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Opinion: When things happen that shouldn’t happen

I have been expecting it now for a couple years and the only surprise has been that they didn’t do it sooner. If they had asked me 15 years ago, I could have told them. And now, I am sure that because they waited so long, that this step is not the last one; it is only yet one more pass toward the ultimate “close” in my estimation.

According to reports from news website SaportaReport, the AJC plans to cease daily publication sometime in 2023. My bet is that will happen sometime in the first half of the year. According to the reports, there will still be a “weekend” edition - presumedly once a week. Of note, although numerous sources indicate there is a move to cease daily publication in the near future, there has been no official definitive confirmation as of today – Sept. 8, 2022.

According to SaportaReport, this reported exit from daily publication would not be from a position of strength. According to reporters Maria Saporta and John Ruch, the current iteration of the AJC is no longer in the top 25 newspapers, circulation-wise. They note that the current number 25 paper in the country is the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel with a print circulation of 47,832. As recently as 2009, the Sunday print circulation of the AJC was 405,549.

I am reminded of a line in a T.S. Elliot poem: “ends not with a bang but a whimper” – sort of like how I fear our democracy at times seems to be trending.

“Stunned” is the only word I have, even though I have known for years it would probably happen. Gut-punched. If this is true, we all lose.

“Everyone knows that the future of our business is digital,” AJC Editor Kevin Riley is quoted as saying, and he is also quoted as saying that the AJC will continue reporting “the news” seven days a week online. Really Kevin? To me, that is akin to saying that “someday cancer will be cured.” Yes, it is probably a given that the future of “news” will be digital. However, there may be a small fly in the ointment. That statement makes an assumption that there is a future for “news,” that the business model of using news to make money will remain a viable business model at scale. Maybe it will. Or not.

AJC

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is the flagship newspaper of Cox Enterprises.

The COX family, through Cox Enterprises, is betting $525,000,000 on that business model remaining viable – actually a lot more when the staffing of their news operation is factored in. I remember when I worked for The Miami Herald/Knight Ridder they went to a degree “all in” over 40 years ago with an early version of the internet called Viewtron which failed miserably. Cox Enterprises paid all those millions of dollars for a company that produces digital newsletters – Axios. Hmm.

Let’s see, a printed newspaper with a brand still trusted and respected by a large portion of the public, versus digital newsletters and a website. Not sure I would want to make that bet.

Yes, there is the New York Times with 9.17 million paid subscribers, of which only 761,000 are print subscriptions and the rest are digital. And they continue to grow. Their digital paid subscriptions increased 180,000 in the second quarter of 2022. On face, that would support Mr. Riley’s confidence in digital. But, again, we are talking about the New York Times, a brand that was already at scale nationally and which has consistently made the right decisions at the right time. I am not sure how duplicable their business model is.

In a world that seems trending digital, digital, digital, it feels like a moot point to consider that there could be room for a not-digital future. You know however, we now can make every form of music electronically on a keyboard, and yet, now after centuries we still have real violins, real pianos, real drums played by people performed in front of audiences of real people in person. The same holds true with other forms of art even though AI increasingly can replicate it to a high degree. Books are still printed and remain viable. People still write. People still actually read. We still have small family farms and local produce, and more.

Digital is a huge question to me. It fragments and destroys as much as it unifies and creates. It does not nurture. Plus, without scarcity, there can be no value. “Digital” – especially digital content – by nature is almost limitless. So where is the value?

People need interaction with other people, and digital so far has not proven to be an adequate substitute. In fact, it is often insanely toxic. “Meta” may be the biggest financial blunder in the history of the world. Or, it could rival Amazon as the best. What will sustain humanity I fear is not something digital though; it is something more tactile, more personal, more warm- blooded, more non-machine generated – and yes, more human.

But digital is a mighty strong current to swim against.

I remain hopeful and continue to see a half full glass. Maybe local printed newspapers have a place in that world. I think they do.