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Up with Gwinnett, down with columnists at the AJC

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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has axed four of its columns and shipped more of the paper's talent this week from downtown to its ever-expanding Gwinnett County bureau.

Colin Campbell, who spent 14 of his 17 years at the AJC as a Metro section columnist, is leaving the paper. Joey Ledford, who wrote the "Lane Ranger" commuter column for eight years, is heading to Gwinnett, where he'll be an editor. And two sports writers, Michelle Hiskey and Steve Hummer, no longer will write columns.

Newsroom managers say it's coincidental that so many changes are occurring at the same time. They've long expressed anxiety about the paper's low circulation in Gwinnett, where commuting lifestyles and conservative politics have made the Atlanta paper a hard sell.

Metro Editor Bert Roughton acknowledges that circulation in the fast-growing county "has not been growing in leaps and bounds." In an attempt to woo Gwinnett readers, the newspaper has long offered them their own daily section -- something other counties don't get. Several newsroom staffers say the AJC now plans to wrap a Gwinnett page around the paper's front page, giving the appearance that it's a local newspaper.

Despite previous bureau expansions in Gwinnett County, Roughton describes this one -- together with similar pushes in Cobb and north Fulton -- as different. "We used to view [suburban bureaus] a lot more as training grounds," he says. "But now we're seeing them as a destination."

Among at least five experienced reporters and editors moving to Gwinnett are Duane Stanford, who had covered the state Department of Transportation, and Ben Smith, who was in the Capitol bureau. Campbell, whose column ran three times a week, was the newspaper's leading voice on intown government and politics.

The changes revive old questions about the paper's commitment to Statehouse and city coverage. Roughton admits that the AJC's reporting staff is spread thinly across the sprawling metro area. But he insists that Editor Julia Wallace and Managing Editor Hank Klibanoff remain committed to such hard-news beats and will likely hire replacements.

Unlike her predecessors, however, Wallace has yet to articulate a strong vision for the newspaper's future. Longtime Editor Ron Martin, who joined the paper from USA Today, ordered stories to be shortened and shifted resources away from government coverage. That was a big switch from his predecessor, Bill Kovach, who emphasized hard-news coverage and lengthy investigations.

Wallace appears to be navigating in the middle, with a heavy emphasis on following the market by stressing suburban coverage, consumer articles, and a stronger conservative presence in both news coverage and opinion columns.

Her most obvious mark, however, has come in staff shuffles. As managing editor in 2001, Wallace required writers to reapply for beats, which resulted in dramatic reassignments.

Newsroom management was tight-lipped about the recent columnist changes. Roughton referred questions about Campbell to Wallace, who failed to return calls. Newsroom sources did say the decision was management's and that managers had discussed with Campbell the possibility of moving to the editorial board.

In a statement to staff, Wallace said she accepted Campbell's decision to leave the paper with "wistfulness." In a brief interview, Campbell said leaving was his choice but declined to comment in more detail; he expects to focus in the future on magazine and book writing.

From time to time, newsroom managers have discussed recruiting a high-profile Metro columnist in the vein of Rita Grimsley-Johnson or the late Lewis Grizzard. Roughton says Campbell's departure wasn't tied to any effort to bring in another columnist.

"If Lewis Grizzard were to come alive tomorrow, he'd be welcome at the paper with open arms," Roughton says. "But that doesn't mean we're digging him up."

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