The New York Times’ purchase of The Athletic last year was starting to look ill-advised. The sports website continued to lose money after the Times paid $550 million for it, and it recently went through a round of downsizing. A new emphasis was announced: more trends and broad strokes, less coverage of teams and games.
Few, though, could have predicted what came next. Earlier today the Times said that it would actually do away with its own sports department and instead, in what you might call an act of internal outsourcing, turn over sports coverage to The Athletic — some of whose stories will now appear in the Times, both in print and online. It was a shocking move. Even though no one will be laid off, it marks the end of a small but high-quality operation that has won its share of Pulitzer Prizes over the years. Alexandra Bruell has the story for The Wall Street Journal (free link).
Speculation began to mount that such a move might be in the works over the weekend, when Ben Strauss of The Washington Post reported that the Times’ sports staffers had sent a letter to executive editor Joe Kahn and chair A.G. Sulzberger that said in part: “The company’s efforts appear to be coming to a head, with The Times pursuing a full-scale technological migration of The Athletic to The Times’s platforms and the threat that the company will effectively shut down our section.”
A Times spokesperson told the Post, “We’ll update when we have more to share.” Hours later, the hammer came down.
Although it’s hard to know exactly what Times management is thinking, you have to wonder if The Athletic’s status as a nonunion newsroom has something to do with it. Those of us with long memories can recall that some tensions were created when The Boston Globe launched Stat to cover health and life sciences — and stories from Stat, initially a nonunion shop, began running in the Globe, which, like the Times newsroom, is represented by a union. (Stat journalists joined the Boston Newspaper Guild in 2021.) Athletic publisher David Perpich told Bruell of the Journal that he’d respect a decision to unionize. Maybe so, but that’s generally not how it works.
The Times has been enormously successful at selling digital subscriptions, and The Athletic has been offered as part of its All Access offering — a higher-priced subscription that includes extras such as Cooking, the consumer-advice site Wirecutter and puzzles. It would appear, though, that The Athletic was not a major contributor to goosing those All Access subscriptions. And now this.
Tom Jones, a former sportswriter who’s now the media reporter for Poynter Online, expressed his misgivings just before the Times’ sports department was vaporized, writing:
It would be a real shame if Times leaders decided to alter the current Times’ sports section by cutting staff and/or integrating the coverage into The Athletic. They are two distinct sports outlets.
In a perfect world, both The Athletic and Times sports section would co-exist, each doing what they do best. For the Times, that’s deeply reported stories, superb writing and topics that you aren’t going to find routinely on most sports and/or news websites.
The Times is a juggernaut, the last great American newspaper that continues to grow and prosper. The idea that an outlet like the Times can’t support a sports section without a jerry-rigged system involving its own subsidiary is just absurd. This has all the appearance of a face-saving solution aimed at papering over its own poor decision to buy The Athletic in the first place.
Even if it seemed like a good idea to a lot of us at the time.