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Can the Regional Press Survive and Thrive?

By Reetika Khanna Email By Reetika Khanna
May 2020
Can the Regional Press Survive and Thrive?

Bala Sundaramoorthy is Vice President and General Manager at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A long-established newspaper with a storied legacy, the AJC is experiencing, like so many other regional publications, unprecedented challenges. But while the Covid-19 crisis has made things worse, it also presents opportunities. Building trust with consumers by providing accurate, timely and useful content across all platforms is key to staying relevant—and being successful—in today’s polarized environment. The AJC excels at it. In a revealing, wide-ranging interview that touches on his important role, Sundaramoorthy talks about readers, his Indian background, technology, the future of news, and more.

What are your most critical undertakings as Vice President and General Manager?

I lead Strategy, Research, Product, Operations and Service. It is a new role for our organization. We are examining every aspect of our interaction with our readers across all touch points and redesigning it where necessary to ensure that we put customers first. Having one role that spans all aspects of the customer has allowed us to set clear focus and priorities. One such critical undertaking is to update all of our products so that our customers can get the best experience.

Does your role require you to work in close conjunction with Kevin Riley, the editor of AJC?

Absolutely! Kevin is a close confidant of mine and we have enjoyed a long trusting relationship. Just recently we had an important conversation about the tools that our newsroom has, to bring our award-winning journalism to life. It was not long ago that we were reliant on typewriters and typeset presses. In today’s world, digital technology has disrupted all aspects of our business. It is imperative that our newsroom has the best tools possible to ensure that they can work smart, be efficient and do things at lightning speed. I am extremely proud of the hard work that our reporters and editors do on a daily basis to ensure that we uncover the truth, protect the public’s right to know and hold community leaders accountable for serving the public.

Do your decisions impact readers directly, or is your influence expressed predominantly behind the scenes?

It is both. There are decisions that we make that are sometimes internal in nature. However, we strive to do everything with our customers as the focal point. Every point of interaction that our readers have with us, whether it is on our site, our apps, our printed paper, our email newsletters or podcasts, the decisions we make will always revolve around getting them the right content in a manner that they want to consume.

What are some of the most impactful decisions you have made during your tenure?

Your readers may be aware that we are now a stand-alone metro newspaper that is part of Cox Enterprises. Previously we were part of the larger media group that has now been sold to a private equity firm. Being a stand-alone newspaper has brought renewed optimism for us. Most of my decisions have been related to establishing a full set of operations as a stand-alone company within the Cox Enterprises umbrella. We have a lot of initiatives that are driving us toward state-of-the-art digital product and technology ecosystems.

“As the unprecedented Covid-19 crisis continues, it is clear more than ever that the service provided by journalism to the communities it serves is more essential than ever,” says Sundaramoorthy. “This is evident in the outpouring of public support for news organizations like ours that provide credible reporting and complete details. Newspapers and local community magazines like Khabar are rooted in their mission to serve the community, and while that aspect of the industry is on high display, the economic model of every news organization is also at its peak of disruption. When we emerge from the crisis, I sincerely hope the community will take a stand and support the organizations that they so depend on, not just in times of crisis like this but in their regular day-to-day lives.”

By many metrics, print media is an endangered species. Does The Atlanta Journal-Constitution still identify primarily as a print organization? How vital is the AJC’s online identity to its survival?

The industry at large, and we are guilty of this as well, still identify ourselves as newspapers. I believe this needs to change. The analogy that comes to mind is what is happening in the auto industry. Here is an industry that is also getting seriously disrupted with electric and autonomous vehicles and changing behaviors in consumers of subscribing to or just using services like Uber, Lyft, etc. Last I checked, Ford, GM, etc., no longer call themselves as auto makers. They have recast themselves to focus on Mobility. They are in the Mobility industry. I explain all this to say that we have to recast ourselves as being in the “Journalism and Informing” industry. So, to answer your question, it is not about just the print media. Of course, we plan to continue to print as long as our readers and advertisers want us to. Our focus is on getting our best journalism to our audience in every way that they want to consume us.

In 2019, Kevin Riley, in his testimony before a U.S. House Judiciary subcommittee, called newspapers the “fountainheads within the local news ecosystem.” Given the fall in advertising revenues and subscriptions, how is the AJC fighting to stay alive in the contentious arena of journalism?

