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AJC overhaul 

Newspaper aims for older demographic, will seek Gen X through online content

If you're reading this sentence off a sheet of newsprint instead of a computer or cell-phone screen, then you're just the type of graying, liver-spotted, brittle-hipped audience that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution plans to target with its reinvented newspaper.

For several years now, Editor Julia Wallace and her fellow newsroom bigwigs have been declaring that the AJC was no longer in the newspaper business, but in the information business.

Last week, they put their money where their mantra was by formally announcing the start of an overhaul effort that's expected to funnel breaking news and youth-oriented content to the Internet, while reserving the print version for investigative news and long-form feature stories for older, more educated readers.

The announcement comes on the heels of significant circulation decline. Last year, the AJC's paid weekday circulation fell to 365,000, representing a 6.7-percent drop, the third-worst decline among major newspapers. In 2005, the paper had an 8.73-percent plunge in readership, a decline second only to the San Francisco Chronicle among major U.S. newspapers.

The nearly 500 reporters, editors, photographers and designers who crowded into a secured Omni Hotel ballroom for a hastily called company-wide editorial meeting last Thursday didn't get many firm details.

But for those who've been following public pronouncements by such muckety-mucks as Cox Newspapers President Jay Smith, it wasn't difficult to read between the lines.

In a speech last fall to the Atlanta Press Club, Smith declared that the "all-purpose, one-size-fits-all newspaper is obsolete" in an era of technological partitioning, when younger readers are increasingly looking to websites, blogs and "The Daily Show" for their news updates.

The AJC is only the latest big-city newspaper to try to find the magic balance between print and online, notes Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute who says he's spoken with both Wallace and Smith about their vision for the company.

"This kind of transition to do more breaking news online is pretty consistent with other metropolitan papers," says Edmonds, who explains that the idea is to give up the fight to lure easily distracted Generation Xboxers to the newsstand.

Instead, the print version of the AJC will likely focus its attention on longer, more in-depth, magazine-style articles that primarily appeal to mature readers.

Wallace did not respond to an interview request. But she and AJC Publisher John Mellott were clear in their staff presentation last week that the online version of the newspaper is being placed on equal footing with print. The impression among staffers CL spoke with was that some of them may end up writing online-only articles to keep pace with the 24/7 news cycle of the Internet.

Among the concrete changes that were announced are voluntary retirement deals for up to 80 senior reporters and editors, a sharp reduction in the number of outlying counties where the AJC is distributed, the demise of several suburban editions and a wholesale reorganization of the newsroom bureaucracy.

The AJC's downsizing is less draconian than some of the forced layoffs that have taken place at other large newspapers in recent years, Edmonds says, and may be intended to serve a purpose beyond cost-cutting.

"There might be an agenda to get a slightly younger staff," he says, who are more tech-savvy than more experienced colleagues. However, it also could serve to erase much of the paper's institutional knowledge.

The AJC has already moved to diversify its local media holdings by buying up such specialty publications as Skirt! and Mundo Hispánico, and even made an ill-fated foray into the alternative press with a since-aborted investment in Creative Loafing. Online, Cox has launched Kudzu.com, a local business search engine, and, of course, the AJC's AccessAtlanta.com is one of the most-visited websites in Georgia.

Despite the unanswered questions and areas of uncertainty, the majority of newspaper staffers CL talked to seem cautiously upbeat, and some even hopeful, about their new roles in the remodeled AJC. Readers must wait until later this year to see if their own optimism will be rewarded.

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