A Conversation with AJC Editor-in-Chief Kevin Riley

Kevin.mug.2015 smallerA Conversation with AJC Editor-in-Chief Kevin Riley

We talked recently with Kevin Riley, editor-in-chief of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The conversation was spurred by the news that the paper was going to lay off a certain number of staff. But rather than just talk about that, we took the opportunity to talk with Riley about the larger issues driving the newspaper and media industry today.

Our conversation was wide-ranging, covering the paper’s continuing move toward mobile and digital, their new e-editions, how the paper covers business, new hires, and recent announcements of layoffs.

First topic was about the shift toward mobile, something I’ve heard from many of my technology clients over the last few years. We all know people aren’t consuming news only in the print version anymore. It’s very important to think about all different technologies and channels. Think smartphones, tablets, desktops, podcasts, radio, TV, and, of course, paper.

Riley notes: “We’re always working to meet the audience where they are. We’ve got to make sure the audience sees and consumes our product where they are. We know from our research that our audience regards our journalism as high quality and important.”

He mentioned that they want to do things for our subscribers that no one else can do for them. For the AJC, the biggest and most important is deep investigative reporting. He said they’ve created more reporting and digital positions to support that investigative effort. “We have the largest news staff of any media organization in Georgia. We’re adding a capacity to include video and interactive content with those stories.”

How are your daily special e-editions working for you?

“They are really great thing for us. Every day we publish an interactive pdf version of the print paper. That’s got a very engaged and local audience. We also give them additional special editions in that digital replica. We have at least one every day, covering special events, football, technology, travel, education, exercise, food, cooking, etc. People really like the ‘Photos from Around the World’ e-editions.”

Some of those e-editions are written by AJC staff and some are written by others within the Cox system around the county. Riley noted that there are topics where there’s a lot of reader interest that’s less ‘market specific’ and don’t have to be written here. They share those among the Cox newspapers.

How About a Daily Stand-Alone Business Section?

We asked him about the possible return of a stand-alone daily business section. The AJC hasn’t had that for several years (they do still publish a stand-alone business section on Sundays). He said readers haven’t been clamoring for the return of a daily business section, but they do want business coverage. Riley feels that the paper in the aggregate does as much business coverage anybody in town.

Who’s leading the business coverage now, we asked, with the departures this year of Henry Unger (retired) and Charlie Gay (to a PR position with Delta)? It seemed to us lately that the paper’s business writers were reporting in several directions, not just to one ‘senior business editor.’ He say that had been the case, but that paper has just this week changed their structure so that all business writers report to Todd Duncan, Senior Editor. Mitch’s Advice: Best bet when pitching is to go to specific reporters with story ideas.

Side Note: We asked him about the Sunday Biz Voices feature and he said they’re always interested in including local voices in their content.

Some of their reporting structure is geographically based, and not just on the print side. Riley says that in the social media space people come to news from a geographic bent. The Cobb pages on Facebook, for example, are one of their most popular. They’re finding a lot of success when stories are presented to readers from their city or county perspective.

What’s the Effect of Howard Pousner’s Departure on Arts Coverage?

Riley says that Howard’s departure (for a PR position with the Atlanta History Center) was a big loss for the paper but they definitely will replace him.

He said that every time someone leaves a position, the paper takes the time to analyze what the readers want. How will we use the position going forward? “Readers and digital users say info on events and things to do, particularly arts and culture and very important to them, and that the paper will continue to provide that info.”

A few other things we talked about:

  • The AJC is in the process of hiring a replacement for Jamila Robinson, who was running the Living section.
  • The paper recently hired a new food and dining editor, Ligaya Figueras, which Riley notes as a sign of their commitment to things that are important to the paper’s audience.
  • The paper will still do PolitiFact, but less frequently.
  • Regarding the Atlanta Forward pages Riley said: “We’re not going to be doing Atlanta Forward every day during the week anymore. We’ll still do it on Sundays and during the week as news dictates.”

Regarding Experimentation and Innovation

The “Breakdown” pod cast series was one example of “meeting customers where they are.” The series was very successful and he says the paper is looking at doing more of those. It’s an example of the kind of experimentation he likes to see his newsroom doing. The Breakdown series was done back in May by long-time legal reporter Bill Rankin. It focused on a case where an innocent man was sent to prison. Check it out at www.ajcbreakdown.com.

The Layoffs & the New Positions

So, let’s talk about what started this whole conversation, the layoffs.  Sixteen positions are being eliminated. So theoretically that would mean 16 people were being laid off. But, there are 13 new positions either open or being created, so some of those people might remain. The total staff number will be 147 at the start of 2016.  That’s a net of losing three positions.

Many of the new positions will be focused on mobile and digital. They include titles such as Digital Coach, Mobile Content Creator, and Roving Content Team Audience Specialist.

After talking with Riley, I’ve (switching to first person here) decided not to name the names of the people whose jobs are being affected. A couple of reasons for this. First, as someone who’s been laid off myself, I know how painful it’s going to be for these people, especially if they’ve been with the paper for a long time.  Second, some of these people may end up with other positions at the paper or within Cox, so they won’t end up being laid off.

That said, if you’re one of those people and you do want me to note your name in my blog, I’m happy to do that.

Riley ended our conversation with a great summation:

“We’re crucial to the citizens of this state and this region and their future. Our job is to set and demand high standards for Georgia and Atlanta. We’re going to keep doing that. We may do it in a different format. We may do it in a way that – to this point – hasn’t even been invented. That’s what we come to work to do.”

“We get that the media landscape is changing, that the newspaper business is changing. But our commitment to it is not changing. We’re going to be here and we’re going to keep doing the kind of stuff we need to be doing and I think you can see that in our coverage of DeKalb County and some of the other things we have going on.”

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