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The Athletic has had one of its largest rounds of layoffs and coverage shifts yet. The New York Times-owned publication announced in a memo to staffers Monday that nearly 20 people will be laid off, with around 20 others shifting away from current beats to more regional or league-wide roles. Ben Strauss of The Washington Post relayed some of the details of that memo:

Many of those impacted by layoffs have announced that on Twitter. Those include sports business reporters Daniel Kaplan (who said the publication is going away from that area altogether) and Bill Shea,NHL staff editor Josh Cooper, Canada national senior writer Sean Fitz-Gerald, Montreal senior writer/managing editor Marc Antoine Godin, columnist/Indiana senior writer Bob Kravitz, Dallas Cowboys beat writer Bob Sturm, Cincinnati Bengals beat writer Jay Morrison, Philadelphia 76ers beat writer Rich Hofmann, Cleveland Cavaliers beat reporter Kelsey Russo, and Pittsburgh Pirates beat reporter Rob Biertempfel. (We’ll add more as we see them.)

Here’s more from Strauss’ Washington Post piece on the memo’s stated rationale behind these moves:

“The Athletic has generally viewed every league in a similar manner, with similar beats and offerings. But our growing body of research and our own understanding of the sports we cover compel a more nuanced approach,” the note said, adding, “There is no perfect formula for determining which teams to cover, but we are committing dedicated beat reporters to the ones that most consistently produce stories that appeal to both large and news-hungry fan bases, as well as leaguewide audiences.”

The note described an evolving approach to coverage. The NFL and English Premier League dominate reader interest, it said, and staffing for those leagues remains mostly unchanged. Because NHL and Major League Baseball audiences are more local, those leagues will have some beats eliminated. The company’s overall investment in the newsroom would still grow this year, according to the note, and the company will still have more than 100 beat writers covering specific teams. But a new focus of the site will be stories that appeal to wider audiences.

“Our data shows that the stories that are of greatest interest to our subscribers — and draw in the most new readers and subscribers — are often the ones that provide revelatory information about players and teams that resonate with fans across an entire league,” the note said.

As Strauss notes, that’s rather different than how The Athletic started. The company began with a specific focus on local coverage, first in Chicago, then in Toronto. But there was a shift in 2017. There, amidst big rounds of funding for their company and massive layoffs and changes elsewhere in sports media (including ill-fated “pivots to video” that were largely based on incorrect data from Facebook), they started hiring national writers who had been laid off or had their writing roles reduced elsewhere, including Ken Rosenthal, Seth Davis, Stewart Mandel, and more.

Of course, 2017 also saw The Athletic boost their local expansion. The company was in six markets by that summer, with co-founder Alex Mather saying they could work in “every market.” And they went to many more soon after that, including cross-Canada expansion that fall. That fall also saw one of the most infamous comments in the history of that publication, with Mather telling Kevin Draper of The New York Times their plan was to “wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing” and “suck them dry of their best talent at every moment.”

In a since-deleted tweet, Mather later apologized. There, he said he was “not rooting for newspapers to fail, but rather hoping to build a product that will give readers more choices, whether that’s in their local market or nationally.”  He also said the tone of his comments was related to how much coffee he’d consumed. Here’s part of that tweet, via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine:

An Alex Mather tweet from 2017.
An Alex Mather tweet from 2017.

Of course, this isn’t really about Mather any more, as The Athletic has since been acquired by the Times (with that deal closing last February after a very long runup). But this is about a shift in The Athletic’s focus. In 2018, the publication really boosted the number of local markets they were in, and had executives speak about targeting “underserved” markets and fanbases, including hockey fans. And they’ve largely continued with both national, international (particularly the United Kingdom with Premier League coverage), leaguewide (including WNBA), and local expansions since then.

There have been some cutbacks at times at The Athletic before this. Those have included a layoff of 46 people in 2020 (part of a lot of COVID-19 adjacent cutbacks around that time), NASCAR coverage reductions, and a shift from beat writer to regional/league-wide coverage with MLS (which may be somewhat of a model for the planned shift here). But this is one of the most significant rounds of slashes to date, especially with it coming after their acquisition by the Times. And it indicates a shift in model going forward (and also raises questions about their coexistence with the Times‘ own sports section, which hasn’t always been easy even before this). It will be interesting to see where the site goes from here.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.