A conversation with Leroy Chapman Jr., The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s new top editor

Leroy Chapman Jr., the first Black editor-in-chief in the 155-year history of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, sat down with AJC reporter and Unapologetically ATL newsletter co-curator Ernie Suggs to talk about the challenges of running an evolving big-city newsroom and what it means to be a real leader.

It’s been a week since the official announcement was made that you will be the new editor-in-chief of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Has it sunk in yet?

I think that headline meant a lot to people. This institution has been around for a long time. It’s 155 years old and this is the first time you have someone of color who will lead this newsroom. That’s not lost on me. And so as you think about why people are celebrating, it’s really not me. It’s the fact that I’m a person of color. And I am now somewhere where a person of color has never been. So when you think about the significance of that in 2023, it sort of hits people emotionally. It’s proof that we belong and we are capable.

You mention the word belong. Was there ever any doubt or fear?

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

No. And I don’t say that arrogantly. I just say it because I believe in the work that’s put in. Over the years, I’ve probably always had a little bit of this irrational self-confidence, even as an 11-year-old. ‘I can do this. I can jump off the top of the house,’ and I was probably in the ER a lot when I was a little kid because of that. So I probably have still a little bit of that in me. But also, I have “earned self-confidence.” I’ve been basically running the daily news gathering operation for quite some time.

What is the state of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution?

We are in a time of transition. We have a new publisher. We know that as a printed seven-day-a-week newspaper that at a certain point we’re going to have to make some decisions about that because the business case will probably change. News consumption habits have changed. Nobody banks like they used to or even goes to the grocery store like you used to. Technology is changing us and we’re not exempt from that. So will we change? Yes.

Do you have any specific changes planned?

We do. I think that we understand that our audience of the future is going to look a little different than our audience right now. We’ve got to get younger. There is a big, diverse audience available to us. We have some audience that will nibble around ajc.com for free. Then we have a very loyal audience who take all of our products and they’re willing to pay for us. We know that we need to change a little bit because we’ve got to get more of those folks. That’s going to mean thinking about the topics we cover, how we embed in communities, being very present in the moment.

Now that you are also the public face of the newspaper, how is your role going to change?

That comes with the job and I realize [former Editor] Kevin Riley was excellent at that. Kevin was the kind of guy you invited into the community and he showed up. I’ll have to do the same thing and I really look forward to that.

Credit: Miguel Martinez for the AJC

Credit: Miguel Martinez for the AJC

You came to the AJC, from The State in South Carolina. You have talked about making that jump to a bigger market, which is what many journalists aspire to do. How did you make that transition?

Atlanta is a significant city, not just for Georgia, but for the South and the country. So coming here, I’ve come to realize that you can tell just about every American story here because you can tell a story about what Atlanta is in terms of wealth, education. Look at our politics. We’re closely divided. That mirrors the country. Demographic change. We’ve seen that here. So all of the American stories can be lensed through Atlanta. When I got here, I was hired for a job that didn’t require me to even have a team. Some people wondered why would I do that, because I had a team in Columbia and I was doing work that I found to be gratifying because I was the editor of the politics team. And of course, I walked into a newsroom with a ton of talent. When I got here it was very difficult to see a bunch of talented people and think that you’re going to be the one who’s going to lead them someday. In fact, I saw lots of folks capable of leading. I learned from them. And did the work.

So you left the State and a really nice job to come to Atlanta. That is pretty risky.

I was betting on myself a bit. But I also had a couple of people who were editors here during my interview who said we could use more people like you, with a variety of experiences, in this newsroom. They thought I was a cultural fit. Thought I was flexible. They thought my experience leading internally and externally was a good foundation for leadership here. Before I became politics editor, I did a lot of things as a reporter. Then, I spent six years on an editorial page. So some of that was very much doing a little of what I’ll be doing now. I had to be a face of a newspaper in my hometown of Greenville, South Carolina. I was the first African-American to break that color line, since there had not been anyone on the editorial page that was of color until I got there in 1998.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

You said that it wasn’t until five or six years in that you started to realize that this could happen. Was there a particular moment where it clicked?

A couple of things happened. I started getting calls from other news organizations who said we think you could be the editor here. It really did make me reframe and rethink some things. That’s the kind of thing that gives you the confidence to say if it’s not here, it might be somewhere. Atlanta has always been my first choice.

So this is a big job, but there is also historical significance. Give me your sense of what that means to you.

So it will make a difference in this way - there are some people who will see evidence [of change]. I will be visible evidence and maybe they will now be more confident that they can approach us. As a traditional newspaper, we’ve suffered from being sort of nameless, faceless for a long, long time, very institutional and powerful. That can put people off. One of the things we want to do is humanize our newsroom. I’m your neighbor. I know there’s a lot of power with the AJC’s history and its brand and its reach. But at the end of the day, there are two things that are important for me to show. One is that we intend to be inclusive of everyone. That’s something that I can help resolve. Two, as we think about being really attuned to the solutions, the urgent solutions, the conversations that have to happen in order for us to arrive at solutions, I want to be a great listener and lead this newsroom in convening those solution-focused conversations.

So how have the first few days on the job been?

Credit: Brandon Clifton

Credit: Brandon Clifton

Overwhelming. I’ve been getting calls from lots of people who want to meet. So if I don’t want to pay for breakfast for about the next month, I don’t have to I presume, because people want to have breakfast or lunch and connect with the AJC. But it’s also been a lot of conversations with other journalists. People have been very generous. There are people who have this job at other big-city American newspapers who have reached out to offer their counsel. I will lean on a bunch of people who have offered help. This is a big job and I want the community to be confident, and I want our newsroom to be confident.

How do you want to close out your first interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as its editor-in-chief?

This is the honor of a lifetime. Getting here, and I’ve said this a couple of times, is a great American story. I can trace my family back to colonial America. That’s on my mother’s side. Even on my father’s side, we can’t trace it back that far, but can trace it to the white family that bears my name, who still lives on the properties where my family was owned. So given that, this is significant and I get it. I know that I represent a lot of people who did not have the same opportunities, no matter their ambitions or talents. They just didn’t get a chance. My grandfather, my dad’s dad, was born in 1909. When you think about the arc of his life, he died when I was eight. He never could have envisioned this. My father passed away in 2020. I hate that he didn’t get to see this, but I know he’s proud.