Atlanta Newspaper Prepares For War

By: Joe Strupp

Hasn’t Ron Martz had enough? After a 21-year reporting career at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that’s included flying over drug fields in Bolivia, ducking gunfire in Afghanistan, and traveling battle-torn roads during the Persian Gulf War, you’d think Martz had gotten his fill of dangerous, overseas assignments.

Not so. If all goes according to plan, the 55-year-old Martz soon will pack up and ship out to report on the latest foreign conflict: a likely U.S. invasion of Iraq. “It’s what I do, and I still want to do it,” he tells E&P. “It’s covering the story, and it’s still exciting.”

Martz is one of 11 Journal-Constitution reporters scheduled to cover the war in Iraq that observers expect to begin with a U.S. invasion early next year. As the paper’s longtime military-affairs reporter, Martz is slated to be among the first three or four staff writers to touch down in the Middle East in the next few weeks and lay the groundwork for full-scale war coverage.

With newspapers around the country making their plans for the probable (and already controversial) war with Iraq, E&P decided to provide an inside look at how one major metropolitan daily gears up for coverage, both on the editorial and business fronts. The Georgia paper seemed to be far ahead of most others in detailed planning.

The Journal-Constitution is forced, like dozens of others, to confront myriad issues related to bringing the war home to its readers, from decisions about budget concerns to training reporters for combat coverage — while making sure the paper can adequately report local and regional news. Publisher Roger Kintzel emphasizes that coverage will expand without busting the paper’s budget. Editor Julia Wallace is on the same page as Kintzel: “We have to shift resources, but make it work.”

Military history

The newspaper’s war reporting and its extraordinary connection to military news date back to 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War, when the Atlanta Constitution was launched. During Reconstruction, which lasted until 1877, the city was controlled by federal troops operating under a form of martial law, according to Tom Bennett, an AJC editor and newsroom historian. “It was technically under occupation by a foreign army,” he notes. “A new city was being born, and the paper covered it completely.”

In 1883, the Atlanta Journal was founded. One of its correspondents, John S. Cohen, made a name for himself when he reported on the Spanish-American War from Cuba, then enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight in the war, rising to the rank of captain. After the fighting ended, Cohen returned to the paper and eventually became editor in chief. He later served as a U.S. senator from Georgia.

Near the end of World War II, as D-Day approached in 1944, Managing Editor Wright Bryan traveled to England. After getting himself aboard a C-14 transport plane, Bryan flew over France ahead of the troops. “He was able to report by radio about the invasion, and also wrote about it for the paper,” Bennett says. “Those became the first reports on D-Day.”

The two Atlanta papers came under joint ownership in 1950 (merging into one paper just a year ago). Constitution photographer Bill Wilson drew national attention in 1953 for his emotional shot of a Georgia prisoner of war returning from Korea and running into the arms of his family. Later, in 1970, Vietnam horrors took center stage at Fort Benning in nearby Columbus during the court-martial of Lt. William Calley, who was convicted of leading a massacre of civilians at the village of My Lai.

The costs of war

For today’s Journal-Constitution, the stressful job of lining up who will go to Iraq, how they will get ready, what they will cover — and how reporters back in Atlanta will help out — falls to Deputy Managing Editor Susan Stevenson. A 13-year AJC veteran, she takes the approach that there can never be enough planning. “When war breaks out, we really have to change [our beat-reporting] structure,” Stevenson says. “When the whole nation is focused on the war, it affects features, business, and what almost everyone is covering.”

Although editors and executives contend that the costs involved will not interfere with their plans, budget worries do increase the pressure to pinch pennies where possible. “Obviously, it’s going to be very expensive, but it is something you have to do,” Stevenson says about the war coverage. “You try to be frugal, but you have to do what you must.”

Among the added expenses will be overtime, use of freelance graphic artists and photographers, travel and other expenses for those going to Iraq, as well as training, equipment, and insurance for the war-zone writers. Inoculations against diseases alone will run about $200 a person. “This is all coming out of the normal course of business — they are all staying on budget,” says Publisher Kintzel, adding that a hiring freeze started two years ago will remain in effect and no additional spending is planned. Editors, he says, “are finding a way to deal with it with the money they have. Instead of doing some other kind of travel, they use [existing travel funds] for overseas travel. The same with training.”

