The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is no stranger to downsizing, having shrunk from 500 staffers just eight years ago to 161 employees at the beginning of this year. The latest round of cuts was announced Tuesday afternoon, when AJC employees learned a total of 16 newsroom positions will be eliminated by year’s end. However, 13 of those positions—now filled largely by veteran journalists focused on the print product—are expected to be converted early next year into new gigs tailored to boost web traffic.
“We’re reducing overall staffing to meet the realities of our business,” AJC editor Kevin Riley told us by phone today. “We’re also expanding our digital capacity so we can more fully serve our digital audience.”
Riley declined to identify the staffers to be laid off, but multiple staffers told us the affected employees include breaking news reporters Mike Morris, Steve Visser, Dave Markiewicz, and Alexis Stevens; Politifact Georgia staffers April Hunt and Nancy Badertscher; multiple opinion page writers; and production team employees. Stevens declined to comment when reached by phone. None of the other staffers were immediately available. No managers were among those laid off—something we’re told is due to recent attrition within those ranks, such as the departures earlier this year of editors such as Charlie Gay and Henry Unger.
All the affected employees, Riley said, will be eligible to apply for the new digital-focused positions. He insisted the paper will continue to fulfill its mission of producing quality journalism, remaining the “most influential news organization in Georgia.” According to a presentation given to the AJC staff, the new positions will have titles like “digital coach,” “mobile content creator,” and a “roving content team audience specialist.”
“All around the country [newspapers] have been faced with making cuts,” Riley told us. “We get a lot of support from Cox [Enterprises, the private company that owns the paper] and have the opportunity to create great journalism. More of our audience is reading our content digitally. That audience continues to grow. We need to keep meeting them where they are.”
According to multiple AJC staffers, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, Riley and other paper execs last spring had warned staffers that cuts were going to happen sometime in 2015. Nevertheless, they said, the latest round of cuts was deeper than many anticipated.
“There’s a knowledge that it’s the world we live in,” one staffer says. “We feel bad for those who get bounced—they’re friends and colleagues. But in the last few years, not having cuts happen, while everyone else had them—it was [only] a matter of when.”
Since 2000, the ten-county area around the city of Atlanta has increased its population by almost a million people, while the paper charged with covering that region has seen its newsroom forces reduced by more than two-thirds. Not easily as quantifiable, but no less relevant, is the impact of the institutional knowledge that’s lost with each cut. For example, Morris, one of those staffers who’s said to be on the layoff list, just celebrated 36 years with the paper.
“They’re now hiring people for the online side,” another staffer says. “I assume they’re people who are young and maybe underpaid. If they rehire you, it’s not at the same salary.”
The contractions seen at the AJC are part of a national trend. Some dailies don’t even publish seven days a week anymore. Riley says the AJC will continue to do so—assuming it can sustain enough subscriptions. “As long as our readers tell us that’s what they want, we’ll do everything we can to continue of that,” he said.
At least one staffer isn’t as sanguine: “It’s not infeasible that we’ll go away from a seven-day-a-week model. It’s a bitter pill to swallow. People are pissed. People are sad. People are worried. Everyone’s worried what’s next.”
This story has been updated to include additional information about the new jobs being created.