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From AJR,   September 1992  issue

Life After Kovach   

The Atlanta newspapers are tighter and brighter under Ron Martin. The purists may wince, but the numbers are up and there's still room for aggressive reporting.


By Richard Shumate
Richard Shumate is a staff writer for Atlanta magazine.      

A newspaper editor and his wife emerge from a gourmet market. The camera zooms in as he walks out the door, carrying a salmon wrapped in plastic. He spies a USA Today box, walks over to it and buys a copy. He takes the fish out of the plastic and rewraps it in the newspaper, to the strains of his wife's laughter. They walk away.

Coming soon to a theater near you.

This bit of USA Today-bashing might seem more like banter at a journalism convention than the stuff of a box office smash. The scene is more compelling when you consider the names involved. The man wrapping fish may well be Robert Redford. He's expected to play Bill Kovach, former editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the scene comes from the first draft of "Above the Fold." As told by the screenwriters, it's the story of how Kovach left the New York Times in 1986 to bring hard-hitting, big-time journalism to Atlanta. Two years later, he's forced out by timid management feeling pressure from corporate heavyweights and replaced by Ron Martin, who had been executive editor of USA Today.

But reality isn't as simple as the scenario outlined in the screenplay: Kovach, now curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, resigned. Management insists it did not buckle to pressure from targets of the newspapers' reporting. While no one disparages Kovach's editorial talents or disputes the triumphs of his tenure, the implication that the Atlanta papers were weak and riddled with incompetence before his arrival is rejected by many who worked there. And although the papers now show the influence of USA Today, Martin clearly has not turned them into regional versions of his colorful former publication.

The papers are owned by Cox Enterprises, which also owns a television station and two radio stations in the city. While the newspapers publish a combined edition on weekends – with a Sunday circulation around 700,000 – the Constitution comes out on weekday mornings and the Journal in the afternoon. The papers, which share the same news staff, differ mainly on the front page and section fronts and on the editorial page (the Journal is considered conservative, the Constitution liberal).

The Constitution has a rich history. In the 1880s legendary editor Henry Grady launched his vision of a "New South," a region rebuilt following the Civil War, on its pages. During the Civil Rights era, editor Ralph McGill and his paper were lonely voices favoring integration in a South resistant to change. McGill created a journalistic tradition carried on by his successor, Eugene Patterson.

Although there are dailies in two of the area's largest suburban counties, there are no other major metro papers to provide competition. And in the past six years, a captive audience has watched the papers' style swing back and forth as Martin and Kovach applied their disparate approaches to presenting the news.


Contrasting Styles

The contrast between Ron Martin and Bill Kovach is illustrated by the advertising slogans used to promote the papers during their tenures. Under Kovach, it was "Now You Know." Under Martin, it's "Today's Paper."

Kovach, who turns 60 this month, grew up in east Tennessee and made his name in the media circles of Washington, D.C., as the New York Times' bureau chief. He is described – by an admirer – as "an irascible, barbed-wire kind of guy."

Martin, 54, is a soft-spoken Midwesterner who has spent much of his career working for Gannett, which owns USA Today. He helped launch Florida Today, the prototype for USA Today, and also spent seven years at Knight-Ridder's Miami Herald.

Martin says he is uncomfortable with people dwelling on the perceived gulf between his style and Kovach's; he says the differences are "overstated." Martin describes his initiatives as part of a continuum, bringing in modern techniques and combining them with traditional hard-news coverage.

"I think it's simplistic to suggest that a paper can only do things one way and that there is only one way to do things," says Martin. For him, the most important barometer of success is what readers think of the papers and what they get out of them: "I'm looking for a feeling that the paper is making a difference in people's lives. [We want] to help them understand the issues of the day and help them in living their lives."

While he says he wouldn't mind winning a Pulitzer, the thought "doesn't enter my consciousness for more than three seconds a year. You can have fun and have some heart and not take yourself so seriously. But you can still be serious.

