'Burbs or bust 

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has left Atlanta – literally and figuratively – in its quest for suburban readers

THE AJC HAS LEFT THE BUILDING: In April, Atlanta's daily newspaper moved from its longtime home at 72 Marietta St. to an office building in Dunwoody.

Tara-Lynne Pixley

THE AJC HAS LEFT THE BUILDING: In April, Atlanta's daily newspaper moved from its longtime home at 72 Marietta St. to an office building in Dunwoody.

One Sunday in mid-2006, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution arts writer posed a bit of a loaded question in the paper's culture section — one that seemed benign enough at the time, but now serves as a prime example of what a different creature the city's daily newspaper has become: Would the Atlanta Opera enjoy success in its new home, the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre?

The city's 27-year-old opera company had just announced its move out of downtown Atlanta and into a venue still under construction in, as the story put it, "an area of unincorporated Cobb between Smyrna and Vinings known as 'Sminings.'"

The article's subtext — at least as perceived by affronted Cobb Countians — was disdainful, something along the lines of, Could an organization representing the pinnacle of cultural sophistication maintain its urbanity in the wilds of the suburbs?

An imagined cover of the AJC following its move to Dunwoody - STAFF PHOTO ILLUSTRATION

Taking his own paper — and intown snobbishness — to task, AJC editorial columnist Mike King responded with a piece entitled, "Cobb's not the boondocks, OK?"

The umbrage was not unjustified. The opera feature was arguably rife with implied condescension toward suburbia, invoking the image of a "generic strip mall" in its opening sentence. The story dropped references to sprawl (a soon-to-be banned word at the AJC — seriously), gridlock and even the county's notorious anti-gay resolution of a decade earlier — and ended by pointing out that the Cobb Energy Centre is a solid 11 miles from downtown Atlanta.

It's safe to say your chances of reading such an article in the AJC these days are somewhat more slim than seeing Clark Howard tooling around Buckhead in a Ferrari convertible with carbon-fiber rims.

The past three years have been a schizophrenic and often depressing ride for Atlanta's daily paper. As subscriptions and advertising revenue plummeted for most dailies, the AJC cut its newsroom by more than half, stopped distributing in most Georgia counties, closed its suburban news bureaus, disbanded its editorial board, discontinued its daily business section, launched complete redesigns of the weekday and Sunday papers, and reorganized its editorial staff at least four different times.

Also during this crisis, the newspaper has altered editorial course seemingly every few months — wooing younger readers with pop-culture tidbits, seeking older readers with parenting tips, bringing in Neal Boortz to appeal to angry white guys, etc. — all in a desperate bid to persuade folks not to cancel their subscriptions.

And then, it seems, the paper finally settled on an identity. The transformation became symbolically complete this April, when the paper moved its newsroom and offices out of downtown Atlanta (its home for more than 130 years) and relocated to a six-story office building in Dunwoody across the street from Perimeter Mall — a solid 15 miles away and smack-dab in the middle of the most affluent of OTP communities.

Decamping for the suburbs was only the most visible sign of the AJC's current strategy for long-term survival in an age of print-journalism decay. It's a strategy that calls for the AJC to effectively transform itself into the hometown paper not for a booming urban metropolis but, rather, for Atlanta's more homogenous, conservative northern neighbors.

"The majority of the population lives up here and we need to do a better job of serving them," explains AJC Editor Julia Wallace in a recent interview with CL. "The people in the city were pretty satisfied with our coverage of community news, but people in Cobb, Gwinnett and North Fulton were not."

To satisfy suburban readers, the paper intends to give them what AJC's honchos believe they want: plenty of intensely local news, certainly, but also coverage of issues they care about, reported in a way that reflects their values — including their politics.

To catch the eyes of Northside conservatives, the paper has ratcheted up coverage of such issues as illegal immigration, government waste and that old standby, taxes.

Last month, the paper ran a boosterish, 1,200-word feature about the Johns Creek Symphony Orchestra — a three-year-old group that performs in the local high school auditorium and lacks enough musicians to tackle a Beethoven symphony — with nary a snide reference to soccer moms or McMansions.

Just last week, the AJC doubled the size of its Community News section — the repository for news briefs from across the metro area — from one full page to two to accommodate more coverage of Gwinnett and Cobb. (The areas with the least amount of ink devoted to community news? Atlanta.)

And, by an internal decree that smacks of editorial sycophancy, reporters are now forbidden from using the word "sprawl" and other terms that seem to cast judgment on the suburban way of life. The paper has even appointed a "bias editor" to ferret out even the unwitting inclusion of a turn of phrase that might cause offense to Northside readers.

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