The last time I can remember entering the Atlanta Journal-Constitution building in downtown Atlanta, I was there to meet a then-intern and college classmate for lunch. That intern is now an Episcopalean minister, and I’m one of many journalists adapting to a digital world that’s threatening to put newspapers in the history books with VCRs and manual typewriters.
On Wednesday (3/18/09), I felt good to visit the AJC again as one of several panelists at what the paper called a Business Literacy series. It was designed to help enlighten their reporters, editors, etc. on the so-called social media sector that’s adding thousands of followers daily. In between visits, I spent 22 years in Southern California, mostly working for some doggone good newspapers. (One, however, was sold this week — the San Diego Union-Tribune — another victim of a changing information world and a sagging economy. Now, about that pension …)
I was honored that Eli Wendkos, the AJC’s point person for digital products, asked me to be on the panel. I’ve spent much time and money over the years learning about this and gaining a following. Everyone likes recognition. And when it comes from your so-called hometown paper, it’s even more special.
No, I’ve never worked at the AJC. Strange, as I went to high school in the Atlanta area, was editor of The Red and Black at the University of Georgia and have been reading the paper since the days of Lewis Grizzard and Reg Murphy, who also gained some fame by being a kidnapping victim in 1974. I had applied for various spots over the years, but it never worked out. Go figure.
And California, for the most part, worked well for me. Don’t let the horror stories about the Golden State fool you. The weather is nice, the people are wonderful, and on its own, the state would be one of the largest economies in the world. Check this pic of me at Angels Stadium in Orange County in 2006.
The two one-hour sessions Wednesday went well. I had been warned by some that such events in other cities had gotten ugly. Understandable. Those who have held onto their jobs in newspapers these days still feel like they are wearing a bull’s eye on their backs, and some simply don’t understand the mentality of the digital world. Hey, it HAS come on fast.
But I was quick to label a question about the “demise” of newspapers as too harsh. The recent changes in Seattle and Denver reflect the fact that no city in America except New York can support two newspapers these days. But yes, some will go online only, and more jobs will be lost.
I pointed to other mediums and how they adapt. I watched Wednesday morning as both CNN and “Good Morning America” took viewer questions over Twitter. As a high schooler in Atlanta, I used to listen to WSB-AM and its traditional, family-friendly news approach. Now, it’s dominated by talk shows, which generate huge listener response. Advertisers like that.
Newspapers, the AJC troops were told, have to engage their readers more. No longer can the paper “talk down” to readers, all of whom can be incredible stories or sources in themselves.
Remember the Unabomber case in the ’90s? The federal government was so baffled by the case that it asked the New York Times and the Washington Post to print the controversial manifesto. The feds were hoping that someone out there could enlighten them as to the author and his whereabouts. Turned out, the feds’ strategy was right. The now-jailed Unabomber’s brother saw the manifesto, found some familiar writing, and notified the government.
Newspapers can do the same. They’ll have to become the readers’ friend, and then find out the wealth of information and sources they have. And newspapers still have the resources and ingenuity to do things that so-called citizen journalists can’t. I point to a recent Los Angeles Times story about a living, breathing Fuller Brush sales person. And part-time Atlanta resident Elton John phoned the AJC’s Peach Buzz writer this week with compliments for a review of John’s recent Atlanta gig with Billy Joel. Hey, I didn’t see any of that on YouTube.
Yes, both I and the AJC have changed much over the years. We both needed to.