To the amazement of my friends and the annoyance of my wife, I’ve once again renewed my subscription to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. In the last year it has re-emerged as a must-read. Its coverage of government and politics has been vigorous and top notch. The AJC has been enterprising and investigative. Because of the AJC, we know about
- the CRCT cheating scandal
- the DeKalb schools construction scandal that eventually cost the superintendent his job
- Governor-elect Nathan Deal’s strong-arming of the Department of Revenue to benefit his business, as well as his personal financial problems
- John Oxendine’s illegal campaign contributions, which he subsequently returned
- Gov. Perdue’s use of state resources and contacts to further his private business interests
… and the list goes on.
But the AJC has a curious bunker mentality that is unseemly for a re-emerging news organization. That mentality became glaringly evident when editor Julia Wallace blew off a scheduled interview with WABE radio last week.
It appeared to start this fall, when the Georgia Voice criticized the AJC for completely ignoring Pride in its print edition. Pride is a festival recognizing Atlanta’s gay community. Atlanta’s Pride celebration is one of America’s largest. (WXIA streamed the Pride parade on 11alive.com.)
Pride is a lot like the Peachtree Road Race. They’re both predictable festivals, but both draw tens of thousands of people to the city (and a lot of money) for a cultural happening. The AJC breathlessly covers the Peachtree Road Race (which it also sponsors) every year.
(True, the Peachtree Road Race is a competition, and the AJC covers that part of it as a sports story. But most of the newsprint spilled is about the cultural part of the event. Pride and the PRR are comparable in terms of size, impact and Atlanta-style flavor.)
It’s well documented that the AJC moved its office from downtown Atlanta to Dunwoody early this year. The AJC also announced it would stop endorsing candidates in elections. It began showcasing conservative commentators and cartoonists, and began deliberately muting its traditionally liberal viewpoint, to the point where it now employs a “bias” editor to weed out lefty tendencies.
In her blog last week, former AJC columnist Maria Saporta suggested that the AJC’s effort to win the hearts of potential suburban subscribers is a loser business-wise and conscience-wise.
“Turning its back on its core readers has been a devastating strategy. To the best of my knowledge, Atlanta Journal-Constitution has lost more readers in the past decade than any other major newspaper in the United States… So the AJC’s attempts to appeal to conservative, Republican suburbanites by alienating its urban readers is not paying off — to the detriment of Atlanta and to the detriment of itself” Saporta writes.
Creative Loafing gave serious treatment to the evolution of the AJC in an article last week, then dressed it up with a hilarious spoof (click on it and read Thomas Wheatley’s text in a mock-up of the “Dunwoody Journal Constitution”) of the newspaper’s suburban drift. Editor Julia Wallace answered questions for that piece. Yet she chose to merely release a prepared statement when WABE followed up. Next time an AJC reporter seeks an interview with a beleaguered newsmaker, that newsmaker can cite Wallace’s approach as sufficient reason to refuse to answer questions.
I respect the AJC’s struggle to survive, and the hard choices its management has had to make to cut costs and become more customer-friendly.
On the other hand, I can’t respect its refusal to even mention Pride in its print editions. It seems like blatant cowardice, based on fear of alienating its all-important readership in the conservative (and in many quarters, homophobic) suburbs.
And I can’t respect Wallace’s cowardly refusal to answer WABE’s questions. It seems that the editor of a major newspaper would understand the kind of signal that sends to those pondering interview requests from AJC reporters.
A great newspaper ought to show no fear.
Wallace missed an opportunity to tell WABE a great story about the AJC’s renewal. Despite some unsettling tone deafness, I continue to root for the AJC. It’s a much better newspaper than it was two years ago, and worth the price I pay to get it from my driveway every morning.
I wish I’d have broken those stories.