The judge in the trial of the Atlanta Public School cheating scandal case just lifted the gag order that had prohibited defendants from talking to the press. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported:
(Superior Court Judge Jerry) Baxter granted a motion jointly filed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News seeking to remove gag orders on the APS defendants that were made a part of their bonds. The orders restricted the administrators and educators from talking to the media and public about the case.
Tom Clyde, a lawyer for the AJC and WSB-TV, said “a core part of being an American citizen” is a defendant’s right to profess his or her innocence.
Quinn countered that the defendants agreed to the condition in exchange for getting their bonds reduced. “This was something they did knowingly and voluntarily,” he said.
So, the judge asked, they could either post bonds of several million dollars or agree not to talk about the case?
“I’m striking that,” he said.
The gag order limited the press from covering the story fairly by giving prosecutors a monopoly on access to reporters.
Gag orders are considered a form of “prior restraint” — a serious abridgment of freedom of the press. However, they aren’t necessarily viewed as unconstitutional since the U.S. Constitution guarantees both a right to a free press as well as a right to a fair trial.
The Supreme Court generally holds that gag orders must directly lead to a more fair trial for defendants in order to uphold any restrictions on press coverage.
Given that standard, it’s hard to see how the gag order in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating case would lead to a more fair trial for the defendants.
The AJC and WSB deserve praise for paying their lawyers to fight the gag order. They are owned by the same company, Cox Communications — a reminder that bigger isn’t always badder when it comes to media outlets.
According to the paper’s public editor:
A year ago, the newspaper was losing money. Business leaders moved quickly to turn that around, making a series of painful expense cuts that included trimming home delivery to outlying regions and reducing staff. Printing was consolidated at the company’s Gwinnett County plant, meaning the downtown presses were no longer used. And so the downtown office, which was expensive to maintain and no longer fully utilized, became an obvious choice for savings.
As difficult as those cuts were, the work paid off. The AJC has been profitable for the past several months. And in the face of necessary changes, the newspaper maintained its focus on what is essential to readers: a comprehensive report with deep local news, business, sports and entertainment coverage; a diverse mix of opinion and expertise; and in-depth watchdog reporting on topics that matter to all of metro Atlanta.
The AJC has indeed been doing a good job covering the area despite its reduced staff. They also put an impressive amount of resources into investigative journalism — producing about 10 enterprise pieces a week.
I would also add that the paper has worked on listening to complaints about its liberal bias — both in the news section and on the editorial pages. The paper shifted its editorial board to the center a year ago.
The AJC should also be lauded for its embrace of networked journalism. They often use shout-outs to their Twitter followers to get information on developing stories. And anecdotal evidence shows they’re quite receptive to fixing the mistakes pointed out by their networked community. Earlier this year, I criticized a lede for unfairly portraying a suspect in a crime as guilty. They fixed it within 2 hours and alerted me via Twitter.
It appears that all these elements make for profitable journalism. Other news outlets should take note of the AJC’s approach to the news business.
Atlanta Unsheltered is reporting that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s editorial board no longer features Jay Bookman or Cynthia Tucker. That’s a pretty huge move — removing, as Ken Edelstein puts it, the “two most important liberal voices in the state for the last two decades.”
This move represents AJC Publisher Julia Wallace’s stated intention to create more balance in the paper. She noted earlier this year that reader’s had complained “that our editorial pages are too liberal,” and removing Tucker and Bookman answers those complaints pretty effectively.
I think this is a good move. Where is it written that a newspaper’s editorial board must sit on the far left end of the political spectrum? We can assume that the new board will be closer to the middle and won’t automatically alienate a large number of its readers. Thoughtful editorial writing, not beholden to one political ideology, will better serve the city of Atlanta.
As newspapers seek to hold on to their readership in this new media environment, perhaps more will purge their editorial boards in an attempt to make a product more palatable to both sides of the political spectrum.
Congratulations, Ben Smith, staff writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
Note to robbers: don’t take a knife to a step ladder fight. That’s what one thief discovered when a customer at an Acworth convenience store on North Main Street bonked him with a ladder used for reaching items on the top shelf.
The robber had just threatened to cut the Quik Thrift store clerk’s neck if he didn’t give him cash, authorities said. The clerk complied.
Then the customer — a regular who is known to store workers as “Caveman” — grabbed the step ladder and smacked the suspect at least once. The robber dropped some of the money and fled.
The customer with the step ladder chased him out of the store.
You win the Matt Duffy Great Lede contest.
Here’s a new Web site from a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution staffer. Atlanta Unfiltered digs up public records and publishes them online. Here’s a good story on pay raises at cash-strapped MARTA — 114 people got 10 to 40 percent salary increases.
The editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has offered a few more details about the paper’s efforts to take accusations of bias seriously:
Now … let me discuss the issue that generated the most questions and comments to our publisher. Some readers believe we do a good job of being fair in our coverage and providing a balance of opinions. A few think we’re too conservative. But many more believe that our editorial pages are too liberal and that bias seeps into our news coverage. We have heard you on the bias issue and are taking deliberate steps to address this.
On the news pages, we have several editors who are assigned to look for bias and balance issues in stories and headlines. This has led to fairer coverage — more care in our play of stories as well as more straightforward approaches in headlines and local and wire stories. We continually discuss this issue with our staff and will continue to put an emphasis on critical editing focused on fairness.
