ATLANTA — From his desk at the Jesup Press-Sentinel in south Georgia, Drew Davis saw the Atlanta Journal-Constitution more as inspiration than competition. Flipping open its crinkly pages, he says, was an invaluable glimpse at the big picture – one he'll now have to do without.
Following a trend at regional newspapers from Louisville, Ky., to Dallas, the AJC, which once proclaimed it "Covers Dixie like the Dew," is the latest newspaper to retrench. The paper decided last week to cut its circulation area in half, abandoning some 70 counties in Georgia and surrounding states to focus on Atlanta's metro area. Though it didn't have any rural bureaus to close, media analysts say circulation often dictates news coverage.
In a bid to find "audience" instead of "readers," the AJC's decision exemplifies how embattled purveyors of news are moving away from print and "realigning" news for the Internet. For the past few years newspapers around the country have seen circulation declines, advertisers bolt for the Web, and staffs being cut to maintain profits that would please shareholders.
As the shake-up engulfs the newsroom on Marietta Street, critics voice concerns about whether authoritative regional newspapers like the AJC can maintain their stature and quality with cuts to staff and papers no longer thudding on porches.
"During this terrible period of turmoil in the business and the profession, the trick is whether we can learn how to migrate newspaper journalism onto the new platforms before journalism dies," says Buzz Merritt, author of "Knightfall," a book about corporate profit pressure at the defunct Knight Ridder newspaper chain.
The areas that will no longer get the print AJC accounted for 5 percent of the paper's circulation, Publisher John Mellott wrote in a published letter to readers. He said it was costing up to $5 to ship a 50-cent newspaper to all corners of the South, a public service that had become too expensive amid shrinking profit margins.
The changes at the AJC, which says it reaches more than 2.3 million readers in print and online, also include slashing nine of the paper's 13 community editions, offering voluntary buyouts to 80 senior staffers (out of the paper's 475 employees), and reorganizing departments to put print and digital products on "equal footing."
Behind the move are advertisers who are demanding more results and better bargains and who see little value in paying to reach rural subscribers who are unlikely to shop in Atlanta.
Retrenchment shows that "the end of paper as a profitable medium is in sight," says Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster in Silicon Valley. "The wise publisher will do what [16th-century Spanish explorer] Hernando Cortez did with his troops when he landed on the beach: Set the boats on fire and tell them, 'The only way out is in'."
What's notable about the AJC's decision to cut its delivery areas is its push to, at the same time, realign the newsroom toward the Web. Part of the shift, says public editor Angela Tuck, is to focus on sections of ajc.com that offer neighborhood-centered news on everything from high school football games to county zoning board meetings, with readers offering commentary directly on the website.
Retrenchment is ultimately about innovation in how news is gathered and delivered beyond the boundaries of print, says Jay Smith, who runs the newspaper division of AJC's parent Cox Enterprises.
"It's not 'big J' Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism, but it's doing what papers are supposed to do, which is serve the community and build an audience," Mr. Smith says.
Editors at the paper acknowledge there's a lot at stake. After all, the AJC's often unpopular editorial crusade to end white supremacism in the rural South laid the groundwork for the huge migration of capital and people into "The New South." In 1960, the paper won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of corruption at the state hospital in Milledgeville, where the paper will no longer circulate.
It's a mission that editors at the paper say will not be impacted by the changes. "Our dominance and tradition and authority in [the South] will be maintained," says Ms. Tuck.
But circulation does affect coverage and clout, critics of the move say.
"Newspapers in the past have been community leaders, not just influencing opinion but helping to create changes in attitudes among readers – civil rights [in the South] being a good example of that," says Roy Moore, a journalism professor at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville. "But that's much more difficult to do online, because you still have that obligation to the community that doesn't translate as well to having a website, which is more like a news source than a newspaper."