Kevin is very articulate. It’s one of his best skills. I would go one step further to say that we are “fountainheads of the first amendment.” The freedom of press and freedom for our communities to have a local news organization that keeps them informed as citizens is essential to our democracy. I think our industry has some real educating to do with our public to reinvigorate and engage our younger audiences on why what we do matters and why they should care. As an example, we are partnering with organizations like “Trust in News” to ensure that our readers understand the work we do better. It is my belief that if you understand the value of what you are getting then you are more likely to support it. And that support may come in the form of subscriptions, advertisements, memberships, etc.

Some liberals deem that the AJC kowtows to the right-wing, while conservatives assert the paper is outright leftist. As an Indian-American, how do you maintain a balanced perspective at a major daily in the Deep South amidst ingrained political polarities?

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It is no surprise that we live in a conservative state and so any work that we do is looked upon with a critical eye by all of our critics on both sides, and rightfully so. We believe strongly that we represent both sides fairly and have mechanisms in place to hold ourselves accountable. This is an area where my role is fairly inoculated from the daily focus on being fair and not being biased. We purposefully maintain a firewall between operations and editorial and hence I’m not involved in such editorial decisions that determine how our reporting may be perceived.

Just over a decade ago, the AJC proffered more international content: there was a weekly supplement called “Atlanta & the World.” In addition, the local coverage routinely showcased immigrant narratives. But that coverage has been reduced in recent times. How will the AJC endeavor to serve the burgeoning immigrant communities of metro Atlanta?

This is a fantastic question. We rely heavily on our research to inform us amongst several things on topics and areas that we should cover. We do this on a very regular basis because the population of Atlanta and thereby our audience is getting more and more diverse. We are constantly looking for our blind spots and what the Maynard institute terms as “Fault Lines” to ensure that we are not missing out on meeting the needs of our communities, which include not just immigrant communities but also areas of diverse socio-economic representations.

I believe that technology will play a huge role in enabling organizations like ours to provide more in-depth coverage, like the ones you have pointed out, without incurring the high costs of having to have reporters cover all these beats. AI, machine learning, automated content creation are all no longer just theoretical concepts. We are testing some of these technologies already to see how we can broaden our coverage into areas that will otherwise not be possible.

What is the path ahead for regional newspapers facing an existential crisis, and for regional magazines, including ethnic (niche) magazines like Khabar?

I don’t think there is a one size fits all answer. We are at a pivot point from a business model standpoint. I believe there will be models that emerge that will help forge the path ahead for regional newspapers. We have all seen the commoditization of news in general via the big tech platforms like Google, Facebook, etc. In some ways, that has led to the proliferation of the notion of fake news as no one knows who and what to trust. There are a lot of organizations that do genuine, important and groundbreaking journalistic work, and ensuring that we have a model that attributes authenticity of origin will ensure that we regain that trust. This will lead to new business models where readers are willing to pay for trusted, verified news.

My household has been an avid Khabar reader since the ‘90s when the immigrant community did not have a lot of mechanisms to share in our culture, news, etc. As Khabar has done before going into its third decade now, figuring out how to stay true to the needs of the readers will be the key to our success.

What can readers do to drive the demand for bona fide and relevant news?

The Indian diaspora in metro Atlanta and, in general across the United States, generally skews on average towards being highly educated, high tech and paid above average. However, I’ve been puzzled in general by the apathy and lack of awareness that we as a community have had towards the importance of trusted journalism that keeps its citizens informed. We all pay our taxes, have kids in schools, elect public officials that are supposed to act in our best interest. Yet, when it comes to an institution that holds them accountable and keeps citizens informed, we seem to either take it for granted or don’t seem to fully understand the importance.

We are all exposed to the infrastructure issues that are huge in our communities, and very specific local community issues like commute and transit that matter in our daily lives. For example, the AJC recently did groundbreaking reporting on the state of senior care in our community and how many problems exists. As Indians, it is rooted in our culture to care for our parents and elders and I personally know a lot of neighbors, friends and acquaintances who are faced with this task. Yet, when I bring up the work we did and what we have found in our investigations to several folks in our community, it is surprising how oblivious we are to what is going on and not paying attention to what is being reported. I would love to see the Indian community rise in support of the free press that upholds our first amendment that is fundamental to our democracy.


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Author of Kismetwali & Other Stories, Reetika Khanna is an Atlanta-based freelance writer who likes to spotlight people with purpose. She has worked with ELLE as a senior features writer, and as an associate features editor with ELLE DÉCOR, Mumbai. For more, go to ReetikaKhanna.com



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