"I'm not one of those who thinks papers are bad and getting worse all the time," he adds. For Martin, the mission of newspapers hasn't changed, but he believes they have to make themselves more relevant in an age when people can turn to television and other information sources. "The competition for time is out there," he says. "You have to get people to pay attention to what you think is important."

To attract readers' attention, Martin instituted the use of more color and graphics, and long stories have given way to shorter pieces with a number of sidebars. All of this, he says, is an effort "to get the information off the page and into people's heads." The papers also are more formatted than before. "I didn't think the paper was as well organized as it should be," he says.

On one Thursday last May, the front page of the Constitution was dominated by news that the crew of the space shuttle Endeavor had captured an errant satellite. The space above the fold, except for the left-hand column index, was devoted to the story – including a color photo, a graphic explaining how the satellite had been rescued and returned to orbit, and a 72-point headline.

In the bottom left corner was a story that might well have led the paper if Kovach were still around – the tale of how an Atlanta-area consulting company helped Iraq import the machine tools it needed for its military buildup.

Martin's changes have not been just cosmetic. He has decided to put more emphasis on health, lifestyle and personal finance issues. To involve readers, the papers now use surveys – both scientific samples and call-in polls – to track political races and gauge sentiment about a wide variety of topics.

While Kovach wanted fewer personal opinion columns in the papers, Martin has started new ones, including a column on traffic and an "around town" column called Peach Buzz (which first was given a prominent position on page two but has since been moved to the lifestyle section). One of the papers' top reporters, Jane Hansen, was given a column that alternates with humorist Lewis Grizzard's.

The newspapers also have not been afraid to do a little cheerleading. When the Atlanta Braves made it to the World Series last year, their exploits frequently were page-one news. And when the city was picked to host the 1996 Summer Olympics, the front page screamed, "It's Atlanta."

"Some people call that boosterism," says Martin. "I think what you're doing is reflecting the enthusiasm that exists in the city."

Martin says the days when a reporter went out, gathered information and then sat down and wrote a story are over. Instead, reporters work as part of a team, with editors and artists, to come up with "packages."

"There's a great premium on coordination and cooperation," says Andrew Glass, the Washington bureau chief for Cox Newspapers. He says Martin wants stories that anticipate future events and explain complicated situations.

If the success of Martin's approach is judged by circulation, then his changes seem to be working. In the first two years of his tenure ending in mid-1991, the Constitution's circulation rose by 51,000, or 10 percent. Although circulation has dropped since then, it is still higher by 15,000 daily and nearly 34,000 Sunday since Martin took over.

Martin believes that newspapers need to compete with television and other media sources; Kovach argues dailies should concentrate on filling a niche television does not – providing strong, in-depth coverage of political and economic issues that affect people's lives. He cites as an example the Philadelphia Inquirer's nine-part series on the state of the economy, "America: What Went Wrong?" and talks admiringly of its "24 pages of dense, solid reporting." The series boosted Inquirer circulation when it ran, attracted thousands of requests for reprints and became a bestselling book.

"The readers are looking for that kind of information," says Kovach. "They're starved for it."

The former editor argues against rigid rules dictating what goes where and how long it should be: "Every time you lay in a rule, you dictate the substance of a story." Content should drive design, he says, not the other way around.


Enter Kovach

Kovach was hired as editor in December 1986, shortly after the New York Times' Washington staff won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Challenger disaster. His hiring was widely viewed as an attempt by Cox management to upgrade the papers' reputation. (In the movie script, the character based on Anne Cox Chambers, chairman of the Atlanta newspapers, decides to hire Kovach after she overhears Washington Post owner Katharine Graham laughing at her papers in the women's room during a Pulitzer Prize reception.)

"The Cox people who came to Washington and recruited me said they wanted the world's next great newspaper. That was their description, not mine," Kovach says. He says he took the job to move back to his native South and to give the Atlanta papers a voice in national and international affairs at a time when the South was coming of age politically.

