In a shot heard ’round the industry, Advance Publications (the managing company of the Birmingham News, the Mobile Press-Register, and the Huntsville Times) have cut over 400 jobs statewide in an attempt to move their endeavors away from physical media into the “digital” space. Over 100 of the jobs lost came from the Birmingham News. The cuts resulted in a complete gutting of the actual news producing staff with 60% of the newsroom staff included in the layoffs. Included in the cuts were a wide-range of people including long-standing award-winning journalists to newspaper carriers. For UAB fans, the changes hit home when Steve Irvine, long-time beat writer for the UAB Blazers, announced via Twitter that his position was one that didn’t fit in with the new direction of the media company.
Immediately the responses came flooding in. Friends and fans of Steve were sending their best. Players and coaches that Steve covered expressed their sorrow. I, myself, was floored by the news. I have other connections and relationships with employees of the Birmingham News and some of them stayed and some of them lost their jobs. I’m saddened by the entire situation that those journalists are facing. However, I never had a connection to their writing like I did with Steve’s. I first arrived in Birmingham in the summer of 2006 to pursue my education at UAB. Since then, I’ve been following Steve Irvine’s work. Every single UAB piece he’s written since August 2006, I’ve read it. And that’s not to say that I’m some sort of fanatic (although I am), but I know many UAB fans that have been around much longer than me that can say the same. The bottom line is that Steve knows how to tell the stories that UAB needs told. Not only does he give fans a deeper understanding of the program they’re watching and supporting, but he, more importantly, gave the general public a view into why all of us are Blazer fans in the first place.
I was floored when I saw the news that Steve had his job cut. I immediately called Tyler Cantrell, a fellow BlazerTV.com staff member, and left voice-mails on his phone. “Steve is gone, Tyler. They cut his job. His last day is September 30th. Call me back when you get this.” You see, Tyler and I had talked about the possibility of Steve’s job being in jeopardy when word starting coming out about the layoffs. We both agreed that it was crazy to think Steve wouldn’t be kept. Well, things got pretty crazy on Tuesday. I don’t want to understate just how furious Tyler and I were and currently are. We both look up to Steve as both a person and a writer. Steve is a fantastic journalist, a great husband to his wife, and an even greater father to his kids. His passion for covering sports and, even deeper, working for the Birmingham News came through in everything he wrote. Bad things like this shouldn’t happen to good people like Steve. Unfortunately, it did. It happened to more than just Steve. It happened to a lot of good, hard-working people.
But there’s no question that we were more gutted by Steve’s coming departure than the other writers in a similar predicament. It’s not that we aren’t praying for the other writers to land on their feet as well, it’s just that we’ve been around Steve more than the others…we’ve read his work more than the others. So for us, and many of our fellow Blazer fans, Steve was our biggest (and for some, maybe only) connection to the Birmingham News. Our thoughts and prayers truly go out to Steve and his family and we wish him well in whatever he chooses to do after his last day on September 30th. But, even Steve will tell you, his firing represents a part of something much bigger than himself. Steve commented while on 97.3 The Zone with Kevin Scarbinsky and Scott Griffin on Wednesday , “I feel worse for the loss of newspapers than I do the loss of my job.” The moves represent a fundamental shift in Advance Publications plans for the Birmingham News from in-depth, local reporting to mainstream, topical “content”. With Steve Irvine being the only college sports beat-writer to have his position eliminated, it’s becoming clear where UAB Athletics fits into their new plan. Steve addressed these concerns on the radio, “You have to be concerned…I was the only full-time beat guy that was cut, so what kind of message does that send? It sends the message that they don’t care about UAB Athletics. Now, I’m not saying that’s true or not true, I don’t know…but it certainly sends that message.”
Steve is currently the only consistent voice for UAB sports. His coverage of the Blazers resides daily both on al.com and in the printed Birmingham News. He is the only person that covers UAB sports on a significant scale. He is paid to do so and he does the job as if he wasn’t paid. He does the job as if he is doing something he loves. Because he is. Fans have already grown increasingly frustrated by the lack of UAB coverage in the “local” media. Between local sports radio, television, and newspapers…it’s hard to find a level of coverage that Blazer supporters deem acceptable. But what happens when Steve Irvine leaves his position at the Birmingham News? Clearly, this means that there won’t be a regular beat, or at least not somebody on the beat as qualified as Steve.
