It’s not been a great week for sports readers or sportswriters. On the heels of Sunday’s announcement by the LOS ANGELES TIMES that they were doing away with box scores and statistics, the NEW YORK TIMES one-upped them with this missive, as reported (ironically) by the paper’s media reporters Katie Robertson and John Koblin:
The New York Times said on Monday that it would disband its sports department and rely on coverage of teams and games from its website The Athletic, both online and in print.
Joe Kahn, The Times’s executive editor, and Monica Drake, a deputy managing editor, announced the change to the newsroom as “an evolution in how we cover sports.”
“We plan to focus even more directly on distinctive, high-impact news and enterprise journalism about how sports intersect with money, power, culture, politics and society at large,” the editors wrote in an email to The Times’s newsroom on Monday morning. “At the same time, we will scale back the newsroom’s coverage of games, players, teams and leagues.”
The shuttering of the sports desk, which has more than 35 reporters and editors, is a major shift for The Times. The department’s coverage of games, athletes and team owners, and its Sports of The Times column in particular, were once a pillar of American sports journalism. The section covered the major moments and personalities of the last century of American sports, including Muhammad Ali, the birth of free agency, George Steinbrenner, the Williams sisters, Tiger Woods, steroids in baseball and the deadly effects of concussions in the National Football League.
Let’s go one step further. One of the highest honors that any sportswriter can aspire to is called the Red Smith Award, named for a legendary New York Times sports columnist. And now the department he worked for is no more.
Well, not quite, The Athletic is an ambitious multimedia gambit that became part of the Times empire a year and a half ago, and as local archrival Alexandra Steigrad reported in THE NEW YORK POST yesterday, has been as struggling on a financial basis as they have been successful on a content basis:
The Times acquired The Athletic 18 months ago with the goal of integrating the site into its bundle of offerings that includes recipes and games.
But The Athletic is currently losing money and has set a goal to turn a profit by 2025. The Athletic employs around 400 staffers in North America and Europe, and as of last year, was hit by layoffs of between 40 and 50 writers and editors amid economic headwinds facing the media and advertising industries, the Washington Post reported.
Just last month, the site shed 20 writers and reassigned 20 others to different beats, according to the publication.
Despite having 3.3 million subscribers, The Athletic lost $7.8 million last quarter, on top of losing $12.6 million in the second quarter last year and $6.8 million in February and March of last year, the Times has reported in public filings.
What seemed to push this to a head was what was effectively a call for clarity from Times staffers which Robertson and Koblin dutifully detailed:
On Sunday, a group of nearly 30 members of The Times’s sports desk sent a letter to Mr. Kahn and A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of The Times, chastising the company for leaving its sports staff “twisting in the wind” since the purchase of The Athletic.
Mr. Kahn and other members of The Times’s masthead met with the sports desk on Monday. The meeting was contentious, according to two people who were present, with sports reporters pressing Mr. Kahn on why he had not kept them more informed of the company’s plans. Mr. Kahn said they were being “unfair” to say the masthead had waited to share the full plan and that the organization had worked hard to find jobs for everyone, the two people said.
And as the POST’s Steigrad further noted, there’s also the nasty side of all of this involving dollars and cents–and nonsense–that way too many workers in any industry can identify with:
Complicating matters regarding any downsizing is the fact that the Times is unionized and The Athletic is not.
A rep from the Times’ union, the NewsGuild of New York, did not immediately comment.
According to CNN, the newspaper’s union blasted the move, saying sports staffers were given “virtually no notice of this change.”
The NewsGuild told the outlet it intends to fight what it called a “flagrant attempt at union-busting” and will
The NewsGuild told the outlet it intends to fight what it called a “flagrant attempt a union-busting” and will work with sports reporters to uphold their rights as outlined by their union contracts.
A thoughful piece authored by Michael McCarthy of FRONT OFFICE SPORTS in the wake of this feared that this move, especially on the heels of the LA TIMES’ announcement, could result in even more dramatic change to the industry:
What’s to stop THE TIMES from doing what the ATHLETIC threatended years ago? Namely, stealing all the good, young sportswriters from around the country and putting their local papers, those that are left, out of business?
“Going back to the beginning of THE ATHLETIC, they said their plan was to bleed everybody dry and outlast them, Now is that the NEW YORK TIMES’ plan?”, asked Tom Jones, a senior media editor at Poynter.org.
McCarthy further reminded:
Over its history, THE ATHLETIC ticked off local sports editors by stealing their best reproters and columnists, then spiking the football to the TIMES.
“We will wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing” vowed ATHLETIC co-founder Alex Mather back in 2017. “We will suck them dry of their best talent at every moment. We will make business extremely difficult for them”.
