Texas paper throws a hefty curve ball

`Huntsville Item' won't cover baseball until dispute is over

August 29, 2002|By Faith Hayden | Faith Hayden,SUN STAFF

If Major League Baseball manages to avert a strike by tomorrow, there is nowhere in the country where that will be bigger news than in Huntsville, Texas. But if the strike occurs, or the talks continue, the good citizens of Huntsville, population 35,000, won't read a word about it, at least not in their hometown paper.

Shortly after players had set a strike deadline, David Arkin, 24, managing editor of the Huntsville Item (circulation 7,000), decided to boycott baseball by pulling all coverage from the paper: no major league box scores, game coverage, pictures, standings - or negotiation news - would be published until an agreement was reached.

Arkin, whose job at the Item is his first since graduating from Eastern New Mexico University two years ago, was proud to take such a stand, but he never expected many people to notice.

"I never expected national attention," said Arkin, a Maryland native who was born in Annapolis and grew up in Hagerstown. "I thought it might make the wire but that was the extent."

Instead, Arkin and the Item have become an item. He has been interviewed by CNN and MSNBC and appeared in newspapers across the country.

The Sun caught up with Arkin this week to discuss the philosophy behind the boycott and what he thinks baseball can do to get the fans back into the game.

Are you a big baseball fan?

I'm a huge Orioles fan. I think Cal Ripken Jr. is just the greatest athlete ever. I remember going to the park to watch Eddie Murray; my parents bought me an Eddie Murray jersey; I have Cal Ripken stuff in my office. The people who started this [boycott] are all huge baseball fans, into fantasy baseball and everything. So it's not like we hate baseball; we love baseball, we love watching it, but something needed to be done, something needed to be said.

How did this come about?

Editors were talking about the strike, and we thought it might be a neat idea to find out what the readers thought about us pulling our [baseball] coverage. We didn't think it would be appropriate if we just went ahead and did it without reader input. So we went out and asked our readers, and their response was overwhelming. I thought it would be more of a 60-40 deal, but it was 82 percent [in favor] and that was pretty overwhelming.

Why do you think the response was so one-sided?

It's hard to imagine that people aren't going to continue to go in this direction and maybe stray away from the sport if these things continue to happen. It's hard for the average person to understand how someone who makes $8 million a year can whine about a contract or labor agreement. It's hard for the average person who makes $40,000 a year to understand that. A lot of baseball players say that `the public can't [get along] without us.' Well, I think our survey pretty much shows that people can make it without you there, and that people don't need baseball.

How did you get the publisher of your paper on board?

He thought it was great that we were taking a stand and was real supportive of it. People have asked, from a journalistic perspective, if we were crossing the line because we were taking a stand on a controversial issue. And you know, I think that really we let the readers take the stand. And I think that journalists have lost focus - that we should ask the readers what they want in the paper. We tend to forget who we are doing this for.

Do you know of any other publications that are following your example?

No, there have been a lot of radio, newspapers and TV stations that think this is a really neat idea, but they haven't really done anything besides applaud us for it. We got something like 35 letters in one day on this one topic from all around the country.

Has Major League Baseball contacted you?

We haven't heard anything from them at all. Someone did mention it to one of the people who is involved in the labor [negotiations], and they said they had no comment.

Have you gotten any negative responses?

I just got off the phone with a reader who said that we were taking a service away from them and that they wanted baseball coverage. We had one reader call us and say that we were acting like a bunch of teen-age girls and that we should donate our salaries to one of the humane shelters. So some people are reacting kind of extreme to this. But a lot of the letters were of a "thanks for doing this" nature and that readers were glad we were taking a stand. The national interest has really surprised me.

What would you like to see change in baseball?

I would like to see compromising on the issues and putting aside things for the best interest of the game. I would like to see them go back to playing the game. Salaries have to go down; they are out of control. There are some major issues with Bud Selig. I think there are a lot of other problems outside the labor agreement. Look at the All-Star game, if that's not enough proof. I think that may have [gotten] the fans' attention, and started to get fans thinking that maybe this sport isn't as great as we thought it was.

What is your message to baseball?

Probably that the fans don't need the game as much as you think they do. Something needs to change. If baseball continues to be run this way, maybe more newspapers or more media will recognize the fact that their readers feel that baseball is not a need for them.

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