It’s been a while since my last blog post. Too long, actually. But I have a pretty good excuse. At the end of October, I became the publisher of The Times-Journal newspaper.

This was something that wasn’t really on my radar a couple of months ago. The opportunity emerged when my predecessor accepted a position with the City of Fort Payne as city treasurer. It all went down pretty quickly with the city council voting to hire her and she resigned that afternoon since it isn’t appropriate to be both a city employee and the head of the newspaper covering said city.

My old publisher encouraged me to go after the job. I wasn’t sure if I had what the job takes or if I even wanted that much responsibility. But in my heart, I knew I was meant for more than what I was doing. I wasn’t sure the owner would choose me, but I told him I was interested. I would be disappointed in myself if I did not at least take the initiative.

People were congratulating me before I’d even been offered the gig, which felt good to know I was deemed the obvious first, best choice to take over since I’d been there forever and know the community and the product. I hoped that my contributions as a reporter and photographer had helped to elevate the newspaper to a level where more people wished to subscribe.

I am deeply appreciative to Patrick Graham for this great opportunity. I do not intend to let him down now that I have been given this chance.

It’s been the most gratifying experience in my life to hear so many people offer their congratulations and support. I thank everyone so much for believing in me. That trust is something I think about every morning when I wake up and drive into the office.

I work constantly to earn it. Informing and entertaining others is what I feel I was put on this earth to do. When a person discovers their meaning for existing, it enriches their life in ways that are impossible to fully convey. This has happened to me twice in my life: As a father and now as a publisher.

I am so damn appreciative of what I have, especially at a time when so many others are out of work and struggling. 

Journalism – writing stories and creating photographs — has always come easily to me. This job feels less stressful than the marketing position was, mostly because the work does naturally flow, my extensive experience informs me and most importantly, I feel a sense of control that I lacked in Chattanooga. I am not the owner of the newspaper, but I feel a sense of ownership in its ultimate success or failure. It has become an extension of myself in the sense that I feel deeply attached to what happens next at the TJ.

When I returned to the newspaper for the third time in November 2019 (almost an exactly a year to the day before I would start as publisher), I didn’t even require much training. They were using InDesign instead of QuarkXpress, but things were largely the same as when I had left the sister paper, The Sand Mountain Reporter, where I was the editor in the fall of 2007.

I made the bold choice back then of leaving the corporate world for a web startup that offered more money and the freedom to work from home, but no guarantee of longevity. It was terrifying because I had a wife and small child at home to support, yet it felt right. My gut told me to take the job offer 13 years ago and again, a month ago. Being me involves plenty of second-guessing my choices — and running every possible scenario through my head so I don’t get surprised.

Now, after more than a decade of getting out there and exploring different mediums and industries, I find myself back in the newspaper industry, same chain of newspapers, but now owned by my former managing editor who had spent all of those years moving up that corporate ladder before ultimately building his own newspaper empire. What he has accomplished professionally in that time is inspiring and reflects the hard-working professional I remember learning under all those years ago.

Back in the Saddle Again

A new era of challenges and opportunities ahead

The state of the newspaper industry is far weaker than it was when I left. I took on this new job fully aware of how perilous these times are for print publications.

Newsrooms have faced an existential crisis as advertising revenue has fallen and the value of information has plummeted thanks to Google News making information online ubiquitous. Music like Napster disrupted the music industry by making it seem okay to steal copywritten commercial music, some readers now feel as if they should be able to get content without paying for it to be created.

It’s almost like people have forgotten that a newspaper is a business with overhead, reporters to pay, papers to pay to print, etc.

An article by Alex Pareene in The Soapbox paints the picture…

The University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media recently released a report titled “The Expanding News Desert,” which showed that over the last 15 years, more than a fourth of America’s newspapers and half of its journalists have “disappeared,” turning thousands of communities into “news deserts” no longer served by anyone who can provide a comprehensive and accurate description of what is happening in those communities.

I can also tell you that readers of The Times-Journal are fiercely loyal and understand that community journalism is essential to preserving the fabric of a community. Especially now, a time when some in America are taking advantage of that vacuum of community news-gathering with the aim of flooding the country with free propaganda paid for by political parties.

