Opinion: A broadcast reporter finds a home at the AJC

And has never been happier

When people ask me how I like my still relatively new job here at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I tell them how thrilling it’s been that after spending many years in broadcast journalism, I now find myself working for one of the country’s most storied newspapers, founded more than 150 years ago.

I’ve always been drawn to the romance of newspapering, probably because I grew up in Chicago, where Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur met as young reporters and used their experiences in the city’s newsrooms to write “The Front Page,” a madcap play and movie about wise-cracking, ink-stained reporters chasing big scoops.

But it’s the mission of newspapers that matters so much to me. Local newspapers play a key role in bringing communities together around shared concerns. They work to expose corruption and celebrate the best of who we are. A good newspaper helps create and reinforce the very identity of the community it serves. It’s an essential component of our democracy.

When I was growing up, Chicago was home to four daily newspapers. My father and I would sit at the breakfast table and take turns reading The Chicago Tribune and The Sun-Times, and in the afternoon, my dad would bring home The Daily News and The Chicago American (which in its waning years became Chicago Today.)

I got my first taste of working in journalism when I became editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper in Skokie, Illinois. My team and I not only wrote copy (I wrote a monthly column), we also worked with a local printer, who, in those days transformed our words into “hot type”— lead slugs produced on clattering Linotype machines, and then pounded with worn wooden mallets into metal forms that created each page of our newspaper.

Bill Nigut's first exposure to the newspaper business — editor and columnist for his high school newspaper in Skokie, Illinois.

Credit: Bill Nigut

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Credit: Bill Nigut

My career path led me into television news in Chicago, but even then my friends were newspaper reporters and editors. We gathered for raucous evenings drinking Guinness stout, listening to Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers on the jukebox, and trading gossip about local politicians and celebrities at O’Rourke’s, an Irish pub that was the center of social life for Chicago print journalists. O’Rourke’s featured black-and-white posters of the great Irish writers Sean O’Casey, George Bernard Shaw and Brendan Behan on one wall.

O’Rourke’s was the pub where the great film critic Roger Ebert held court until he gave up drinking. Studs Terkel and the novelist Nelson Algren, who wrote “The Man with the Golden Arm,” were known to drop in, and it was where Mike Royko, the greatest of Chicago political columnists and acerbic heckler of Mayor Richard J. Daley, would come by to wet his whistle.

Those are bygone days. O’Rourke’s shuttered its doors years ago. The city’s afternoon newspapers are long gone, too. The Tribune went bankrupt in 2007 and was eventually bought in 2021 by a hedge fund, which immediately began offering buyouts to newsroom staff. The Sun-Times, facing financial hardship, sold its landmark building on the Chicago River. It was demolished to make room for a Trump hotel. And then, to keep the doors open, The Sun-Times reinvented itself as a nonprofit newspaper, a model that troubled newspapers in several cities are watching closely.

It’s no longer news that many newspapers across the country have closed and others are in dire straits. Earlier this month The Wall Street Journal hollowed out its Washington bureau, laying off 20 staffers. Last month the Los Angeles Times laid off some 115 reporters, editors and columnists, almost a quarter of its editorial staff. Late last year The Washington Post gave voluntary buyouts to 240 employees.

2023 was a particularly brutal year for the newspaper business, as more than 130 newspapers closed their doors. Many of them were weekly publications in smaller cities, which no longer have reporters providing citizens news about their city council or school boards or the latest scandal in the parks and recs department. At least 21 counties in Georgia — most of them rural — have been left with no local newspaper. Digital publications have worked to fill the gap in our state, but for many of them, the future is less than secure.

A new initiative in Georgia does offer hope for the future. Thanks to grants totaling more than $6 million, several foundations, including the Woodruff Foundation, a newly formed organization, the Georgia Trust for Local News, has acquired 18 newspapers in Middle and South Georgia. It’s an arm of a national organization formed to save troubled local newspapers and was spearheaded here by DuBose Porter, a former state legislative leader and the longtime publisher of the Dublin-Courier Group. Those 18 newspapers will reach as many as 900,000 Georgians.

The AJC is in the midst of a transformation that offers hope for the future, too. As other major market dailies downsize or close up shop, the AJC is expanding and reimagining its business model. I am lucky that a strange twist of fate at just the right moment allowed me to be part of the vision for delivering news on multiple platforms — the web, a new mobile app, our e-paper and multiple podcasts as well as a daily radio show. In my case, I’m proud of getting to talk on our “Politically Georgia” podcast and daily radio show with Patricia Murphy, Greg Bluestein and Tia Mitchell, who are so smart and so in touch with the political news of the day. I learn something new about the political scene from them every time we talk and, of course, I hope our listeners do, too.

And so, to answer succinctly the question of how I feel about my new job at the AJC, the answer is I am grateful to be a part of an organization that insists the delivery of news, on whatever platform you receive it, remains a thriving voice of and for our community.