The Secret to Avoiding a Mess? No Secrets

The announcement of a new structure for Auburn’s student media has created an outcry, particularly among staff and readers, current and former, of The Auburn Plainsman student newspaper.

Rather than talk this through 140 characters at a time, I’ll address the situation through my blog.  It’s not sports, but as a former Plainsman editor (1977-78), it’s close to my heart.

Two broad points to make: 1) The new plan is not a disastrous structure for The Plainsman or any student medium. 2) The Division of Student Affairs should have been more open and inclusive in the process that arrived at this new structure.

First point.  Auburn student media should be merged under one umbrella.  It has been talked about for years, even before an external review recommended it in 2010.

Universities across the country organized student media this way.  It recognizes the media’s move toward multi-platform reporting, it unifies advertising sales strategies, it eliminates redundancy of role, and it has the potential to save equipment money and better utilize office space.

That all student media would be under Student Affairs authority is again, neither unique nor dangerous.  Student media operate under a variety of administrative situations: student affairs, journalism academic units and (probably the worst) a university’s public relations office.  Some are totally independent and operate off-campus.

My one strong recommendation for Auburn’s structure, however, is that the four advisers to be hired (editorial, broadcast, technical and sales) not all report to the Office of Communication and Marketing within the Division of Student Affairs.  That creates an inefficient horizontal organizational structure and concentrates authority in the wrong position.

I strongly recommend that one of the four advisers be designated the director of student media, with day-to-day authority over his/her specific area, and be placed directly under the vice president for student affairs, Dr. Bobby Woodard.

Nothing against anyone who works under Dr. Woodard, but Student Media needs its own strong voice and it needs to be someone who works on the Student Center first floor, with student media.  That would give all student media the leadership and protection it needs and deserves.

Now, on to point 2.  The way this restructure was devised and planned was as bad as everyone is saying it is.  That Student Affairs devised it with no input from the students involved created the majority of the problems you see here.

Woodard claimed that the students were excluded because it involved private personnel decisions.  But students have served on personnel search committees in the past, and have observed the confidentiality of the situation.  I believe that Student Affairs, ironically, sold students short in this process.

But why not take it further? Why not openly discuss and devise this new structure?  Why all the secrecy anyway?  It always mystifies me that universities, with all of their theories of academic freedom and open discussion, revert to secrecy in practice, whenever an important decision looms.

I realize that personnel changes would occur, and that individuals could face drastic job changes.  These people are my friends too, and I respect what they bring to their work.  But as we’ve seen, the pain created was only made worse by the process used.

I honestly feel that the Division of Student Affairs leadership, including Dr. Woodard, owes the students an apology because of the mess that their approach created.  They can pledge more openness in the future, but whether they follow through on that pledge remains to be seen.

If the Division of Student Affairs claims to have such faith in the quality of students at Auburn, and such a commitment to their growth, maybe they should demonstrate it by including them in such important decisions.  It is counter-intuitive that they chose not to, in this case.

In closing, I recognize that Auburn student media will survive this, and with wise personnel decisions for the four advisers (including student participation in the search process), I think that all of the projects — The Plainsman, the Glom, Eagle Eye, WEGL and the Circle — will turn out the better for it.  And some loyalty toward the people who have served these projects faithfully is definitely appropriate and honorable.

As a result, all of the students who participate, whether School of Communication and Journalism majors or not, will have an experience that will help them, whatever profession they enter.

Update, April 3, 6:20 p.m.: I have accepted an offer to serve on the search committee for the editorial student media adviser.  I have been assured that students will serve on all search committees.  I would not have accepted if that were not the case.

But for goodness sake, Student Affairs: If you’re going to continue to oversee any kind of media project, do it in a way that respects the openness that the First Amendment protects, and under which our students will learn and work best.

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This Blog Thing Here

OK, this looks better.  I’ve been planning to move my blog from Tumblr to WordPress for a while, and I have set up this blog, thanks to help from Rachel Pipan.  I’m easily impressed — most Auburn students know WordPress more than I do — but Rachel is wicked smart and talented.

(I’m also in the process of migrating my old stuff here. It’s a tedious process, but check back from time to time to check out the goods.)