"The only interest I have is public service, public interest and public information journalism. I am not a marketer and never will be," he says. "The business of journalism is protected in the Constitution for a reason..and if you choose to publish a newspaper, you inherit that obligation."

Kovach brought in two top editors who had worked with him at the New York Times – then they went on a hiring spree. During the next two years, the budget for the editorial department swelled by 38 percent. Kovach says his goal was to strengthen reporting in the core city and suburbs, as well as to add a regional, national and international perspective. One of the papers' first projects was on a famine in the Sudan. Although stories about Kovach's tenure in Atlanta often focus on national and international coverage, he says there also was more – and more hard-hitting – local news during his regime.

Kovach limited the number of columns in the papers and restricted columnists from breaking news stories. Chafing under the new regime, several long-time fixtures left and Grizzard, the widely syndicated star columnist, was said to be very unhappy.

A number of staffers clearly resented what they perceived to be the new management's condescending attitude toward them. "There was a great deal of alienation because there was a genuine lack of respect for some very fine newspaper people," says Lee Walburn, a columnist and feature writer at the time and now editor of Atlanta magazine.

Yet Kovach was able to build an extremely loyal following among many writers, who came to believe that anything they wanted to accomplish was possible.

Under Kovach, the papers took on some of the look and tone of the New York Times. Bucking the trend toward simple leads and truncated stories, the papers contained articles with elaborate lead paragraphs and stories of 70 inches or more. The papers even began using "Mr." in second references to men.

Kovach stopped using color photos on page one and limited the use of color elsewhere – not because he has anything against it but because he thought the papers' color reproduction was abysmal. New presses were being installed just before he resigned.

Under Kovach, the papers' prestige skyrocketed. In 1987, cartoonist Doug Marlette won a Pulitzer Prize, the first for the Atlanta paper in nearly 20 years, for work at both the Constitution and the Charlotte Observer. The next year, five of the Atlanta papers' stories were Pulitzer finalists, a feat achieved only once before by any newspaper. In 1988, the papers ran a series disclosing that banks in Atlanta were not issuing home loans in areas with high minority populations. The series, by Bill Dedman, piqued the interest of federal regulators and won the papers another Pulitzer.

But soon Kovach would be gone. The specific event that precipitated his departure was an argument with Publisher Jay Smith over the relationship with the Cox Newspapers' Washington bureau (the bureau serves all of Cox's papers and bureau chief Glass did not report to Kovach). But on a more fundamental level, Kovach's philosophy of newspapering may have been simply incompatible with that of Cox management. He admitted as much in his resignation statement, in which he said he and the Cox hierarchy didn't share the same values. Despite the critical success while he was at the helm, Smith has referred to Kovach's tenure as a "miserable disappointment."

While Martin may not emphasize investigative and enterprise pieces to the extent that Kovach did, it is hardly fair to say that the Atlanta newspapers no longer do significant, hard-hitting stories.

In 1989, reporter Jane Hansen spent six months investigating Georgia's child welfare system and found that in one year 51 children under state protection died from abuse. The series led to major changes in the system. In 1990, medical writer Steve Sternberg and photographer Michael Schwartz followed AIDS patient Tom Fox for 16 months until his death, resulting in a moving 16-page package on what it is like to live with AIDS. And throughout 1991, reporter Sallye Salter documented the financial problems of John Portman, the developer who shaped Atlanta's skyline.

But the papers haven't won a Pulitzer since Kovach left. Martin, a former Pulitzer juror, says he doesn't think the newspapers' reputation in the wake of the Kovach flap is the reason, but clearly they are no longer the media's darlings.

"The papers got an extraordinary amount of attention in the Kovach era. They had a high national profile when [he] was there," says Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz. But Kurtz says the current low profile "may just reflect the insularity of the Washington-New York media corridor."

Even so, decisions over which stories are pursued, and where they are placed, can send Martin's critics and some readers into apoplexy. One day the dominant story on the Constitution's front page was on a report concluding babies should sleep on their sides or backs rather than their stomachs. A page one story one Sunday disclosed that baby boomers were going to bed earlier.

