Leroy Chapman is leaning into this moment with a sense of awe and reverence. On March 23, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution announced the 52-year-old would become the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, a promotion from his role as deputy managing editor. (After a 12-year run as the city’s top editor, Kevin Riley will serve as editor-at-large during this transition period and is expected to retire later this year.) It’s a historic first, marking the first time in the newspaper’s 155-year history that a Black person has served in this capacity. The news has, unsurprisingly, sparked national headlines.
It’s also been a moment of internal reflection for Chapman. A Greenville, South Carolina native whose parents attended segregated schools, he never thought he’d leave his home state. “It’s one of those states where if you’re born there, you’re probably more likely to die there than any other state,” the former politics editor of the State Media Company says. But an open position as the AJC’s story editor, working on articles that would land on the newspaper’s front page, and Atlanta’s reputation for being a place where Black people might have a shot at upward mobility inspired Chapman to move here 13 years ago. “Atlanta called to me like it calls to a lot of people who are [within] a short driving distance,” he says.
Chapman’s appointment is historic, but it also comes at a crucial time for the AJC. Traditional media companies are in a period where they must work to prove themselves as relevant and credible to an increasingly diverse audience who now have more options for accessing news than ever before. In Atlanta, a number of newsletters and nonprofit news organizations have launched in the past 5 years, promising to deliver thoughtful news centering locals who have been historically overlooked by traditional media. For leaders, the widened media landscape, along with the influx of disinformation campaigns in recent years, is a significant challenge.
To be transparent, I’ve known Chapman for several years, first as a colleague at the AJC (though I didn’t report to him), and later, when Capital B Atlanta launched in 2021, I worked with him and his team to create a partnership between the two organizations. But in this Q&A—which has been condensed and edited for clarity—I wanted to ask Chapman important questions that many Atlantans and journalists might have for him as he ascends into this powerful position.
What do you see as the most important stories for Atlanta in the next year, and how is the AJC approaching that coverage?
We may get an announcement [soon] that the Democratic National Convention will come to Atlanta, so that will be a huge story. We’re going to go into an election year next year, and how Georgia plays into deciding who is going to be the next president is going to be a big story.
Locally, the mayor talked [recently] about his commitment to building the police training center. It’ll continue to be a big story because ultimately that decision has caused some disagreement that is not going to be settled anytime soon, no matter what happens.
Right now jobs for Georgia and Atlanta actually look pretty good, but the cost to do anything and [the cost of] housing is a big, big thing. We’ve done some stuff about the difficulty of housing here in metro Atlanta.
When people are critical of the AJC’s coverage of the police training center—which most know colloquially as Cop City—it often centers around Cox’s relationships to both the newspaper and the facility. (Cox Enterprises owns the AJC and Axios Atlanta, but maintains it is not involved in editorial decisions for either publication. Cox CEO Alex Taylor led a fundraising campaign for the training facility.) Can you talk about that? A lot of critics feel there should be a disclaimer on every story the AJC writes about this topic.
It’s sort of a balancing act. We are very specific when we’re talking about the things Cox is involved in. One of the things [we talk about] when we talk about ethics and readers is that we don’t want to distort things or continue to make the story about us. We have disclosed this and will continue to disclose it. You have to make an editorial judgment of which stories [absolutely need a disclaimer]. And then other stories, perhaps it has something to do with the police training center in a way but doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with what the Cox company has done. It’s not that we have been resistant to [disclaimers], but also, after a certain point, you have to think, Are you distorting this? Cox is one company. After a while, it’s like, Is Cox the only company driving something on the private end of this? And it’s not. But every time the AJC—the most trafficked [Atlanta] news website and the main newspaper—keeps repeating that [disclaimer] on every single thing, it may look like that. There’s room for disagreement on that, but I don’t think we’ve at any point tried to minimize what Cox’s role has been. It may not please everyone, and we realize that.
You and I have talked before about the city’s rich cultural identity. I’m a music reporter, so it’s no surprise that I’d ask this question, but we haven’t had a music reporter at the AJC since 2021. Have you all thought about what music coverage might look like in the future for the AJC and a place like Atlanta, where music is so critical to our identity?
Yes, we’ve talked about it, and we will be putting some more resources behind it. What it looks like, we’re still figuring that out. We’re going to hire some people; there’s a job post that’s going to go up pretty soon that’s looking for a high-level leader who will report directly to me. That leader will be responsible for covering Atlanta culture. It’s going to be music, film. [Something] that Atlanta does uniquely is it exports Black culture around the globe. It is the chief exporter of that. It influences a lot of American culture at large. I don’t know if every single concert is important and if we’re going to be there, but I think what’s important is [covering the] cultural impact [and] the business of music, film, and television. Over the years when we were getting smaller, there are certain things we started doing less of—that was one of them. We’re going to get back to that and get better at it.
One of the difficult things about reporting for traditional media as a Black person is that I often go into local communities representing these publications and hear, You’re here now, but you haven’t been here before. That sentiment is absolutely fair. It’s a long game to build trust and relationships with these communities that historically haven’t been thoroughly covered or represented by media orgs. How will you address this?
We have to build bridges and earn trust. With the digital tools we’ve got, there’s no reason that we shouldn’t. We’re having events out in the community. I’ll be involved in those, and we’ll have many of our journalists who will be involved. I’m talking about this as a solution, but I’ve been here. I’m an institutional guy, so I’m a part of the problem, too. There are communities we need to hear from more often. One of the things I want to do is start correcting some of that. I will have, in this position, greater ability and freedom to do some of that than in my [previous] role.
I will say that me sitting in this chair, for some people, it’s a door that’s now open that maybe wasn’t as open.
In these moments when we get historical firsts, it’s a balancing act of celebrating but then also being frustrated. To be the AJC’s first Black editor in 155 years . . . it’s not because there’s never been another talented Black person until now.
The AJC editors have been longstanding. But, also, you don’t minimize what’s been true in this newsroom and many other newsrooms. Like a lot of institutions, we suffer from the same things. We’ve been locked out for a long time. And even when we got in, the idea that we could lead the organization . . . it took some time for that to be something that wasn’t seen as risky. Could there have been other talented Black journalists who could have done this way before me? Yes. When this [promotion] happened, I got a call from my peer group who are in the exact same positions in Los Angeles, Houston . . . the editor of News Day is someone I met years ago. There is that [progress in newsrooms] to celebrate but the history, no, we can’t forget it.
The photo of your promotion announcement has been a topic of discussion on social media. I know that everyone in the photo was not senior leadership, and you’ve said most of the AJC staff was tuned in virtually, but it does bring up a fair question of what senior leadership—and staff retention in general—looks like in terms of diversity right now. How do you retain talent to make sure the AJC newsroom does reflect the makeup of this city?
There’s a gap, I won’t deny that. There’s a gap between the AJC and the metro-at-large. [The AJC staff is] about one-third African-American. When you start adding in Hispanic, Asian American journalists, and others, we get to 35-36 percent. Overall, if we’re looking at peer institutions, it’s 10 percent or less. But doing way better than the industry is not the standard, really. We’ve gotta be representative of Atlanta. I’ve got some work to do. [The AJC] lost some very good people like Monica Richardson and Tracy Brown [to other jobs]. We’ve not really replaced African American leaders on that scale, so we’ve got work to do with that, but we’re hiring. It’s deliberate and intentional hard work.