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June 13, 2012

HURT: Newspaper cuts are a loss for everyone

Victories. The knockout. The shutout. The scoreboard.

Those are the currency of any sports section - the outcome on the field - and there are times when we report those results and times when we celebrate them.

But nobody won Tuesday, as deep cuts were made in the news staffs at three Alabama newspapers and the New Orleans Times-Picayune. The fact that there will be fewer journalists working on stories, including University of Alabama athletics, is not good news. Of course, this sports section has been a competitor with the Birmingham News and the others for years. Journalism, like any other for-profit enterprise, involves an element of competition. You want to break a big story first. You want to write a better, more insightful column than someone else. But you welcome the competition. Competition hones your skills. It makes you work harder.

It might be different if you work in the advertising or accounting departments, but I think most reporters welcome competition instead of resenting it. There is still a camaraderie among journalists, still a sense that reporters and columnists and critics are colleagues, not adversaries. It was a rivalry, but a healthy rivalry, in the way that the best sports rivalries should be (and, with increasing frequency, no longer are). So it's a tough day when several sports reporters, along with others who cover government, or business, or the arts, lose their jobs.

It isn't just that, in many instances, these are friends who are suddenly out of work. It's that their contribution - for everyone - won't be replaced in the same way, and the understanding that there, but for the grace of God, sound management and, most of all, loyal readers, go I. (If Brett Anderson, America's best food critic, can be fired from the newspaper in New Orleans, one of the world's great food cities, then individual talent isn't the issue.)

This isn't some Luddite wailing over outmoded technology, by the way. Everyone knows that digital has long ago prevailed over print. Everyone understands that instantaneous delivery rules the day, and that any media entity that hopes to survive has to adjust to that. It is about reporting, and content.

Here's an example from this week. The manhunt for the alleged shooter in the tragic murders at an Auburn apartment complex was the top news story in the state. When police surrounded a house in Montgomery where the suspect was thought to be hiding, there were dozens of real-time reports. But the person I looked to (via Twitter) for details was the Montgomery Advertiser's Jay G. Tate, because I knew he would report with accuracy and accountability. Tate is a newspaper reporter. And the fewer there are, the less of such reporting there will be - for everyone.

Admittedly, there is a personal side to this. Some of the people who won't be working at the Birmingham News any more, talented people like Toraine Norris and Michelle Williams Campbell, started out in Tuscaloosa. Others, such as Doug Segrest and Steve Irvine, the UAB beat writer, were friends of many years' standing. Some, such as photographer Bernard Troncale or Washington reporter Mary Orndorff, I hardly know at all, but I know and respect their work. There are more, too many to name here.

In the short run, the volume of coverage of my particular beat, University of Alabama athletics, isn't going to change much. It is a big, traffic-generating part of this state, and plenty of people will cover it. But this state is larger than college athletics, and the light shining on other parts of this large state will be mighty dim in the future.

Yes, this is a sports column, but there will be no reckoning of winners from the events of Tuesday. There weren't any.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.

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