There’s an old saying about the newspaper business that you should never pick a fight with anyone who buys ink by the barrel. Note that the reference is to the person paying for the ink, not the person using it.
I’ve learned the hard way over more than a quarter-century in this business that those of us reporting, writing and editing the news can easily find ourselves on the losing end of that fight.
It was almost exactly 10 years ago, around Memorial Day in 2008, that I conceded defeat in such a battle and left my job as managing editor of the Atlanta Jewish Times.
The Detroit company that owned the AJT had repeatedly cut our budget, our pages, our staff and our control since 2005, and when management told me to lay off another reporter, I chose to lay myself off instead. I wasn’t trying to reverse Detroit’s decision or become a martyr; I made a simple assessment about what was best for the newspaper and the community it served.
The most valuable elements of any newspaper are the reporters. Laying myself off saved more money and maximized the AJT boots on the ground, gathering news. Besides, Detroit was making so many decisions about the content and look of the newspaper that while I was editing, I wasn’t doing much managing.
I moved into a freelance role as a contributing editor. I wrote the weekly editorials and offered advice to the remaining staffers. It was an arrangement that lasted only three months, and Detroit sold the AJT the following April.
It was my decision to leave the AJT then, but I didn’t feel I had a choice.
When Michael Morris bought the newspaper at the end of 2014 and hired me back to serve as editor, it was a dream come true: a chance to do the job for which I’d moved to Atlanta, but for a local owner whose motivation was the community’s need for the resource, not just personal financial gain.
Unfortunately, we eventually wake up from dreams, and after 3½ years, my dream is over.
This is my final issue as editor of the AJT, and this time it’s not my decision. Michael Morris, the guy who buys those barrels of ink, real and virtual, has decided to let me go.
I believe that we share a vision of what the Atlanta Jewish Times should be and what role it should play, but it seems we disagree on how to get there.
Think of the AJT as the Atlanta Falcons and Michael Morris as Arthur Blank. I’m Mike Smith, who was hired when the team was horrible and turned things around to make the Falcons a perennial playoff contender.
But Smith couldn’t get the Falcons to the Super Bowl, and the team plateaued and even began to decline. So Blank, despite appreciating Smith’s excellent work, fired him and brought in Dan Quinn, who then took the team closer to a Super Bowl title than ever before.
Likewise, the AJT improved dramatically after Michael made me editor. You can judge our success by the number of American Jewish Press Association awards, by our increased ad sales, by our stronger circulation numbers or by our online traffic growth. I prefer focusing on people’s renewed interest in the AJT and desire to be a part of it, best demonstrated by all the synagogues and other community organizations contributing to our Rosh Hashanah issue.
But the hard numbers say we’ve hit a plateau, and Michael believes that someone with a fresh perspective will be better able to break through to the newspaper version of the Super Bowl in 2018: financial sustainability.
I don’t agree, but Michael signs the checks. It is his call, as it should be, and I hope he’s right: I hope the next editor can lead the AJT to sustainable success.
So, for the second time in a decade, I find that I am leaving my dream job, the one I thought I was destined to spend the rest of my career doing. I always tell people I’m a lousy prognosticator.
I leave the AJT with many regrets, not the least of which is my failure to secure the newspaper’s future as the vital connective tissue for a wonderful Jewish community. We can achieve greatness if only we can break through the barriers of geography, politics, denominations and observance to build on the more important things we share: Israel, Torah, belief in justice, faith in the potential for a better world and our role and responsibility in creating it, and pride in our Jewish identity.
I have begun far more stories than I have finished since January 2015, and I apologize if I interviewed you, responded positively to your pitch or attended your event and failed to follow through with an article. I too often took on more than I could complete in the futile hope that eventually I would catch up.
My only excuse is that I had a hard time acknowledging my limits and saying no to stories when faced with so many worthy issues, people and events in Jewish Atlanta. I’m sad that I won’t be telling any more of those stories, but I look forward to enjoying them for years to come in the print AJT and at atlantajewishtimes.com.
I don’t know what’s next for me. I’m not leaving Atlanta, but it might be time to walk away from this abusive relationship with journalism. Working at the AJT was above all a way to apply my skills to serve the Jewish community; perhaps I can find another way to do that. If you have suggestions, find me on LinkedIn, or email me at email@example.com.