Auburn is Writing its Own Stories

First published by The War Eagle Reader. Link to it here.

The Auburn Athletic Department’s hiring of former Birmingham News sportswriter Charles Goldberg and former Huntsville Times/AuburnUndercover writer Phillip Marshall was a surprise.

The trend, however, is nothing new.  Many major college athletic departments are doing the same thing.  Having relied on newspapers and Web sites in the past, they are taking their messages straight to their publics.

That adds a lot of new wrinkles at every point of the relationship between fans, athletic programs and media.  The term “media” might be derived from the Latin for “between,” but the World Wide Web and social media are empowering organizations to shoulder the traditional media out of the way and speak directly to audiences effectively.

For the Auburn Athletic Department, that means using Facebook and Twitter to direct fans to its website,  Jack Smith, senior associate athletic director for communications, oversees the project.

Smith said about 20 FBS-level schools have hired popular, experienced beat writers for that purpose, following the lead of NFL teams.  He points to the University of Florida, which hired Chris Harry, who covered the Gators for 13 years with the Orlando Sentinel, to be senior staff writer for

And the University of Oregon just announced the hiring of Rob Moseley, who covered Ducks football for the Eugene Register-Guard for the past six years, as editor-in-chief of

The goal, Smith said, is to engage the Auburn community — fans, alumni, students and donors — on all platforms.  That includes the above strategies and a new project, Tiger Roar Digital, an online version of the quarterly magazine sent to Tigers Unlimited donors.  The online magazine will launch in mid-August, featuring articles by Goldberg and Marshall, photos by Todd Van Emst, and embedded videos, Smith said.

It’s a recent project, but it has been in the works for a while.  Marshall, long-time Auburn beat writer for the Huntsville Times(1994-2008) and (2008-2013), said Smith originally approached him last summer, long before the Selena Roberts article on Mike McNeil and the ESPN report on Dakota Mosley, in case you were wondering.

Marshall, however, declined the opportunity.  Earlier this year, the Athletic Department hired Goldberg.  When they approached Marshall again in June, he was ready for the change.

“The move to 24/7 was really good,” he said, referring to the parent company of the AuburnUndercover site.  The site had grown in his time there, fueled by the 2010 national championship and two coaching transitions.

Two aspects of the job, however, grew difficult.  The first was administration of message boards and answering fan questions.  ”For a long time I didn’t mind it, but it was wearing on me at the time,” he said.

The second was the increased emphasis on recruiting.  Fan sites like AuburnUndercover draw and keep their subscribers with aggressive recruiting news, and while Bryan Matthews does excellent work for AuburnUndercover, Marshall said he won’t mind leaving that behind.

Because it is affiliated with the Athletic Department, is not allowed to report on the recruiting of specific athletes.  So at least from that perspective, the other sports media retain at least one advantage, besides editorial independence.

The audience is there.  Auburn’s official Facebook page has more than 256,000 likes.  Marshall has almost 10,000 Twitter followers (though he admits to mainly linking and retweeting).  Goldberg — also a retweeter and linker — has 18,000 followers and the Auburn football has about 64,000.  Even counting for overlap, that is a lot of potential eyes for Marshall’s and Goldberg’s articles.

Fans familiar with Goldberg and Marshall know what to expect.  They channel Grantland Rice more than Deadspin, and while they are reliable information sources — an Auburn football news tip, good or bad, was not considered solid until one of them confirmed it — they are well-suited to the articles intended for the site.

Marshall said the most attractive part of the job is “telling stories of Auburn athletes and coaches.  I like doing those kind of in-depth profile stories.”

Smith said that Goldberg and Marshall are expected to write objective stories.  At the same time, Smith, avoiding references to current sports, said, “If we had a cricket team, and it were to get destroyed in a game, and the coach says, ‘That’s as bad as my team has played all year,’ they are going to quote the coach.  At the same time, they are not going to write a column that the cricket coach should be fired.”

Marshall concurred with Smith’s example.  ”I’m not going to write a column that’s saying someone ought to be fired,” he said, “but the truth of the matter is, I’ve never done that anyway.”

So where does that leave the traditional media folks and relatively newer fan sites? Piece of cake. The strategy might take some attention and media time from the audience, but as we’re finding, the saturation point is a constant speck on the horizon.  This ain’t the 1970s, when the market was driven by scarcity.

The main advantage — and it’s neither small nor minor — for Goldberg and Marshall is access. The Athletic Department can have them break news on official announcements, embargoing the external news sources.  That would also enhance the site, making it seem more useful as a news source.

That’s a tough head start for their colleagues to overcome.  Still, the Jay Tates and Brandon Marcellos will have plenty of opportunities to provide the kind of information fans won’t find on the site, and they are definitely up to the challenge.

Sports fans are information-hungry and information-savvy — whether the information comes from the media or from the organization itself.  They know what kind of info they like and they know where to get it and how to find new sources.  In that sense, there is still plenty of attention to go around.