To christen this new venture, I thought I would set down some thoughts on why I blog, why I tweet and from time to time, why I embarrass myself on sports talk radio.  I bring more to this process than a craving for attention — though I admit that, like every journalist, I love it when my stuff is read. Commented on. RT’ed. Linked to. You get the idea.

But how does it relate to my work as an associate professor of journalism for Auburn?  As we learn to always say in class with a smile, good question!  And this time I have an answer for it.

It is crucial that those of us involved in profession-related academic programs (education, business, pharmacy, yadda yadda yadda) engage with our profession.  The ivory tower is real to some folks both on and off campus, but we’re not compelled to keep office hours there.

I have found that Twitter in particular gives me an opportunity to engage — not only with professionals who are kind to respond, but also with sports media audience members, including my students.  Sports media as a research stream draws a little more interest than 18th Century Latvian poets.  I’d like to think that I have something to offer both in terms of insight and observation, from both my professional (15 years) and academic (21 years) experiences.

So what does this contribute to my academic career?  Directly, I would estimate somewhere around, ah, maybe, nothing.  None of it goes on my annual report or my CV. Which is fine.  Indirectly, of course, it adds a lot — to the classroom, to my research and to me personally.  Trying to word that last component sounded too California, so you’ll have to get it from that.

That said, let me quickly add that I have nothing wrong with the official stuff — the research that got me tenure and promotion (i.e., job security) in the first place.  At the risk of being celebrated as Captain Cool or Mr. Fun, I will confess that I enjoy my research into the history of sports media.

My blogging has slowed because I am currently gutting out a biography on Ford Frick, baseball commissioner from 1951-1965.  But when it comes to reading the old Sporting News editions online, I’m a geek and I can deal with it.

But I don’t want it to stop there.  When it does, academics are just talking and writing to each other at conferences and in journals, and rewarding themselves for it.  I enjoy the conferences and the journals, but there has to be more to the life of the mind.

If this is your first time at one of my blogs, you might notice that much of my stuff is based on academic research — my own and others.  The Bill Tilden piece for OutSports started as a journal article.  The ViceSports essay on racism in sports broadcasting summarizes the readings for a class lecture on the topic.  The BINGing and CORFing piece applied others’ research on social identity theory to the Auburn-Alabama rivalry in a football game weekend lecture — the Immaculate Reception of 2013, to be precise.

As I relate particularly the work of colleagues, it’s well-received, because it’s like an untapped treasure; many sports fans are not aware of the great media research that has been going on.

I always argue that the most important product of a college/university is not students — it’s knowledge.  We exist as a place where new ideas are tested that will benefit society.  In the social sciences, our mission is to help society understand the processes that affect everyone.

So to me, when I share it through my blogs, it’s an easy sell. There is some good product out there.

Yes, we then impart this knowledge to students, and I will also admit to loving the classroom too.  Teaching is like journalism to me — lecture prep is info gathering, lecturing is article presentation, and grading is editing.  I mean, what’s not to love?

My personal perspective in the classroom and on social media is old school in origin — having transitioned from typewriter to VDT to command-based PC to Mac to networks to Internet to social media.  I struggle to keep up with the tools, as demonstrated by the foray into Tumblr that Rachel had to rescue me from, but the principles still work.

So basically, I love everything about being a college professor (except the endless meetings, of course), and I love reading and writing, particularly as both relate to sports and the pros who write what I read.

I hope that shows through here, and that you enjoy what you read here. If it doesn’t, and you don’t, I can’t blame Rachel.

Cole Position: Former Auburn center is on the verge of breaking it big in sports media

First published in The War Eagle Reader.  Find it here.

It’s been said that you shouldn’t find a career — a career should find you.  If that’s the case, opportunity is chasing down Cole Cubelic on many fronts.

The former Auburn football player is on the verge. Through his daily radio show, his appearances on Paul Finebaum, his far-too-sporadic live game broadcasts, his football analysis for al.com, and countless other media pops, Cubelic is increasing both his visibility and his credibility.

Disclosure: I consider Cole a friend, professionally.  We have talked about profession-related issues, and he has been kind enough to include me as a guest on several occasions (including a tribute to Philip Lutzenkirchen that I was honored to participate in).

