The New York Times Co. recently made a controversial decision to replace its homegrown sports section with the Athletic, a digital brand that the media conglomerate acquired for $550 million in 2022.
The announcement dismayed some readers who faithfully read the signature Sports of the Times column and regarded perusing the Sunday sports section as much of a ritual as bagels and lox on weekends.
The Times has for years frustrated many New York-based readers by its strategy of giving short shrift to the news in the five boroughs and near suburbs. While it makes sense for the Times to put ample resources in its coverage of Washington and beyond, local readers still wish that the Times would show a greater appetite to cover events in its backyard.
But time marches on. The Times Co. made the decision as a part of its strategy to remain relevant with a new kind of sports-reporting emphasis. It will focus on big stories that go beyond a final score and take place far from New York City. The company desperately hopes to make people forget that its nickname was once The Grey Lady. It wants Wall Street to conclude that the Times is willing to embrace the advantages of the new electronic technology, even at the expense of parting ways with its tradition.
The Times Co. might try to appease the disgruntled readers by suggesting that to make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs, right?
The Times is locked in a death-match struggle with, primarily, the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. The Post’s owner is Jeff Bezos, annually listed as one of the wealthiest individuals in the world. The Journal is a part of Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire.
The Times must compete with those deep pockets while showing shareholders that they are looking to the future. It is a Herculean balancing act.
Some Times readers are frustrated by what they see as the paper’s decision to put a greater premium on national and international news than everyday events in the five boroughs and the near suburbs. They see this effort as the Times turning its back on these residents, just as inveterate Times sports-section readers will feel now, despite the potential of having the Athletic’s ample journalistic resources.
When the Times published a story discussing its acquisition of the Athletic, on Jan. 6, 2022, it hinted of what was to come. The news account stressed the Athletic’s appeal, with its 1.2 million subscriptions.
“The deal brings The Times, which has more than eight million total subscriptions, quickly closer to its goal of having 10 million subscriptions by 2025,” the Times reported at the time of the takeover.
The Times wants people to accept the decision to disband the sports section as a sign of strength and a demonstration of its ability to change with the times.
When Joe Kahn, The Times’s executive editor, and Monica Drake, a deputy managing editor, announced the shift to the staff, they described it as “an evolution in how we cover sports.”
They added: “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. At the same time, we will scale back the newsroom’s coverage of games, players, teams and leagues.”
And that is where the tension exists. Many Times readers turn first to the sports news and want to find out about how their favorite teams and players are doing. They would like to know the final score of the Knicks game more than a feature development four thousand miles away.
Ultimately, the question is: Is the Times acting out of strength or weakness? Does it want to show off the brawn of the Athletic or is it conceding that the acquisition was a questionable investment and the parent company must now justify the hefty price tag?
The Athletic also helps the Times achieve its journalistic objectives of covering the world and honing on burning social and cultural issues. The Jan. 6, 2022 news story noted that the acquisition of the Athletic was “also offering its audience more in-depth coverage of the more than 200 professional teams in North America, Britain and Europe that are closely followed by the Athletic’s journalists.”
The Times’ preferred 18-to-25 age group of readers might likely not really care about the shift in the sports section, one way or the other whether Times homegrown journalists or an imported flock from the Athletic are writing about sports. These folks might tune in to ESPN’s SportsCenter broadcasts to catch the final scores, the gossip and the highlights.
The Sports Journalists
And whither the Times sports journalists who are being displaced? They have done nothing wrong and now they are paying the price for management’s decision to replace them with the Athletic.
Welcome to the days when the Times is appreciated as much for Wordle by some readers as any Pulitzer Prize-winning news story.
What will become of the men and women who have worked tirelessly for the Times sports section? It doesn’t seem fair to order them to take on new responsibilities at the Times (if, in fact, they are allowed to stay on).
But this is the way things get done in the electronic age. Is it fair to the Times faithful sports consumers or its loyal staff? Not at all.
Maybe the Times food critic will publish a story about how to make an omelette without breaking too many eggs.