Where does all of that lost coverage fall to?
Local television? They’ve gotten better lately, but there’s also been two shiny new coaches on display that makes for great television. Even if they do start to cover more on their websites, all of their coverage will continue to stem from their hour long newscasts. You can’t fit the stories that Steve told inside that time frame. Especially when it will be sharing the same hour that’s dominated by sensationalized crime stories and Alabama/Auburn football.
Local radio? Don’t expect anything from 94.5 WJOX. They’ll give an interview here or there to a head football or basketball coach, but don’t expect much on the in-depth side. 97.3 The Zone offered a refreshing alternative when it first launched, but since reworking their entire lineup (in anticipation of getting Paul Finebaum) they’ve not only turned their focus decidedly towards Alabama and Auburn and away from local teams like UAB and Samford, but they’ve also renamed their shows to reflect the new focus of the radio station: college football. Here are the new names for their line-up: “The Smashmouth Network”, “The Huddle”, and “The 4th Quarter”. The only one not following the naming guidelines is “The Sports Czars”, and that show is nearly unpalatable. Still, they do give UAB some airtime and it’s a better option than 94.5 WJOX for the time being. Who knows? Maybe after Paul Finebaum switches stations WJOX will fill the gap with the niche The Zone once had. But we doubt.
Local websites? Here comes the logical answer. If the Birmingham News stops printing so much paper and moves into the online space as the focus of their business…what’s to say that once people start going online for their news that they won’t find other local websites that fill their niche? While this certainly will happen to some extent and smaller more local-focused news sites/blogs will get more hits, it can never replace the job Steve Irvine does now with the Birmingham News. Trust me, we know. Alabama is one of the least digitized states in the country and, even though Birmingham is a large metro, getting to a point that most people adapt to getting all of their news online is a very long process that involves many areas of the industry – device adoption, internet consumption, etc. Sure, it’s not too far from happening. That’s why we are seeing these changes to media now. However, the audience that the Birmingham News has held for so long (and has slowly been losing) won’t find their way to another singular platform like it. They will spread to niche sites that tell them exactly what they want to hear or what they want to see. The platform for educating the general population about all sorts of things, including UAB sports, will be gone (or at least, a fragment of what it was). UAB needs that platform. Fans are created on that platform. Interest is driven on that platform. Never again will there be one stage with so many audience members to interact with. The audience will stay the same…there will just be far more theaters to go to.
So what about the new direction for the Birmingham News? Won’t UAB coverage be included in that? Probably, in some form. But after Steve Irvine’s position is eliminated on September 30th, what will happen? Does somebody else less knowledgeable and less connected pick up the beat? If so, what sort of quality can we expect from that? It’s far more likely that a variety of writers will be given UAB assignments when the market is hot (a big game or a controversy) to stoke the flames of the UAB fanbase and in the process the Alabama/Auburn fanbase – you know, the whole “I actually graduated from UAB – Go Blazers!” vs. “Nobody cares about UAB, moron. RTR!” arguments. The rest of the coverage could very well be just wire stories or press releases directly from the UAB Sports Information Department. That’s not good coverage. That’s actually bad coverage. You need an independent outlook on what’s going on in the program. You need to relate the stories to an outside perspective. You don’t need a paper that just outsources its UAB articles to the school itself. Nobody will read it.