During this election cycle, millions have routinely been told that they shouldn’t believe what they see and hear reported by traditional media, i.e., “fake news.”

It is deeply concerning to me that there are foreign governments attempting to interfere in our democratic system by spreading illegitimate information by impersonating community news outlets, distributing this misinformation using sophisticated algorithmically-generated articles and performing public relations for Russia’s or China’s preferred American surrogates/operatives. Political operatives are essentially taking advantage of heavily subsidized mass propaganda.

This is not merely my opinion of what’s happening – America’s own intelligence agencies have warned us this is happening. It is a serious risk for exploitation by both conservative and progressive organizations, donors and politicians. I cannot play favorites, regardless of my own personal ideological leanings.

In a sense, I find myself on the front lines of information warfare, tasked with sorting out fact from fiction, curating information from official sources so we can present it to our readers in a timely manner and hope they choose to trust us instead of these camouflaged misinformation machines.

As people get more and more of their news from social media, fewer people recognize which news “brands” are supposed to be “trustworthy” and which sources of news only appear to be objective while quietly baking political ideology into stories designed to go viral and gain traction.

We are a countywide publication that focuses on hometown people, so we don’t share a lot of the garbage spewed from these national content mills in favor of locally oriented reporting that we generate ourselves from covering government meetings and keeping our thumb on the pulse of our community.

I encourage anyone reading this to please support journalism by supporting your local businesses, which are the lifeblood of a newspaper.

When you see an ad that compels you to shop with them, please tell them you saw their advertisement in The Times-Journal. Meanwhile, we’re doing our best to report the news and provide analysis that adds enough value for readers to want to subscribe, thus making our publications the place for advertisers to rent space if they want to get seen.

I’m researching ways we can produce the news more efficiently so we can sell our product affordably, but it’s hard to compete with “free” in terms of people thinking it’s perfectly normal to get their news from reading a headline of a shared article on Facebook without clicking on the link to dive into the nuances of the actual story to fully understand what it’s about.

We have little choice but to promote our brand and content on sites like Facebook and Google. I personally have grown to hate Facebook after getting a peek under the hood and seeing how users of the website are exploited. The saying “if something is free, you are the product” has never applied so succinctly.

The challenge for the news industry today is to find viable ways to reach everyone who needs high-quality, accurate reporting so they can learn about their world and get important/useful information from credible sources.

I honestly believe that the best way to build subscriptions so we can disseminate that information to the widest possible audience is to offer the best possible product we can – something that is considered essential reading to any self-respecting citizen who expects to be perceived as knowledgeable about his or her own community.

It’s also a challenge to make the pursuit of objectivity and the truth a priority while keeping the creation of such content cost-effective. Many publications can’t afford to invest in investigative journalism that gives a voice for the marginalized and exposes injustice, holding those in power accountable.

I take this on without any particular axes to grind or scores to settle. I will assume intentions are good until people prove themselves to be bad actors.

We owe our readers nothing less than the best possible product we can create. That’s my attitude as I tackle this new challenge.

Interesting times we get to report on

I also take the helm of the newspaper blessed with interesting times to report on. Did I say blessed? I may should have used the word cursed instead. No, blessed to be in a position to report on a time that we will (hopefully) look back on with fascination and take important lessons from experiencing firsthand.

I imagine someone doing research in the year 2120 on the pandemic, the same as I did in 2019 while browsing century-old editions of the newspaper.

These are dangerous times with millions of Americans hurting because of job losses. A pandemic is spreading beyond our control. And for the first time in our nation’s history, a presidential candidate is fighting the peaceful transfer of power that has made America’s democracy a shining example for the rest of the world to imitate. I recently found out that without a shared set of common facts, reporting can lead some to feel anger over things that were never a problem before.

The year 2020 has been traumatic on a scale few of us could have predicted. It’s the disaster that those of us with anxiety have long dreaded. We are seeing the world as we know it enduring its own existential crisis. Things won’t be exactly the same way they were a year ago at this time when the fog of sadness and suffering lifts.