Will the extra costs mean that coverage of other news will take a hit? “We have to make choices, and something usually comes out at the bottom,” Kintzel admits.

One area where the paper is cutting expenses is in newsprint. With a yearly allowance for news hole set months ago, Stevenson says she has been actively saving up space in anticipation of the invasion. “When the war hits,” she says. “We will have the flexibility to use more.” An average of two to three more pages each day probably will be needed once the war begins.

Under the mandate to stay within the current budget during wartime, supervisors in other areas of the paper also need to make spending choices and find cost-saving ideas when war-related expenses grow. “We may have to assign people to work extra hours,” says Circulation Director Bill Spyers, who declined to estimate potential war-related costs. “Carriers will earn extra because they are paid based on each paper sold.”

John Glenn, assistant managing editor for photo, estimates the cost of freelancers and sending two staff shooters to Iraq could run an extra $4,000 to $5,000 each month as long as the fighting continues. “That is something we are going to have to find money for,” he adds. “Nobody is operating with bottomless pockets.”

Lock and load — and learn

The newspaper’s preparation for Iraq actually dates back months, beginning shortly after Sept. 11 of last year, when editors were contemplating heavy overseas coverage of the war on terrorism. At seminars last November, experienced Journal-Constitution war correspondents instructed staff in how to conduct themselves in combat situations. Around the same time, about 30 newsroomers went through a daylong, in-house training session on technical equipment, with lessons in using satellite phones, Palm Pilots, computer notebooks, and other high-tech devices. “You need to know enough so that you can try five or six things to file a story over there,” Stevenson say. “The atmosphere is not always the best for trying out new technology.”

By last month, editors had already tabbed five war-reporting teams, made up of editors and reporters from several departments, that will go into action once the fighting begins. Stevenson believes this approach, similar to the one used to cover the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, provides the best way to parcel out assignments. As plans now stand, each team would have a specific focus: politics, military, and relief issues; bioterrorism; home-front issues; casualties; and economic impact.

“If we suddenly had massive deaths out of one of the Georgia military bases, we would react to that with the casualty team,” Stevenson explains. “The war is sort of an ongoing breaking story that each of these groups will have to cover. It’s like covering anything else — you look at what is needed and react.”

Each team, which will include reporters overseas and at home, is already preparing background stories that will run just prior to the war and others ready to go once the invasion happens. Some 20 articles, ranging from the biography of Saddam Hussein to stories on Middle East culture, are already in the works or completed. Other team writers are brushing up on Iraq, U.S. foreign policy, and bioterror weapons as warfare looms.

“We are getting reporters to be as expert as possible on smallpox, anthrax, chemical weapons, how they’re made, how they can be used, and how to react to them,” says Arthur Brice, an editor who will head the bioterrorism team. “You have to get your game plan together for when the game starts, but you also have to be ready to call an audible.”

Graphics Editor Michael Dabrowa is going through a similar pregame warm-up, stockpiling some 300 to 400 images — photos, maps, graphics, and other art — that he expects to use for war coverage. “As soon as we got wind of [a U.S. invasion], we started putting things together,” says Dabrowa, who began storing the images roughly two months ago. “There is also a lot we can do on the fly as needed.”

Circulation Director Spyers looks ahead to what daily war coverage might mean: increased press runs, later deadlines, and maybe an extra edition or two. “The day of the invasion means bumped-up presses,” he says. “It really changes our routine, but it is our obligation.”

Localize, localize, localize

For an Atlanta paper to cover the war, however, stories cannot be strictly about the battles in Iraq or the political debate in Washington. The Georgia capital has numerous local ties to the conflict that the Journal-Constitution plans to feature prominently. One of the key beats will be the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a federal agency based in Atlanta that presumably will have a hand in the biochemical elements of the war.

“We have a long-standing relationship with the CDC that will help us if they play a major role in this,” says the bioterrorism team’s Brice. “We also will look to them in reporting what diseases may come up in Iraq or which chemicals may be used.”

