For far too many years of my early adolescence in upstate New York I was a paperboy. Do they have those anymore? I mean, the kind who stow papers in a bag slung over a shoulder, as opposed to the backseat of a car? Anyway, every week I’d knock on the doors of my customers so they could pay their bill, which was one dollar and ten cents. In the winter, the old widows would invite me in to stand on their plastic carpet runners while they vanished into the kitchen. I’d hear chairs move, jars clink, keys turn. I’d stand there, the slush on my boots melting, the ceramic cows on the shelf eyeing me suspiciously. Finally my customers would reemerge, clutching one dollar bill and one quarter (thank you for the tip), and explain that if it weren’t for the obituaries, they wouldn’t bother. “It’s just not what it used to be,” they’d say.
Thirty years later, these ladies have passed on, but their opinions are very much alive. There are, I’ve realized, certain inviolable laws of nature: Cats will land on their feet, Tom Cruise will not age, and Americans will hate their hometown newspapers. Still, the degree of loathing that Atlantans feel for the Journal-Constitution is in a category by itself. Too liberal, cries the right. Too cautious, complains the left. Too boring, yawns the middle. Readers have voted with their feet. The paper’s daily circulation last fall was averaging around 175,000, less than half what it was just a few years ago. Of course, big metro dailies have been imploding for the past decade. The AJC just has it worse than most.
But I have come to praise the AJC, not to bury it. The fact remains that even today, in the age of Patch and aggregators and bleeds-it-leads TV news, no other news outlet can marshal the resources that a daily newspaper can. And when those resources are directed strategically, they can make a difference that no bloviating politician ever can.
This month features a story by Justin Heckert about the three men who got to the bottom of the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal, in which a group of administrators and teachers conspired to change students’ test answers to ensure higher scores. “The Big Break” is a story that puts you behind the scenes of the investigation into an administration whose cynicism and lies not only tarnished the city’s reputation but, more tragically, irrevocably harmed the very children those teachers and administrators were supposed to be helping. It’s a remarkable story. But that investigation, it’s fair to say, would not have happened if not for the trail blazed by the AJC. The paper’s own diligent and unrelenting reporting grabbed us all by the lapels and shook us. It wouldn’t let us turn away. That’s what a good hometown paper does. And when that happens, our hometown grows a little stronger.