Resurrection in Dixie. (the State of the American Newspaper)

By Layton, Charles; Dorroh, Jennifer | American Journalism Review, June-July 2003 | Go to article overview

Resurrection in Dixie. (the State of the American Newspaper)


Layton, Charles, Dorroh, Jennifer, American Journalism Review


Five years ago the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Statehouse coverage was moribund. Today its nine-member bureau, the nation third-largest contingent of capital reporters, provides readers with robust reporting on state government.

Last fall, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution had a staff meeting to introduce its new managing editor for news, Hank Klibanoff.

The AJC had been in turmoil for the past year as a new management team shifted dozens of jobs around, redesigning beats and turning reporters into editors and editors into reporters. Although the stated purpose of the shake-up--stronger hard news and enterprise reporting--was a popular one, the changes were disquieting. People wondered how they would fare, who would be up and who would be down.

They were especially curious about Klibanoff, an outsider hired away from the Philadelphia Inquirer to be the hands-on guy for news.

After the speeches of introduction, Jim Tharpe, who covers the Georgia House of Representatives, walked over to Klibanoff, shook hands and identified himself as a Capitol reporter. Klibanoff responded with enthusiasm. How did Tharpe like the Capitol bureau? he wanted to know Did the bureau have enough stall? Klibanoff wanted to make sure the Statehouse reporters had everything they needed to do the job right. "Those were like the first words out of his mouth," Tharpe recalls. He realized the Statehouse bureau had a new friend.

Around the same time, the metro editor invited, the Capitol staff to his house, ordered in some barbecue and led a four- or five-hour brainstorming session on legislative coverage. Then one day an assistant metro editor called Statehouse reporter James Salzer to chat about possible changes at the bureau. Salzer says the editor asked him, "If you had a dream team over there, if you could create your own bureau, who would you want?"

In the past, such talk was unheard-of at the AJC. Throughout the 1990s the paper had been run by Ron Martin, an editor who didn't much care for government news. Under his tenure the Capitol bureau had lost staff, gotten less space and poorer play for stories, and suffered diminished prestige and sagging morale--this at the capital's hometown paper.

Five years ago--perhaps the low point for Capitol reporting at the paper--MR interviewed Stephen Harvey, then the editor for Statehouse news. Speaking of the decline in coverage, he said: "The thinking seems to be that people just aren't that interested." And Mike King, who was then the metro editor, said he had developed "a hardened attitude" about "how much time and how much resources to devote to something that has so little impact." (See "Missing the Story at the Statehouse," July/August 1998.)

Similar attitudes prevailed at many newspapers, but the Cox-owned Atlanta paper seemed an especially sad case, given its distinguished history of state government coverage. It had been a thorn in the side of segregationist politicians during the civil rights era--a legacy preserved today in the portrait gallery of Georgia governors on the second floor of the Capitol. In one of those portraits, Lester Maddox, governor from 1967 through 1971, is posed in a seersucker suit in front of a table on which several objects can be seen: a couple of Georgia peaches, a photo of Maddox's wife and a fish wrapped in a copy of the Atlanta Constitution, symbolic of the governor's abiding scorn.

No newspaper could wish for higher tribute. But if Maddox had served in the 1990s, he might have had less to complain about.

"Probably a year-and-a-half ago we were sitting around ruminating about, 'Will the last person to leave the [Journal-Constitution] Capitol bureau please turn out the lights,"' says Chris Riggall, head of media relations in the secretary of state's office.

"But now," says Riggall, "that has completely reversed."

LAST YEAR THE AJC expanded the bureau from three full-time reporters to five, and early this year the head count rose again, to nine, giving Atlanta the third-largest statehouse bureau in the country. …

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