Let’s take a look at who’s left at the Birmingham News following the layoffs that are known for covering UAB Sports. We now know that Steve Irvine will be asked to leave his current position on September 30th. Hannah Wolfson, who was the UAB beat for non-sports (as well as other things), left before the carnage to work at Birmingham-Southern. Doug Segrest, who sometimes covered UAB in writing as well as his spot on ABC33/40′s “The Zone, will be let go as well. That leaves two writers that have covered UAB in any major form, both of which happen to be columnists. Kevin Scarbinsky and Jon Solomon. Scarbinsky was a champion for UAB during the height of the UAB On-Campus Stadium issue. He has written some great UAB-related pieces, including a heart-warming piece on the passing of legendary coach Gene Bartow, and talks UAB on his radio show on 97.3 The Zone (albeit less now that he and Rachel Baribeau were split up). On the other hand, Jon Solomon’s coverage of UAB-related topics have teetered deeply on the side of pessimism. In many cases, his tone comes off as outright condescending. Would either of these two columnists be assigned the UAB beat? Not likely. They were likely both kept in the transition because their pieces are sometimes controversial and definitely emotion/thought provoking. Their columns could be measured by the reader engagement which, in plain terms, means number of comments and social media shares. They will most likely continue to write on a variety of bigger-scope topics, some of which may deal with UAB. That doesn’t give a whole lot of confidence to Blazer fans that deserve (and expect) substantial daily coverage of UAB Athletics.
So where do we fall into this? Well, clearly we are a local website that covers Blazer sports. We are funded solely by our staff and kind boosters that give their money to help offset the operational costs of doing this because they believe in what we are doing. But we are not Steve Irvine…and we are definitely not the Birmingham News. We are a niche product…a product that really hasn’t even met its full potential either because people don’t know about us yet, or people don’t care. Sure, people will care once the coverage level in traditional media drops even lower…but can we really pick up the slack?
The answer is, simply, no. The money flow is not there for us. While we’ve had conversations with investors on taking the site to the next level, things are not progressing in the way we had originally hoped in that space. With all of our staff working full-time jobs in other fields, it’s difficult to provide a level of coverage that UAB fans deserve. A lot of reporting and interviews take place during weekdays, in the middle of the average work cycle. We had to take sick days from our regular jobs to cover the Garrick McGee/Jerod Haase introductory press conferences. It’s a risk…if employers were to see or hear us in those videos, we could get in serious trouble at our jobs – or worse. Regardless, the need for more UAB content is there. This is why we created BlazerTV.com in the first place. We saw the industry moving into the online space and we wanted to build relationships with the coaches, players, and administration so that when we were ready to really ramp up our coverage…we’d have everything already in place. We began meeting with potential investors months ago in preparation for coverage in the fall. But unless the money comes and our staff can at least get paid to work on the site part-time, we simply can’t afford the type of coverage this site needs to grow into something even remotely close to what fans deserve. It’s a chicken or the egg sort of thing. We can’t grow and make money unless we provide more/better content, but we can’t provide that content level unless we have money to do it.
That doesn’t mean we’ve given up hope though. We still love UAB sports and we love covering them. With our new site redesign, displaying our content has never been easier or looked better. With the changes at the Birmingham News (watch out local TV, you’re next), it’s created a lot of uncertainty in the Blazer fanbase regarding media coverage. I assure you that we will do everything within our means to provide you more coverage of your favorite team. We’ll have more interviews with your favorite coaches and players. We’ll try our best to dive deeper into the stories and present more in-depth reporting. We’ll step further away from being fans and get more objective in our reporting. But, without money, we can only do so much. We can’t afford to travel to games. We can’t afford to upgrade our equipment. We can’t afford to miss work to come to pressers and do interviews. We don’t have a real office from which to operate from. All of these things will be a hindrance we’ll have to overcome. But we will overcome it.
And it’s not just us. Other local websites will see the market expanding and jump on-board. The UAB market was already going to expand with continued success and better facilities. We believe in the product UAB has to offer. The fanbase will grow. This fall will provide a brand-new level of excitement for the UAB Football program, the likes of which haven’t been seen in a long, long time (if ever). We want to grow with it. We’ve set ourselves up to be a premiere source of content for Blazer fans and we hope we can reach where we want to go. Unfortunately, the opportunities that could be provided soon for us to grow will come at the expense of some of our favorite writers. None of us ever wanted to be in a world where BlazerTV.com and Steve Irvine as UAB beat writer couldn’t co-exist, helping each other provide better coverage for the program. Unfortunately, incompetent leadership has made this a reality. We only wish we had the funds to hire Steve ourselves.