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July 11, 2023, 12:25 p.m.

The Athletic finally shut down a newspaper’s sports desk — just not the one people expected

It’s all about The Bundle.

Back in 2017, The Athletic cofounder Alex Mather gave one of the dumbest quotes in the 21st-century history of the media industry. When The Athletic was still a young pup journalistically, he decided to let out the bloodthirstiest of yawps. “We will wait out every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing,” he told a sports reporter from The New York Times. “We will suck them dry of their best talent at every moment.”

The Times’ reporter in question, Kevin Draper, knew to make that the lede of his story, topping it with this graf:

By the time you finish reading this article, the upstart sports news outlet called The Athletic probably will have hired another well-known sportswriter from your local newspaper. In a couple of years, once The Athletic has completed its breakneck expansion, perhaps that newspaper’s sports section will no longer exist.

Little did Draper know it would be his own sports department that would be meeting its end.

Just yesterday, staffers on the Times’ sports desk had sent a letter to the company’s leaders demanding answers. “For 18 months, The New York Times has left its sports staff twisting in the wind,” it said, referring to the Times’ purchase of The Athletic in January 2022. “We have watched the company buy a competitor with hundreds of sportswriters and weigh decisions about the future of sports coverage at The Times without, in many instances, so much as a courtesy call, let alone any solicitation of our expertise.” This morning, they got their answers — though likely not the ones they’d hoped for.

The New York Times is shutting down its sports desk — moving its staffers into other departments, where many will be asked to write about the intersections of sports with business, culture, fashion, and so on. The Athletic will instead function as the sports department of the Times, with its stories even crossing over into print. It’s a jarring change, but one that fits right into the company’s bundling strategy, in which the main Times newsroom is just one content generator among many. (Are the crosswords a way to sell the news, or is the news a way to sell the crosswords?)

Here are Times reporters Katie Robertson and John Koblin:

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 journalists 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.

And here is the memo from the big bosses, A. G. Sulzberger and Meredith Kopit Levien.

There are, it must be said, plenty of rational arguments for the change. The Athletic certainly has far more capacity than the Times’ desk; The Athletic has around 400 journalists, the sports desk about 35. Having two distinct NYT Co.-produced stories on the big sports news of the day was inefficient. (It’s worth noting that Times sports reporters are unionized and The Athletic’s are not. But I suspect that wasn’t a dominant factor, not least because I’d expect The Athletic’s staff to unionize in short order; the Times has said it wouldn’t fight the move.)

But the big-picture thinking here is all about The Bundle — the “All-Access” subscription that combines the Times’ news report with crossword puzzles, recipes, gadget reviews, and yes, The Athletic, all for one price. It has become the company’s core pitch to investors. Management’s opening remarks on NYT Co.’s most recent quarterly earnings call mentioned The Bundle in some way no fewer than 22 times. (“Our highest ever number of bundle starts in the quarter, highest percentage of bundle starts, and highest number of bundle upgrades”; “driving even more people to the bundle as its relative price becomes more attractive”; “our bundle strategy is gaining momentum;” etc., etc.) Having an in-house sports desk that was “free” to news-only subscribers likely dampened enthusiasm for upgrading to The Bundle.

Indeed, The Bundle may soon be the only way to get access to the journalism of The New York Times. Today, I went to the Times’ main subscription page in an incognito browser window (so without any of my cookies or registration data). For years, there have been two main offerings on this page: a basic, just-the-news subscription and the All-Access bundle. But today, the only offer was for All-Access. I honestly could not figure out how to buy a New York Times news subscription without Games, Cooking, et al.

I asked around online and some people said they could see both offerings — but many saw the same All-Access only pitch I did. (I assume it’s an A/B test of some sort.) I reached out to the Times and got a remarkable response from a spokesperson:

We still sell news-only subscriptions but do not actively promote it online.

Wow: The New York Times will no longer “actively promote” subscriptions to The New York Times — only to the Times bundled together with Spelling Bee, a recipe organizer, and “The Best Early Amazon Prime Day Deals of 2023 (So Far).” Newspapers have always been polyglot products, bundling together international news, movie reviews, the gardening column, and more. But I’m a little stunned to learn that all the stories generated by thousands of Times journalists only barely make up a free-standing offering.

There are still a lot of questions in my mind. How many Athletic stories are we talking about for NYTimes.com readers — a small selection, most, all? Will those enterprise stories to be written by the sports diaspora make it over to The Athletic, too? Will the pitches for Athletic subs and Times subs become muddled? (Personally, as a news-only Times subscriber, I’m confused on whether I can cancel my Athletic subscription now.) There are certainly psychographic overlaps between people who like news and people who like, say, crosswords or recipes. But those are products distinct from news, not a segment of the news report that the Mothership was already producing. And as The Athletic has pivoted away from team-based coverage, the distinctions between these two brands of sports journalism have grown dimmer in my mind.

It’s a confusing change — but one that was always bound to be confusing, giving the issues and turf involved. It likely won’t be the last awkward bundling we see — there’s still a lot to play out. Can The Athletic remain distinct as a publication if it’s also the sports section of The New York Times? Or, more directly, should it?

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email (joshua_benton@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     July 11, 2023, 12:25 p.m.
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