As the 2014 season finishes, however, even in the face of a major setback (the loss of his Sun Belt gig via the end of the CSS network), Cubelic has as much reason to be optimistic about next season as Muschamp-obsessed Auburn fans do.

Several factors work in his favor.  From Twitter to Finebaum to al.com, he combines solid x’s and o’s (particularly analyzing offensive/defensive line play) with neutrality and an engaging on-air manner that is not Millen-esque hyperactive.

He learned the football side as a center and team captain for Auburn from 1997-2000.  Soon after graduating, he and former teammate Ben Leard started an Auburn pre-game show for a Huntsville station, which led to weekly appearances on WJOX. And the ride started.

Among his most recent high-profile opportunities was to join Paul Finebaum’s panel for a live combination of game analysis and annoying callers during the Iron Bowl.  Former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy, Marcus Spears and Booger McFarland also participated.

For all the unknowns going in, Cubelic thinks it worked well.  While national media were, as usual, fascinated with the Tammys and Phyllises, he was impressed with how Finebaum managed a live machine with an excess of moving parts — even when the phone system crashed.

“One thing about Paul is he knows how to delegate: how to get more out of somebody, how to cut someone off,” he said.  ”Maybe there was mystery as far as direction and where the game was going to go, but not about content.”

The broadcast also provided Cubelic with his first visit to the SEC Network studios in Charlotte, and he came away impressed with the technology (“like a kid in Toys R Us”) and grateful for the interaction with other former players turned broadcasters.  ”It was the closest thing to a locker room,” he said.

He was referring to media talk more than locker-room banter, of course.  Even away from sports, Cubelic shows a personal media-centrism that fits his career’s choice. His Twitter followers, along with Birmingham residents, remember how he became an instant on-the-scene reporter during the Birmingham icestorm of late January.

Driving from Huntsville to Auburn, Cubelic found himself caught in Birmingham just as the weather turned Shrek-ugly.  He ended up overnighting as his mother’s house, which allowed him to chronicle from Ground Zero for those two days.

On Instagram and Twitter, garnering hundreds of RTs and “likes,” he provided updates to residents whose family members remained stranded. “You feel obligated to continue to document it, and how you made it from Point A to Point B,” he said.  “It was all real time. I know people would be interested in it.”

Such is Cole’s presence on Twitter that his friends even dared him to tweet his own wedding. Which no one would do. But he did, sort of. As his bride, Katherine, entered, and everyone turned to look, Cole pulled his phone from his tux pocket and snapped a photo into a ready-made tweet and sent it off before anyone knew (including her, or worse, his grandmothers). It was almost the perfect crime. As he recalls, “My sister-in-law saw me and gave me the death stare.”

But of course it’s the TV and radio appearances, not the storm or wedding tweets, that build his reputation, and he is doing just that, according to his former broadcast partner, Joe Davis.

Davis has seen Cubelic grow from more of a smart football approach to a relaxed balance.  “When we start out, we want to be perfect, so we start thinking about how we’re supposed to sound,” Davis said.  ”As time goes on, you realize the importance of being yourself and letting your personality show through.”

For Davis, Cubelic’s sports talk radio experience has helped there. “It’s a rare to have the guy who has the combination of being a game analyst and hosting his own show,” he said.

That show, on Huntsville’s WUMP from 6-10 a.m., gives him yet more valuable on-air experience. Balancing guests, callers and commentaries against the need to fill four hours of airtime is a challenge.  But it gives him the opportunity “to get back in front of a listener base that is already familiar to me,” along with the chance to show his stuff.

Throw in a weekly gig on ESPN Pensacola 101.1, from 1-2 p.m. Tuesdays (his only Auburn-centric project), and it’s obvious Cubelic has his bases covered, along with a few outfield spots.

Yes, he has faced disappointments.  Even with the excess of bowl games, he was not able to pick up an analyst’s gig.  And a 2012 DUI arrest (all charges were dropped) provides sporadic social media harassment.

All that, plus he lacks the name recognition of a former national championship QB or a long-time NFL player.  “For him to get the national opportunity that he deserves, he has to fight that,” Davis said.  ”To get those top-level jobs is going to take people taking a chance on him, more than just him being a name.”

But looking ahead and not behind, Cubelic knows that he is building a portfolio that will provide a solid foundation for the sports media roller coaster ride that has found him.