Grim Reaper coming for The Athletic

The once-prominent field of sports journalism is fighting for its life, with Monday’s layoffs at The Athletic representing another setback for an industry under siege. Slowly but surely, we’ve become desensitized to the obligatory scroll of farewell posts that grace our Twitter timelines on an almost weekly basis, accepting it as an unfortunate reality of a struggling profession undermined by a flawed business model that reduces the written word to mere numbers on a spreadsheet.

Time and again, disruptors like The Athletic will burst onto the scene, promising to shepherd journalism in a brave new direction, only to underdeliver like so many other flawed ventures in recent years. Poised as ambitious startups, these projects tend to follow the same general trajectory.

Grantland, Vice, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo!, NBC’s digital sites, The Players’ Tribune, Fox Sports (they of the infamous pivot to video), Bleacher Report (early adopters of the “regional site” trend so pervasive in the early 2010s), and SBNation—all are cautionary tales, outlets that squandered their early momentum before inevitably scaling back, neutered beyond all recognition by the Edward Scissorhands of corporate America. Meanwhile, supposedly successful outlets like The Athletic and Jomboy Media, which announced its own downsizing initiative last month, remind us how fragile our sports ecosystem truly is.

We can attribute this decline to a number of factors—reader apathy, dwindling attention spans (a product of our crippling screen addiction), and technological advancements fundamentally altering the way we consume media. All pose significant challenges to the growth and popularity of written content, though what journalism, at its core, is really suffering from is a lack of patience, beholden to suits who would rather move on to the next million-dollar idea than build an audience.

At the risk of oversharing, it’s impossible to address this topic without disclosing my own personal experience of being laid off by Audacy back in March, joining countless other writers deemed as “expendable,” casualties of a broken system. Done no favors by the COVID pandemic, Audacy, throughout my time there (just over three years), seemed to change its identity every few months, pivoting, in rapid succession, from radio to podcasts to push notifications on a tedious mobile app.

You can’t fault Audacy, amid plummeting stock prices (shareholders recently approved a “reverse split” to avoid being delisted by the NYSE), for calling an audible, though there’s a difference between reinventing yourself and delaying the inevitable with shortsighted stall tactics.

Anyone who’s lived through inflation the past few years, or the housing crisis that facilitated a global depression a decade earlier, knows layoffs aren’t unique to the creative sector, though it’s still a hell of a thing to go through. A fork-in-the-road moment for writers who devoted their entire lives—at great personal cost—to a career in journalism.

The fact that we always seem to arrive at this solution can’t be a coincidence. It speaks to the fundamental truth that writers—the foundation on which journalism is built—simply aren’t valued the way they once were. It’s why Sports Illustrated and The Ringer both unionized. It’s why Deadspin staff, in response to a “stick to sports” mandate handed down by corporate, launched a successful revolt, quitting en masse to start a new, subscription-based blog owned and operated by writers. The growing disconnect between talent and upper management is palpable, with the latter prioritizing clickbait over sound, impeccably researched journalism that demands accountability from its subjects.

“Meeting class” decision-makers, situated in their plush corner offices atop New York skyrises, would have you believe writing is a lost art. Does it have to be?

I’m often asked (usually by my concerned mother) how journalism schools like the one I attended at Syracuse University still function, arguably setting their students up for failure by grooming them for a field that might not exist in 10 years. For instance, if you search the undergraduate course catalog, you’ll notice Syracuse is no longer admitting applicants to its Newspaper and Online Journalism major. Similarly, Newspaper is no longer offered as a concentration in its Master’s program, instead folded into the all-encompassing “Magazine, News and Digital Journalism.”

As a proud Newhouse alum (Broadcast and Digital Journalism Class of 2012), it’s heartbreaking to see this deemphasis on writing, once a core tenet of a university that proudly displays the First Amendment on its classroom walls. But with Buzzfeed and others succumbing to alternatives like ChatGPT (AI’s growing influence is at the forefront of the current writers’ strike being waged in Hollywood), it’s no wonder media factories like Syracuse are overhauling their curriculums.

Where does The Athletic go from here? Now that it’s identified its profit center, The Athletic will move forward with a new emphasis on football and European soccer (namely the English Premier League), abandoning its regional coverage in favor of a more “general” approach. Whether that’s the best allocation of resources remains to be seen, though staffers can’t feel particularly optimistic about their job security, already dreading the next purge at a company that has lost a reported $36 million since the New York Times acquired it last year.

Humbled by its recent struggles, The Athletic is singing a much different tune now than it did a few short years ago, when site co-founder Alex Mather warned of his plans to “suck [newspapers] dry,” inviting karmic retribution with his desire to let opponents “bleed out.”

Maybe it’s time to raise the white flag, acknowledging once and for all the grim reality that writing of any renown or substance is no longer financially viable, a sure way to hemorrhage money amid mounting challenges from social media (the viral soundbite has replaced column inches as the new currency), AI and board-room bean-counters who mistake clicks for quality journalism.

ESPN The Magazine no longer exists in print form. Following its takeover by Maven (now “The Arena Group”), Sports Illustrated is largely run by freelancers, its monthly issues looking more like brochures than the eagerly anticipated magazines we grew up coveting. Marc Stein and Ethan Strauss, credentialed reporters with decades of NBA experience, now work in niche circles, their content buried behind a paywall on Substack.

A recent doctor’s visit proved especially eye-opening, where I discovered that many waiting rooms no longer offer reading material, correctly assuming that most patients would rather be on their phone than flip through a periodical.

The Athletic and other sites like it invoke the famous Arrested Development meme, selling us a bold new vision, only for big business to treat it like a game piece on their own personal Monopoly board. It’s a maddening cycle, one that clearly doesn’t work. Yet, like Tobias Funke, we keep going back to the same well, trying over and over for a different result.

This leads us to The Messenger, an online newspaper that launched last month. Masterminded by Jimmy Finkelstein, The Messenger has already secured $50 million in funding with plans to grow its writing staff to 550 journalists by next year.

Bankrolled by the likes of Josh Harris (who will soon own a controlling interest in the NFL’s Washington Commanders, pending league approval), could The Messenger be the rare startup to achieve lasting relevance? History would tell us this endeavor is destined to fail, another doomed vanity project burdened by unrealistic expectations. The margin between surviving and dying in this fraught industry is razor-thin, requiring The Messenger to avoid repeating the mistakes of its ill-fated predecessors, committing, not to making a quick buck, but to building a culture of professional, hard-working writers bound by a shared vision. The rest should take care of itself.

[The New York Times]

About Jesse Pantuosco

Jesse Pantuosco joined Awful Announcing as a contributing writer in May 2023. He’s also written for Audacy and NBC Sports. A graduate of Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications with a master’s degree in creative writing from Fairfield University, Pantuosco has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. He lives in West Hartford, Connecticut and never misses a Red Sox, Celtics or Patriots game.