Here’s the problem. This strategy already was tried. Let’s let Wikipedia remind these young ‘uns of something yours truly devoted way too much time and money to when he had it:
The National Sports Daily, often referred to simply as The National, was a sports-centered newspaper published in the United States beginning on January 31, 1990. The newspaper was based in New York City, was printed in a tabloid format, and was published Monday through Friday. The National was an American attempt to emulate the model of several international all-sports publications, such as La Gazzetta dello Sport (Italy), L’Equipe (France), and others. The paper was founded by Mexican-American media mogul Emilio Azcárraga Milmo, who had owned Mexican television conglomerate Televisa and whose family had founded Univision. Azcárraga was also the chief financier for the paper and used the success of the international sports papers as his inspiration for founding The National.
When The National was launched, it featured National Basketball Association superstars Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Patrick Ewing on the first cover to represent the Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York media markets (where the paper was initially available). The cover price was 50 cents.
For his editor in chief, Azcárraga turned to veteran sportswriter Frank Deford. At the time of the forming of the paper, Deford was a writer for Sports Illustrated and an NPR contributor. He also had very little newspaper experience, especially where editing was concerned. Future ESPN executive Vince Doria was brought in to be executive editor.
Deford immediately set out to get what was referred to by Bill Simmons as a “murderer’s row” of sportswriters to join The National. Deford said that hiring Atlanta Journal-Constitution sports editor Van McKenzie away from the paper was the “best thing he did” and was the linchpin for getting many of the writers who eventually signed up to write for The National interested. Once McKenzie was hired, he brought his auto racing writer Ed Hinton and investigative reporter and NFL analyst Chris Mortensen with him. Norman Chad, who was writing for The Washington Post at the time, was hired, as was New York Daily News writer Mike Lupica, Rocky Mountain News writer Jay Mariotti, Wrestling Observer Newsletter writer Dave Meltzer, The Dallas Morning News writer Ivan Maisel, The Boston Globe writer Leigh Montville, and various others.
The National used The Wall Street Journal‘s printing and distribution network to publish separate editions in each time zone. However, this did not help matters. Problems arose almost from day one, as The National was not as widely circulated as expected. For the first few months, where the paper was being rolled out on a market-to-market basis, there was an expected circulation of 250,000 copies a day, eventually hoping to rise to 1,000,000 copies by 2001. The National also did not generate much in the way of advertising revenue as the publishers were unable to secure companies that were able (or willing) to purchase ad space. Furthermore, readers of The National could only receive the paper by purchasing it at retail outlets like newsstands and bookstores or in street boxes; the paper attempted to offer a home delivery subscription service but could not work out the logistics, and editor-in-chief Frank Deford noted that he had to cancel his own potential subscription account when everyone else on his street did.
Timing also proved a concern. The Wall Street Journal facilities would often have deliveries leave the distributors at such an early time that The National was often unable to meet deadlines for game results. Another problem this created was inconsistency, as some cities that sold The National in street boxes often saw these boxes left empty. To top it off, major market papers refused to allow The National to run advertising in their publications and some sportswriters at competing local papers resorted to attacking the street boxes with baseball bats.
As the year went on, the financial state of The National got worse and worse, to the point where the paper had tens of millions of dollars cut from its budget as 1991 began. The cover price was increased by a quarter as well, which caused the already low circulation to decline further as readers were even less willing to spend 75 cents to receive national sports news that they could find in their local publications, or the nationally distributed USA Today by comparison, for 50 cents or even less.
Despite a last-ditch effort to start an online distribution through Compuserve, the declining circulation was enough for The National to announce it was ceasing publication. On June 13, 1991, The National put out its final issue with its front cover reading “We Had A Ball: The fat lady sings our song.”
So, no, I’m not about to predict the demise of local sports journalism just yet. Because even if Mather isn’t old enough to remember all this, the Sulzberger family that he needed to keep his dream alive sure does. And, bluntly, somebody still needs to write tell stories about Friday night football games across America, even if it’s just a high school sports editor who never heard of Red Smith.
Where I see the potential of THE ATHLETIC is to continue its trailblazing work in podcasting and multimedia. I’m arguably as big a fan of their online content as anyone, certainly disproportionate to my demographic. I absolutely love Robert Mays’ fascinating football work, Shams Charania and Sam Amick’s basketball coverage , not to mention each weekend’s brainteasing “Andrew Versus The Beat” quiz. Sean Gentille and Hailey Salvian’s “Thriday” hockey banter, and the witty exchanges and trivia question swearings of the Philadelphia-centric duo of Jayson and Doug who contribute their surnames to their “Starkville” baseball recaps. And, frankly, combined with the expanded efforts of THE TIMES in their audio work, I’m of the opinion that print will be, at best, simply a loss leader that will hopefully keep those efforts, and others’, in play.
Sadly, THE NEW YORK TIMES already lost my passion for print when they got rid of box scores and stats. Red Smith is a fond but distant memory for me, and a nonentity for their target readers. So I’m not quite as upset as I was a couple of days ago when their West Coast brethren dealt me a body blow.
Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I’m surprisingly optimistic that logic and reason–not to mention business common sense–might keep McCarthy and Jones’ fears from becoming reality. After all, those talented local sportswriters wouldn’t want to work for nothing, right?
Now, if you want to reach out to me…well, let’s just say I’m negotiable.