Georgia’s extensive military community, which includes five Army posts, three Air Force bases, two Naval installations, and a Marine base, provides another significant local angle. Reporter Martz is planning to spend the majority of his time in Iraq with a unit of the 3rd Infantry Division, based at Fort Stewart in Hinesville. “I will try to put in perspective what this division is doing,” Martz tells E&P. “As I get to know them, the individual soldier stories will crop up.” Other links to the hometown newspaper reader are Atlanta’s nearby nonprofit agencies, such as CARE, the Carter Center, and a regional UNICEF office.

“We will localize as much as we can,” explains Keith Graham, the paper’s world editor. “You have to do the big picture of the war and fit as much local in it as you can.”

The Journal-Constitution has been providing stepped-up local/global coverage since 1997 when it began its “Atlanta and The World” pages, which grew into a stand-alone weekly section this year. Last month, it won an award from the Associated Press Managing Editors. The paper plans to provide much of its localized Iraq reporting in that section.

Ready to Iraq and roll?

Reporters destined for overseas duty, meanwhile, need to plan in other ways, such as getting inoculations against a slew of diseases, including hepatitis A and B, measles, polio, tetanus, and typhoid.

Applications to the Iraq government — the would-be enemy in this war — for travel visas are a necessity, coordinated through the Washington office of Cox Newspapers, the paper’s operating parent. “It’s tricky because it’s difficult to get a visa there,” says Chuck Holmes, Cox Newspapers’ foreign editor, who oversees the group’s 25-person Washington bureau as well as six overseas offices that also will be covering war stories.

Editors say protecting reporters and photographers in the war zone is a primary concern. With training through Centurion Risk Assessment Services or AKE Ltd., two of the world’s top survival schools, costing more than $2,500 a person, the paper has committed to providing such training only to two reporters, so far. “We want to see how worthwhile it is before we commit more people to it,” says Stevenson, who plans to have the two fully trained reporters mentor others at the paper. She also has not invested heavily in the “spacesuit” bioterrorism outfits or flak jackets that many journalists consider standard.

None of the AJC reporters, photographers, or editors who spoke with E&P revealed the slightest hesitation about going to Iraq, despite concerns about the standard war-zone dangers and the specter of biochemical weapons. Even those with worried spouses or children say the chance to cover a battle is worth the risk.

“I’m not in this business to sit on my duff,” says Bill Steiden, the paper’s elections editor who volunteered — like the others — to enter the line of fire. “I try not to ponder the danger too much. You’re either going to make it or you’re not. You just have to be smart about what you do.”

A former reporter for the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune, Steiden believes that his background covering the Gulf War from Israel gives him some experience. Still, his wife, Laurie, and 14-year-old son, Patrick, are a bit nervous. “We’ve talked about it,” he concedes. “But they know what turns my wheels. Although they prefer it didn’t.”

For Dave Hirschman, whose beat usually consists of covering locally prominent companies such as the Lockheed Martin Corp. and the United Parcel Service for the business section, the chance to report from Iraq is a welcome change, even though it means time away from his daughter and son. “I rush home at night just so I can put my 3-year-old to bed,” he says. “Hopefully, they will be proud of me for doing this.”

At 60, Jingle Davis may be the only grandmother slated to jump into service in Iraq. But the veteran reporter, whose international experience ranges from the 1980 Cuban boat lift to stories in Ireland, Spain, and Mexico, says the assignment is one she could not pass up. “It comes from wanting to know what it’s like over there,” she tells E&P. “I will be as cautious as I could be under the circumstances.”

Although most of those heading to the Middle East put the dangers out of their minds, statistics that show an increase in journalist deaths are sobering. The Committee to Protect Journalists, based in New York, reported that 37 journalists around the world were killed last year, significantly more than the 24 in 2000 and the most since 1995. So far, 11 have been killed this year, two in the Middle East.

“After Sept. 11, we know it can happen any time and in any place,” says Moni Basu, a reporter on the list for Iraq duty, referring to dangers. “I’d still like to experience [war reporting] just once.”

Proudly serving

In the end, nearly everyone at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution involved in the planned war coverage believes the reporting is well worth the costs, the dangers, and the workload. “Readers have told us that they want what they cannot get anywhere else,” says Editor Wallace.

For reporter Davis, concerns that she could be killed do little to stop her from heading to Iraq, even as her family worries. “If I’m bleeding on the street somewhere, I’m sure I will be thinking about them,” she says. “It might be kind of like going out in a blaze of glory.”

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