Atlanta Journal-Constitution Aims for Half a Million Digital Subscribers in Under Four Years

From a Wall Street Journal story by Alexandra Bruell headlined “Atlanta News Outlet Aims for Half a Million Digital Subscribers in Under Four Years”:

The new leader of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wants to increase the publication’s digital subscribers more than eightfold by the end of 2026, an ambitious goal he aims to reach through expanded local-news coverage and new products.

“In the last five-to-10 years, we’ve just focused on Atlanta,” said Andrew Morse, a former CNN digital executive who took over as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s new president and publisher in January. He said the publication plans to hire about 100 people in the coming years and place editorial staff in Georgia cities such as Macon, Savannah, Columbus, Augusta and Athens, where it determined that local coverage has eroded.

The publication is also planning to add products dedicated to sports, Black culture, Southern cooking and politics, including new video and audio features—most of which would be available exclusively to subscribers.

Morse said the moves are part of an effort to reach 500,000 digital subscribers largely across the Southeast by the end of 2026, up from about 60,000 today. The expansion will be funded in part by the $100 million that Atlanta Journal-Constitution parent Cox Enterprises recently allocated to the publication, a person familiar with the funding said.

Morse said the publication only launched its paywall in 2020 and is therefore starting from a low digital-subscriber baseline, which helps explain the rapid pace of growth that he expects.

The pace of subscriber growth he envisions is nearly twice as rapid as what the New York Times, a national publication with a global reach, experienced about three years after it launched its paywall. From that point on, it took the Times about seven years to see its digital-subscriber base rise more than eightfold.

Morse said that from what he learned watching the digital expansion of the Times and other news organizations, he expects the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to achieve that level of growth in less than four years. If successful, that plan would make the Journal-Constitution one of the largest news organizations in the country by digital subscribers.

In a way, Morse’s vision for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is similar to the one that Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong laid out for his news organization a few years ago: Turn a city-focused publication into a superregional news source.

In a 2019 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Soon-Shiong said the Los Angeles Times needed to build its digital-subscriber base to five million, from a base of 150,000 at the time. Four-and-a-half years later, it has nearly 550,000 digital subscribers, according to a spokeswoman for the publication.

Morse’s career spans senior television and digital roles at ABC News, Bloomberg and CNN. As chief digital officer at CNN, he oversaw efforts such as the creation of CNN+, a streaming network that was shut down weeks after its launch, shortly after Warner Bros. Discovery boss David Zaslav took the reins.

Adding to Morse’s challenges at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is the continued decline of local U.S. news publications, which have suffered sharper drops in circulation than national outlets and greater incursions into their online advertising businesses from tech giants such as Alphabet’s Google and Meta Platforms’ Facebook. These news organizations are also having a much more difficult time converting readers into paying digital customers, The Wall Street Journal previously reported.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is facing declining circulation and remains unprofitable, the person familiar with the matter said. On weekdays, its total circulation ranges between 80,000 and 100,000, according to data from the Alliance for Audited Media.

Morse said he plans to continue to offer the daily print newspaper and expand the Sunday edition, even as it gives priority to digital. “The print paper has become a secondary consideration,” he said.

Since 2005, the U.S. has lost more than a fourth of its newspapers and is on track to lose a third by 2025, according to a report from Northwestern University published last summer. Local newspapers faced other challenges with legacy print products, such as a shortage of people who can deliver papers.

Morse said that local publications’ challenges give the Atlanta Journal-Constitution an opportunity to grow as the Southeast’s primary news outlet.

“We’re not trying to be the [New York] Times or Wall Street Journal,” Morse said. “We’re laser-focused on being the most essential news source to people in Atlanta, Georgia, and the South.”

Under Morse, the organization has given priority to critical news beats, such as politics, courts and education, and will continue to invest in those areas as new audiences express interest in Georgia-related news.

Morse said coverage of former President Trump’s recent indictment by a Fulton County, Ga., grand jury for his alleged efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election led to a flurry of new digital subscribers for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, most of whom were from outside of Atlanta.

The publication is expanding podcasts and newsletters and is increasing the frequency of its podcast Politically Georgia. It also recently created a pop-up Fulton County grand-jury newsletter.

Morse in June tapped Monica Pearson, a veteran Atlanta broadcaster, to host a new show, “The Monica Pearson Show,” and oversee other efforts. He also appointed Leroy Chapman Jr. this year as the publication’s first Black editor in chief.

Morse plans to increase coverage of local teams such as Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves and ultimately build a stand-alone sports product. ​​He said he drew inspiration from the New York Times cooking app, which began with a concept that sought to reach people who loved its recipes, tested and built a product with a large following, and ultimately charged for a stand-alone product.

With Georgia being one of the most popular states for shooting films and series, Morse said the Atlanta Journal-Constitution will invest in producing video based on a “treasure trove of history in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution archive.” The news outlet is premiering a documentary in early November called “South Got Something to Say” that chronicles the rise of hip-hop in Atlanta.

“If we can nail this product that’s an engaging source of news and information, and entertainment for the Black community in Atlanta, that’s going to resonate far beyond Atlanta,” he said.

Jim Friedlich, CEO of the Lenfest Institute, which publishes the Philadelphia Inquirer, said some regional papers have benefited from reader interest in local news, politics and sports—but still face headwinds, including the sharp decline in local news advertising.

“There’s some wind at their back, and there’s digital acumen, there’s capital, there’s expertise,” he said of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s going to be closely watched within the news industry.”

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