It’s a destination employer for so many young sports journalists. When The New York Times comes calling, you’d answer and listen as intently as possible. And if you were so lucky to be offered a job on the Manhattan-based media company’s team, you’d accept without hesitation. Now that possibility doesn’t exist, as The New York Times announced Monday it was disbanding its sports desk and moving all reporters in that department to other roles within the organization. Congratulations, you’re no longer covering the Knicks! Here’s an assignment about how dirty the Hudson River is! It’s the 24th-most grimy in the USA!
All The Athletic, all the time
The Times will now rely on its website The Athletic, to supply all sports coverage, both in print and online. The New York Times bought The Athletic in January 2022 for $550 million. The outlet, per the Times, covered 200 professional sports teams with 150 journalists and published 150 stories a day. The Athletic’s founders said in 2017 their goal was to let local papers bleed out and be the last one’s standing. Who’d they tell that narcissistic goal to? The New York Times. How the tables have turned, now providing all sports content for a company with the second-largest newspaper circulation in the country, only behind the Wall Street Journal.
Members of The New York Times’ leadership called the decision “an evolution in how we cover sports,” and I’m not convinced we have the same definition for how things evolve. What about diverting more than 35 careers into something else with little warning is evolving? It’s a drastic change, especially for a department that boasts three Pulitzer Prizes, which the story announcing the change has buried near the end. The New York Times sports department is unionized, while The Athletic’s is not. Last month, the Athletic laid off nearly 20 employees — around 4 percent of its newsroom staff.
A letter sent from 28 New York Times’ writers and editors to the company’s leadership, obtained by The Washington Post, states that while The New York Times’ own content and that of reporters from The Athletic overlapped, the Times’ leadership promised no layoffs would occur in the NYT newsroom with any integration of the brands. The company reportedly also acknowledged “that the New York Times Guild has jurisdiction over newsroom jobs and that any plan for Athletic employees to perform bargaining unit work must be done in accordance with our union contract.” It further asked: “Do those promises still hold?” It’s unclear where transitioning an entire department falls under their union contract.
There’s also this tremendous word salad in the NYT release: “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 Times’ announcement states. “At the same time, we will scale back the newsroom’s coverage of games, players, teams and leagues.” The New York Times’ leadership can’t be that naive. How do they think reporters get the kind of access associated with original enterprise work? Not by scaling back everyday coverage. Parachuting in to cover an issue just because you’re The New York Times is one heck of a business strategy. And by “one heck” I mean asinine.
What a sad day for sports journalism.