The Times-Journal has named Steven Stiefel its newest staff writer.
The Fort Payne native is a familiar face at the Times-Journal as he has worked for the newspaper before – for a total of 12 years.
The 1986 Fort Payne High School graduate attended Auburn University where he majored in communications with a minor in English and journalism. After graduating, he landed his first-time job at the Times-Journal under then-Publisher Gary Gengozian and Managing Editor Dennis Benefield.
“I started in January of 1990 with general assignments,” he said. “I was doing whatever they needed or going wherever they needed to send somebody. As time went on, I would get assigned to cover city government, county commission, and city council meetings. I [covered] a lot of Rainsville City Council meetings and things happening in Montgomery with [Senator] Lowell Barron and [Representative] Todd Greeson.”
During that time, the Times-Journal was located where Bryant’s Heating and Cooling is now, at 300 8th St. SE. Stiefel said that era saw major events that specifically pertained to Fort Payne.
“That was an exciting time because June Jam and National Hosiery Week were two major week-long celebrations in Fort Payne,” he said. “All the [sock] mills would get together and have games and activities and all the businesses in town would [express thanks] to the hosiery mills.”
For the first time as a Times-Journal employee, Stiefel worked with the newspaper for three years.
His interest in photography led him to open a portrait studio on First Street in downtown Fort Payne called Masterworks that was a collaboration with his fellow photographer Michael Caldwell, also a former Times-Journal employee.
In 1995, after Ben Shurett was named the publisher of the Times-Journal, he walked into Stiefel’s studio and asked if he would consider returning to the paper as a reporter working with then-managing editor Patrick Graham.
“I guess people in the county liked me and spoke well of me, so I came back a second time,” Stiefel said.
Stiefel said the Times-Journal had undergone a lot of technological changes to keep pace with the industry.
“That was an interesting time,” he said. “We gradually switched from film to digital cameras and the newspaper had a website. We didn’t have a paywall for the website then, so we would just post two or three stories from the front page on the website every day and hoped that folks got in the habit of visiting.”
In 2002, when JD Davidson was the managing editor of the Times-Journal, Stiefel won a job as associate editor for one of the newspaper’s sister papers, The Sand Mountain Reporter. “I made the drive to Albertville every day for two or three years.”
While working there, Stiefel and a friend created a website as a fun sideline on his free time. One day, his partner called to say a company from California wanted to buy their website to shut it down as a competitor and hire him to create the same editorial product for them.
With a young child at home, he was nervous about leaving a strong and secure company, but he took a leap of faith and switched from print to online media. Rebranded as Savvy.com, the website became the second most popular men’s lifestyle website in the world under Stiefel’s editorial oversight and art direction.
“That job was a lot of hard work and involved a crazy amount of traveling cross country, but it was super fun because the website promoted a lot of cool brands and entertainment personalities on the brink of becoming famous,” he said. “I interviewed people like comedian Dane Cook before they became huge and art-directed big-budget photo shoots in Atlanta and Los Angeles.”
While at Savvy, a group of former Showtime Network executives starting their own television network recruited him to join them in 2007, driving brand awareness so they could get viewers requesting the channel on their local cable or satellite carriers and increase its value for resell.
“MavTV grew from standard definition available to view in about 30,000 homes to high def 24-hours-a-day broadcasting of original shows to 31 million homes nationwide,” he said. “In addition to outreach, I was the one pulling together the daily program logs, so there literally was no channel without me scheduling when things aired.”
He helped create reality TV shows produced by the channel’s production wing in Atlanta.
When the network sold to Lucas Oil Motorsports, he declined to join that company’s staff in California, preferring to remain close to his family in DeKalb County.
He chose to go back to school while searching for his next job. “I went to Troy [University] for strategic communications and graduated in 2013.”
He then took a position as an adjunct instructor for Troy University while also working at a Chattanooga-based digital marketing agency, Riverworks Marketing Group.
After 5 years in that role, it became clear to him that he needed to move back home to Fort Payne.
“I love Chattanooga, but I was getting burned out from that traffic construction and congestion every day, and I was burning the midnight oil managing campaigns for about 30 different clients,” he said. “I would be exhausted by the time I got back home, so I starting thinking about coming back here [to Fort Payne] and seeing what I could offer with all of these skills I had acquired elsewhere.”
Stiefel landed back at the Times-Journal, where, yet again, changes have been made.
“I am happy and excited to be here,” he said. “I was a little nervous because I wasn’t sure how much it was going to be changed, but surprisingly it is still the same dynamic as it was 18 years ago.
“The biggest change I have noticed, though, is that it is easier now to contact people on Facebook than it is in the phone book,” he said jokingly.
Times-Journal President and Publisher Tricia Dunne said Stiefel is a wealth of knowledge about the newspaper industry.
“Having Steven back brings a lot to the Times-Journal,” she said. “He has a strong political background as well as a strong presence in the community from his time here in the past. The same people that were reading his articles years ago are still subscribers today. For him to come back to write for the Times-Journal again says a lot about his passion for bringing timely and accurate news to our readers.”
Stiefel said many things have changed over the nearly 20-year span. He said his daughter was born when he was working here before, now he is back and she is a senior at Fort Payne High School. Stiefel said regardless of the changes, he wants to maintain the Times-Journal’s promise of reporting the truth.
“I don’t want to be too set in my ways of doing things,” he said. “I have seen a lot of history over what happened 20 years ago, but I want to be fair and straight down the middle. I am happy to be back and telling stories and reconnecting with people I haven’t talked to in a while.
“I’m happy to be celebrating how awesome this community is. I think it is a very special place, and I am excited to help [the Times-Journal] put out a good product.”