I was thinking last night as I drove through Fort Payne with my daughter, glancing into bars and seeing some people acting as if COVID-19 is nothing more than a flu. For my part, I’ve tried not to live in fear and carry on with my life, but with some pretty serious modifications. I do not go out and party the way I used to. I don’t get together with friends and socialize. I spend a good deal of time worrying about my daughter, my sister, my elderly mother and stepfather.

One good thing about this new job is that I am way too busy to spend my time worrying (too busy to get distracted from what’s right in front of me to deal with in the moment), and between long hours and wanting to avoid getting COVID, I can’t get into much trouble (hopefully) sitting at home watching Netflix. I have become a comfortably boring bachelor. Much preferable to being bored with an overactive imagination and chronic anxiety.

I’ve had to make some tough calls in my new job relating to COVID. For example, concluding that there was no safe way for us to host annual pictures of kids with Santa in our office lobby. And I’ve been trying to get community leaders the option of meeting with me via phone or Zoom if they are not comfortable with me stopping by to introduce myself and shake their hand. It’s vital for us to encourage people to buy from local businesses yet I also hope people take caution when leaving their homes to do anything.

News of vaccines offers hope, but it’s hard to even imagine life returning back to normal after all of this. Yet I yearn for it and need it to happen ASAP.

The hardest part of COVID-19 for me has not been sickness, thank God, but the hateful tone and condescending attitude of those people who insist on lecturing me about how it’s all fake (because some political pundit on TV said not to listen to scientists and doctors) and I’d better not infringe on their right to spread it to their families and coworkers and kill grandma.

The real tragedy is that we could’ve possibly gotten this under control back in the spring and summer, but No… too many folks insisting they deserve to be the exception because being an American somehow entitles them to learn the hard way that a pandemic is nature’s way of teaching the stubborn and the arrogant some humility and manners. I saw it happening like a car wreck I was powerless to stop.

The 2020 election was also traumatic, and weeks later, I still worry about what the outcome will mean for the future. It pains me to see signs of desperation in small communities. Regardless of who is running things in Washington, we must work to bring some of the prosperity back to rural America.

Please God, let us be turning a corner on this nightmare.

About my photography

With the majority of my time now invested in looking over budgets and making sure vendors and employees get paid on time, my ability to create photography is severely limited. Yet I don’t intend to fully surrender my life’s passion.

I’m pouring my photographer’s eye and my creativity into the newspaper and actually fulfilling a longtime goal of producing regular fashion photography for a glossy print publication. In this instance, our monthly magazine, DeKalb Living.

I took over the task for former magazine director Derek Jackson, who left us last month to take a job with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee. I wish him great success in his new job.

The change positions me to finally contribute to the magazine with monthly fashion photoshoots featuring local models illustrating some of the products available in local stores. This is satisfying both in terms of getting to have full creative control over that process and also helping our readers understand what great apparel and accessories are available right here from our local businesses in Fort Payne and DeKalb County.

Steven Stiefel fashion photographer

Kayla Henderson will be featured in the January 2021 issue of DeKalb Living magazine, out in the Jan. 6 edition of The Times-Journal newspaper.

I did my first photoshoot for DeKalb Living on Thursday, using a beautiful model from Rainsville named Kayla Henderson.

We socially distanced at the Alabama Walking Trail Park, one of my favorite local shooting spots. She posed in outfits loaned to us by Hammer’s, Blue Charm Boutique, Pink Door Boutique, and Cotton & Pine.

I encourage everyone to please check out these shops. We will be including more merchandise from other vendors in the months ahead. I have a very cool Valentine’s themed photoshoot lined up for the February issue.

We are always looking for models to feature, including males of all ages and women who aren’t the typical 18-25 demographic that seem to appear in these things. Women worry about how they’ll be perceived doing something like modeling once they have kids to embarrass, but they are a more accurate representation of which customers actually have the buying power today.

You’re invited to come along for the ride

Anyway, I just wanted to give an update on things and continue to communicate with those of you who subscribe to this blog. I’ll post as I can.

Meanwhile, you can always get plenty of me in the pages of The Times-Journal and DeKalb Living magazine. If you do not already get the paper, I encourage you to check it out and come along on this journey with us.