Conversely, when a cyclone hit Bangladesh and killed 125,000 people last May, the story wound up inside the front section. The front page included stories on the opening of a McDonald's at the city's public hospital and a dispute between the city and caterers who provide food at concerts at an Atlanta park. That led one reader to ask in a letter to the editor, "Hello, is anyone home?"

In response to such criticism, Martin says he believes in emphasizing stories the papers can do best and those that answer questions the readers are asking. "You can't do everything every day all over the world," he says.

And when the world comes to Atlanta, Martin believes you have to be reader-friendly. For example, when Mikhail Gorbachev visited, Martin says it was important not only to cover the event but also to tell readers whether it might disrupt traffic and whether they would have a chance to glimpse the former Soviet president.

Martin says he does see room for improvement. He wants to make the papers more consistent, and says one of his priorities is building a stronger writing staff.

Many of the people brought in by Kovach – including Pulitzer Prize winners Marlette and Dedman – have left. As might be expected given all the turmoil of the past four years, morale is up and down.

A joke told by a staffer reflects some of the angst: "How many people does it take to write a story at the AJC? Fifty-three. One to write it, 50 to edit it and two to write the correction."

The move to lighter, brighter and tighter has chagrined some staff members and prompted others to depart. "I left because of creative differences – I wanted to be creative, and they wanted something different," says longtime feature writer Kathy Hogan Trocheck, who is now writing mysteries. Even columnist Grizzard, who comes off as a bumpkin and a villain in the screenplay, has been saying nice things about Kovach after Martin refused to run several of his columns.

That is not to say everyone is upset by the new era. Cox Washington Bureau Chief Glass, for one, says the change in atmosphere and Martin's new emphasis are "stimulating" and that the Atlanta newspapers are not forsaking journalism for fluff. "You don't have to take my word for it," he says. "You can just pick up the paper."


Atlanta, the Movie

Looming on the horizon is "Above the Fold," a movie that, if produced, could put a spotlight on the Atlanta newspapers yet again. The movie rights are controlled by Warner Brothers but no date has been set for production. Robert Redford won't be available until next year.

The screenplay was written by two Kovach partisans – novelist Pat Conroy (who was so miffed by Kovach's departure and the subsequent changes at the Atlanta newspapers that he moved to San Francisco) and Wendell "Sonny" Rawls Jr., a top editor under Kovach. Some familiar with the screenplay say it is more in the style of Oliver Stone's "JFK" than "All the President's Men."

The screenplay turns on this premise: Cox management, under pressure from bankers and business people who received unfavorable coverage, conspired to maneuver Kovach into a position where he was forced to quit to maintain his integrity. It is a charge Cox officials have repeatedly denied. Without that spin, says Publisher Smith, it's a movie nobody would want to see.

Glass, skewered in the screenplay as a marginal, mediocre journalist protecting his turf, says the premise is bogus.

"The myth really rests on the assumption that Bill sought to produce world-class journalism and that he was thwarted from doing so by timid ownership and a timid publisher," says Glass. "If that happened, then Cox has a lot to answer for. If it didn't happen, people shouldn't go around saying that. And it is not true."

CB Hackworth, an Atlanta journalist who has written about the screenplay, says its "treatment of Kovach has him riding this white horse into town and bringing journalism to Atlanta." In several instances, stories that the screenplay suggests were broken in the Atlanta papers were in fact first reported by local television stations, according to Hackworth.

Hackworth also says he found the characterization of major players to be off the mark. "It is all so black and white," he says. "The characters were either Truth, Justice and the American Way or they were something that crawled up from out under a rock. The reality of the situation was not that stark."

While Kovach may look like a white knight if and when "Above the Fold" makes it to the screen, no one in newspaper management is calling on him to come to the rescue. He says he doesn't expect to be named editor of a paper anytime soon.

"I'll miss the newsroom for the rest of my life," he says. "But I don't think many newspaper publishers today are particularly looking for journalists who think the way I do." l