On the opinion pages, we are in a concerted march toward providing a rich marketplace of views, including liberal, conservative and others that defy labeling. We are in the process of selecting a new full-time conservative columnist. We have opened this up to the public and also asked you to let us know what you think of the sample columns from the finalists. We received 750 responses from people — giving us excellent feedback as we winnow the field. When this process is complete, we will have this new columnist three times a week, as well as Jim Wooten once a week, Bob Barr once a week, Cynthia Tucker twice a week and Jay Bookman twice a week, giving us a much stronger local columnist lineup than ever. Our new commentary keeps a running count of conservative and liberal columns on the pages to make sure we are balanced.
In this world, we know you want facts that are verified and not passed through a filter of bias. That is one of the important functions the press performs that our Founding Fathers valued so highly — providing information without being beholden to anyone.
FIve years ago, you could never convince a daily paper to take accusations of bias this seriously. I applaud the AJC’s efforts, although they’re adopting this new attitude out of enlightened self-interest.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has announced the cuts I alluded to earlier in the week. In a statement from the publisher, Doug Franklin, they outlined the current predicament:
For years, the AJC was sustained by classified and retail advertising. This revenue allowed us to deliver the newspaper to you 365 days a year at a very reasonable price. But as people turned to the Internet, classified listings declined. Our retail advertisers have been forced by current significant economic challenges to reduce their ad spending.
… No business can lose money for long, and we are working day and night to turn this around. We are making difficult decisions: we have cut staff, frozen pay, reduced our circulation area and taken a sharp pencil to all our business costs.
He announced that the paper will shutter the standalone business section and merge three Sunday features sections. He also alluded to findings from focus groups that has led to a change in coverage:
We have dramatically stepped up our investigative efforts. We’ve added two business columnists and made great strides to simplify and better organize the newspaper. We have redoubled our efforts to present important local news while still providing the national and international coverage you want.
… We also have worked hard to create news pages that are free of bias and opinion pages that are balanced.
Welcome news. Putting a focus on investigative news plays to the newspaper’s strength. Any news outlet can cover a fire or a shooting, but few have the ability to conduct in-depth investigations that keep a check on the powerful. (Today’s probe of our three-decade long agriculture commissioner comes to mind.)
But, Franklin’s vow to ferret out bias is also refreshing. For years, the biggest complaint against the AJC (and most other city’s major newspaper) has been the left-leaning tilt of news coverage. Many people who are defecting away from traditional media are doing so because they perceive a bias in the coverage. In pre-Internet days, those critics had no other options. Today they have plenty. The AJC’s focus on rooting out bias shows a concern for reader complaints that were brushed aside when the advertising coffers were overflowing.
I have high hopes for the new newspaper paradigm that’s forming. I think the newspaper of the future will improve on its strengths and eliminate the information readers can easily get elsewhere. That’s good news.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will soon be getting smaller. The business section will be folded into the A section and probably some other cuts as well.
The Web version has totally rebranded itself as “AJC” — too new media to use long words. Hopefully, they can get some revenue from that puppy to pay for all those reporters.
Great journalism from my local paper:
Retired Fulton Superior Court Clerk Juanita Hicks won a controversial consulting contract from her handpicked successor last year in part to write a history of the clerk’s office.
“She is interested in history and so am I,” Clerk Cathlene “Tina” Robinson said in August while explaining the unusual assignment.
Now that Hicks’ contract has ended, no tangible work product exists.
In fact, Hicks left no written work behind as proof she completed any of the obscure duties that Robinson paid her $55 an hour to perform, said Willie Lovett, a county attorney who represents the clerk’s office.
The 10-month contract, which ended in December, allowed Hicks to bill up to $97,000. She came in under budget at $73,922, according to county figures.
In response to a recent open-record request from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Robinson was unable to produce any memos, e-mails, documents or correspondence on any topic by Hicks.
Hicks retires. Robinson replaces her. Robinson gives Hicks nearly $80,000. Hicks can’t prove that she did any work.
My morning paper published this final post from Maj. Andrew Olmstead, who died in Iraq on January 3. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the 38-year-old soldier was shot by a sniper while trying to convince three insurgents to surrender.
Here’s an excerpt from Olmstead’s final post:
I suppose I should speak to the circumstances of my death. It would be nice to believe that I died leading men in battle, preferably saving their lives at the cost of my own. More likely I was caught by a marksman or an IED. But if there is an afterlife, I’m telling anyone who asks that I went down surrounded by hundreds of insurgents defending a village composed solely of innocent women and children. It’ll be our little secret, ok?
I do ask (not that I’m in a position to enforce this) that no one try to use my death to further their political purposes. I went to Iraq and did what I did for my reasons, not yours. My life isn’t a chit to be used to bludgeon people to silence on either side. If you think the U.S. should stay in Iraq, don’t drag me into it by claiming that somehow my death demands us staying in Iraq. If you think the U.S. ought to get out tomorrow, don’t cite my name as an example of someone’s life who was wasted by our mission in Iraq. I have my own opinions about what we should do about Iraq, but since I’m not around to expound on them I’d prefer others not try and use me as some kind of moral capital to support a position I probably didn’t support. Further, this is tough enough on my family without their having to see my picture being used in some rally or my name being cited for some political purpose. You can fight political battles without hurting my family, and I’d prefer that you did so.
On a similar note, while you’re free to think whatever you like about my life and death, if you think I wasted my life, I’ll tell you you’re wrong. We’re all going to die of something. I died doing a job I loved. When your time comes, I hope you are as fortunate as I was.
Read the rest. Powerful stuff.