If The Athletic’s head honchos cash out, what was the point?

May 25, 2021

If the New York Times ends up buying The Athletic, as Axios reported is in the works, it could be good for readers. There’s a scenario where the NYT simply absorbs The Athletic as a sort of sports vertical and lets all the local journalists they’ve hired the past few years continue as they have been. There’s also a chance they make a series of cuts in an attempt to “right-size the business” when it becomes part of a public company and is no longer propped up by venture capital, and readers, local news outlets, and journalists are all left out to dry while a few executives and their VC backers make a tidy profit off the NYT’s optimism.

Either way, the primary lesson of The Athletic saga that I think not enough people have learned is how much news ⁠— radio, television, digital ⁠— is built upon the foundation of local general interest newspapers, and that the entire ecosystem goes to hell without that foundation.

Obviously, there are journalists doing stellar original work for radio, television, and digital-only shops, but newspapers are traditionally the outlets that publish the highest volume of truly original reporting upon which other media build their stories. I think a lot about this Columbia Journalism Review profile of Bay Area reporter Nate Gartrell, which lays out how, in one of the most populous parts of the country, there was a single journalist doing the kind of legwork necessary to hold powerful government institutions to account — and he was doing it for two big counties, which means, inevitably, he was missing important stories.

Covering the Memphis Grizzlies beat or whatever isn’t nearly as important as Gartrell’s work covering court systems (and his bosses’ bosses’ bosses don’t exactly inspire confidence*), but to truly report on the team requires legwork, doggedness, and a willingness to keep showing up and building relationships that expresses itself in coverage over time. Anyone can watch all a team’s games on TV, or even live in the arena, divine certain nuances about a given team from those observations, and provide solid commentary based on that kind of watching, but beat reporters can do all that and observe the team when it’s untelevised, and spend time developing stories that come from proximity and access. It’s not easy! Ultimately, some readers may find some writers who merely observe from the outside are more valuable to them than their team’s beat reporters, which is fine.

However, if the NYT buys The Athletic and then cuts back, it will be a blow to sports journalism because so many good reporters put their lots in with an outfit that explicitly sought, in the words of a co-founder, to destroy the sports sections of local newspapers. Really, a co-founder said, “We will wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing.”

The thing is, they did this with other people’s money, and while in the short term it was great for certain journalists who could get the bag, it also put a bunch of sports sections in flux and now, just a few years later, those journalists who jumped are looking at an uncertain future. Oh, and, um... in the interim, no one’s actually figured out how to keep local news outlets from bleeding out.

So we’re left with a question that a bunch of people who pay attention to the media business warned about from the start: if The Athletic’s head honchos cashed out, despite their protestations they weren’t looking to cash out, what would be the point? It seems, from here, the point was to find a buyer, and the sellers don’t care what havoc they may have wrought to the foundations of sports media in the process (not unique to the media business). They disrupted an established industry, and they’re on the verge of a handsome reward. Isn’t that enough?

*Disclosure: Within the past year, I interviewed for a job with the Bay Area News Group and was not offered the position, though I would have accepted had I been offered.

(Photo: “IMG_0017 1” by Cathy T. Apparently taken on the Washington Nationals’ “Bloggers Day”. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)