The editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution spoke about the changing newspaper industry, President Donald Trump’s media attacks and recent City Hall investigations at an Oct. 22 Buckhead Rotary event.
The print business model is changing, Kevin Riley said at the luncheon at Maggiano’s Little Italy. Advertisers used to bring in 80 percent of newspaper revenue, with subscribers contributing the rest. Now, that must flip, bringing more accountability to the newspaper industry in terms of responding to and satisfying customers on pricing and value, he said.
“That is a big challenge,” he said.
The future of the AJC, which is headquartered in Dunwoody at the owner Cox Enterprises’ headquarters, was put into question in July when a surprise Cox announcement advertised the sale of WSB-TV. Cox had previously considered moving the AJC to WSB’s Midtown headquarters, but the announcement ended that plan.
The AJC’s operation at 223 Perimeter Center Parkway, which is part of a 42-acre site planned for the High Street mixed-use redevelopment and may be part of Atlanta’s short-listed bid for Amazon’s second headquarters.
Riley said he does not know if the AJC will stay or relocate when the lease ends in 2021. The AJC moved from downtown Atlanta to Dunwoody in 2010.
Despite the declining newspaper industry, the AJC’s audience is “bigger than its ever been,” through a combination of print, social media and website readers, Riley said.
“You’ve likely heard something different,” he said.
Riley said internal research shows readers trust the AJC more than they trust national media, which has seen a barrage of attacks from Trump, among others.
“Our own research tells us that people in this market trust the AJC,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, people get angry with us, but they don’t distrust us.”
One event attendee asked, referring to Trump, “There’s a man that lives in a white house that talks mainstream media as if you all are hardened criminals. How do you defend yourself?”
Riley said he “wouldn’t waste my energy and time arguing” with Trump, and that the AJC tries to focus on how federal decisions affect Georgians.
He said Trump’s reaction to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian journalist, was concerning, calling it “particularly disturbing.”
City Hall scandal
The AJC has reported several stories in recent months about the City Hall bribery scandal, former Mayor Kasim Reed’s city credit card spending and Open Records Act violations.
“We are right now in the throes of the City Hall scandal…which is much deeper and problematic than we realized,” Riley said.
In response to a question about why the AJC did not start reporting on the scandals until near the end Reed’s tenure as mayor, Riley said he accepted the criticism and said he also wished it could have been published sooner.
“It became clear that was a concerted effort to undermine our ability to get public records and the things that we needed to report a story like that,” he said.
The AJC and WSB-TV recently reached a legal agreement with the city over Open Records Act violations. The city will work with the media outlets to draft a new policy, the AJC reported.
Riley discussed other major investigative projects, including one covered prison doctors who did not properly take care of inmates with cancer. He initially doubted the story, but it led to one of the bigger projects, he said.
“I’m not proud of this…but when we were working on this story, I said, ‘Do our readers care that much about women are in prison? They are criminals,’” he said.
He said the newsroom shouted him down and he “got a good talking-to by the reporters.” The AJC did the story, and it led to an investigative series about malpractice and doctors who commit sexual assault but are able to keep to their jobs with little difficulty, he said.
Attracting younger generations
Riley said, in response to an audience question, that attracting younger readers is difficult because many don’t have a practice of reading the newspaper every morning and frequently checking the news.
Younger people tend to think they’ll hear about news if it is important, he said. The AJC uses digital tools, like text alerts, and are working with ways to reach more young readers, he said.
“It’s a challenge because that is a person who doesn’t have quite the ritual we depend on,” he said.
In a response to a question about recruiting new investigative journalists, he said he believes there are plenty of young people interested. He pointed to a story largely reported by interns that showed the Atlanta BeltLine park and trail system was not meeting its affordability goals for housing developed alongside it.
“We can offer the thrill of a byline on the front page on a Sunday,” he said.