Monday, March 2, 2009

Anatomy of a Rejection, Part 1

Last month, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution did something it is not particularly known for, which is to say something unusual. The paper put out a general invitation for applications for its token conservative columnist position, with an application deadline of February 1. According to the paper, there were over 200 applicants; I was one of them. I was not selected for the "semi-final round" which is currently underway.

The AJC is a big, bland, liberal, very politically correct monopoly daily. Like many other big, bland, liberal, very politically correct monopoly dailies, it's losing money hand over fist, as much as $1 million a week according to a story in Creative Loafing, the city's obligatory leftist alt-weekly (which is itself in bankruptcy).

Even before Craigslist and eBay demolished the paper's advertising revenues, circulation had been on a long decline. A quick glance through any given issue gives easy indications as to why: the paper's voice is a mushy mix of bland j-school speak mixed in with an unreadable mass of entirely predictable party-line Democratic cheerleading on the editorial page. The paper's lone conservative is Jim Wooten, who is retiring from his regular column in a few months. I say "lone conservative" because Wooten certainly must be the only one, or else the AJC would have promoted somebody from the newsroom to take his place. Feature column slots are highly prized jobs that don't open up very often, and the fact that they didn't have even one single person who could step into Wooten's space says volumes about the internal makeup of the AJC.

I think monopoly newspapers are very much like other monopolies, for instance cable companies, phone companies, Microsoft in the 1990's. With no significant competition, they tend to treat their customers with a general contempt--after all, where else were you going to go for phone service in the 1970's, or cable TV in the 80's, or an operating system in the 90's? I remember ten or fifteen years ago hearing my dad expressing his disgust with the two lousy papers that "served" my old hometown. When I asked him why he didn't just drop his subscriptions, he shrugged and said, "Where else am I going to find out things?"

Atlantans and Georgians in general didn't have many choices when it came to newspapers for a very long time. The old Atlanta Journal folded up in 2001, when evening papers died off en masse, but even at that point the Journal and Constitution had already been a combined entity for nearly 20 years, and the monopoly mentality was well-entrenched.

When wildly-popular conservative humorist Lewis Grizzard died young in 1994, the paper thumbed its nose at Grizzard's readership by appointing the nastily liberal Rheta Johnson in his place. Johnson's tenure was relatively brief, but her appointment was a clear signal that the AJC's decision makers didn't much care what the rubes in what we might now call "Red Georgia" thought about the content of their paper.

Clearly determined never to be associated with the reactionary hicks again, the paper has become progressively (pun intended) liberal, and politically correct to the point of self-parody. The AJC even dropped its lovely and age-old motto, "Covering Dixie Like The Dew" a few years back, apparently since printing the dreaded "D-word" (much less putting it on every masthead) might be deemed insensitive. All that came back to haunt the AJC when its monopoly ended during this decade. The internet finally freed Atlantans from needing that sole source of football scores and stock quotes and reprinted Associated Press stories, and voting with their wallets, the paper's former readership has simply walked--or rather surfed--away.

All of which begs the question, "so why the heck did you apply for a job there?", and it's a reasonable query. I applied mostly to see what would happen. I thought I had a pretty good shot at making it as far as the interview stage, and I was very much hoping I'd get to blog about that interview. And what the hell, even given my low opinion of newspapers in general and the AJC in particular, what they're offering really is a great job. A regular column in a big-city daily is a big deal, and a whale of an opportunity.

That said, I did not have any serious expectations of actually being offered the job. I still don't think the AJC as an institution is even remotely ready to admit to itself why it is so unpopular in this city, and they certainly aren't ready to do anything about it.

Taking now-idle speculation a step further, on the slim chance that an offer might have been tendered, I don't think there's a snowball's chance in Aruba that I'd have accepted it. To be perfectly blunt, a business that's losing on the order of $50 million a year was unlikely to pay me enough to make it worth trashing my current career, and even if they were, I don't like the looks of anybody's job security down there on Marietta Street. Newspapers are a dying industry, and it would be a considerable leap of faith to bet my family's financial security on them. With all that in mind, the AJC's form-letter email of rejection last week came as more than a bit of a relief. has posted two columns each from the ten semi-finalists (all still anonymous as of now) for public comment, although I note with some interest that they don't appear to be posing a reader poll. I haven't really read many of them myself yet, but I'll have a look later on. In the meantime, I though it might be interesting for people to see what my own application looked like, so I'll be posting the three sample columns the AJC asked for here over the next couple of days.

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