New York Times Sports Staff Demands Answers Amid Turmoil With the Athletic

From a Washington Post story by Ben Strauss headlined “New York Times sports staff demands answers amid turmoil with the Athletic”:

The New York Times sports department sent a pointed letter to the newspaper’s leadership Sunday asking for answers about the future of the section amid concern that it could be shut down in an ongoing effort to further integrate the Athletic into the Times. The letter, signed by 28 writers and editors in the sports department, was addressed to executive editor Joseph Kahn and A.G. Sulzberger, chairman of the New York Times Company.

“For 18 months, The New York Times has left its sports staff twisting in the wind,” stated the letter, which was obtained by The Washington Post. “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.

“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 New York Times spokesperson said: “We’ve had conversations since we bought The Athletic about what it means for the future of our sports coverage. We’ve rolled out some changes, such as including Athletic stories on the home screen. As with any coverage area, we have been closely evaluating how to deliver the best possible sports journalism for our growing audience. We’ll update when we have more to share.”

The Times acquired the Athletic, a subscription sports outlet, last year for $550 million and has since sought to integrate it into its bundle of offerings that includes recipes and games. The Athletic employs some 400 staffers in North America and Europe, where it offers blanket coverage of the English Premier League. The Times, as of last year, had between 40 and 50 writers and editors in sports, according to two people with knowledge of the department, though some have since left the section and not been replaced.

Since the acquisition of the Athletic, there has been notable overlap in sports coverage between the two entities, which prompted Kahn to tell sports staffers this year that the Times had more reporters covering sports than any other topic and that there needed to be more integration.

One complicating factor in any effort to do so concerns the state of labor agreements at the publications. The Athletic is not unionized, but Times staffers work under a new employee contract that was ratified this year.

Sunday’s letter alluded to that issue, stating leadership promised there would be no layoffs in the Times newsroom and also that the company 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.”

The letter then asked: “Do those promises still hold?”

Several current and former Times sports staffers, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they feared some sports jobs could be eliminated, potentially forcing them to move to the Athletic or to other coverage areas at the Times.

However the new arrangement unfolds, the concern among staffers is that it could mean the end of the Times sports department, which has been a staple of the newspaper’s daily report for decades. The letter notes the history of the section, dating from its coverage of the first Olympics in Athens in 1896. Columnists Red Smith, Arthur Daley and Dave Anderson won Pulitzers, as did John Branch in 2013 for feature writing.

The letter also highlights the sports department’s meaningful scoops and leading coverage on issues such as concussions in football, doping in horse racing, Russia’s detention of Brittney Griner and the injection of billions of dollars from the Middle East into global sports.

Among the signers of the letter were prominent baseball and NFL writers Tyler Kepner and Ken Belson; Jenny Vrentas, an investigative reporter who has written extensively about NFL quarterback Deshaun Watson; and Juliet Macur, who last year chronicled the harrowing journey of a female soccer player out of Afghanistan.

If reporters ultimately join the Athletic, they will be joining a publication in transition. The Athletic laid off around 20 people last month as part of a shift from employing beat writers for most major pro sports teams in the country to a more nationally focused outlet. The Athletic grew thanks to $140 million in venture funding and never turned a profit before the Times bought it. It has more than 3 million subscribers, according to the Times, and has helped the company reach its lofty subscriber goals but lost $7.8 million in the most recent quarter.

Several current and former Athletic staffers have wondered in recent days whether there may be more cuts coming at some point, given that the outlet may need fewer reporters to carry out its mission of less expansive coverage.

Ben Strauss covers sports and media for The Washington Post.

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