth and read the AJC -- are likely roaring in derision at the daily's pitiable excuse at competition aimed at CL.

Something -- it's not quite clear from the jumbled mess exactly what -- called accessAtlanta debuted April 24. I'm going to call the newsprint creature by the more apt name of Mini-Me. It is indeed a genetically flawed clone of CL, short on stature and with little to say.

(The only glitch with the Mini-Me analogy is that the Austin Powers flicks are crudely hilarious. The AJC boss-weenies would get the vapors at the thought of being crude, and the only humor they're capable of is a variation of Rodney Dangerfield -- the paper sure doesn't get any respect from the community, from journalism watchers or even from many of its own staff.)

Mini-Me is supposedly aimed at that elusive Holy Grail of the increasing-irrelevant daily press: the youth market. But the Mini-Me message to young readers apparently is: Our theory is that you're really stupid and gullible, so we think we can con you into believing that this warmed-over sack of pap is cool.

One senior AJCer (clearly not a Coxopoly loyalist) responded to my inquiries with a sigh: "The AJC features department is not run by people who are ever going to do anything creative or understand what young readers want. After all, you're talking about a paper that two Thursdays ago [April 10] had as its lead feature section story an article on kitchen wipes. Can you believe that, the fucking lead story? We're talking about really sad, inadequate people running the show."

Mini-Me is anchoring its arrival with "free" distribution. Gee, now they're copying what they criticized just the other day. It also will be crammed into the Thursday AJC, and a four-day subscription package will be offered.

A disillusioned AJCer opined: "Basically, we're telling readers, 'You know our paper sucks and we can't get you to buy it every day. But you might buy it four days.'"

What you haven't read in the AJC, and aren't likely to, is the background on Mini-Me, a tale of betrayal and abysmal lack of corporate ethics by the daily's masters at Cox Enterprises.

The first whiffs of Mini-Me began floating from the AJC in March. We were curious, and had a right to be. Two years ago, control of the CL group of weekly newspapers moved from Debby and Elton Eason, who had founded the CL/Atlanta in 1972, to their son, Ben. Ben already owned and ran the Weekly Planet, an alt-weekly in Tampa. The deal needed an equity partner, and Cox anted about $5 million for 25 percent. Those of us who long had been Ben Eason's cohorts were wary of the relationship. Two Coxites, newspaper division CEO Jay Smith and CFO Buddy Solomon, sat on our eight-person board, where they appeared to be congenially passive.

Little did we suspect the bonhomie was a ruse. Those we considered allies were really enemies. As our lawyer, Dave Snyder, expressed at an April board meeting when the Mini-Me deceit exploded, "When you invite a skunk into the parlor, you shouldn't be surprised when it starts to stink."

In March, Ben Eason had asked Smith if something was afoot. Smith, in an e-mail to Eason, disingenuously intoned: "Just as I do not disclose to the AJC what CL is doing, I don't feel I should share information the other way, either."

In corporate-speak, that's equivalent to Bill Clinton dissembling: "I never had sexual relations with that woman." Smith is parsing the difference between degrees of corporate underhandedness -- just as Clinton did with blowjobs and full-fledged screwing. I don't know if Smith and Solomon looted our corporate secrets in planning Mini-Me. They didn't need to. What they got was a two-year education on alternative newspapers and a proprietary peek on our strategy in Atlanta, and that is clearly evident in the AJC's underachieving attempt at coolness and edginess.

At CL, we no longer trust Smith and Solomon, and we've taken steps to insulate knowledge about Atlanta's CL from them. "This action has exposed [Smith and Solomon] to charges of conflict of interest and the appearance of bad faith and ethics," Ben Eason says. "We intend to wage this war with everything we have."

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