The February 2022 acquisition of The Athletic by The New York Times sparked lots of discussion about what that would mean for the Times‘ own sports desk. A number of issues integrating those sides have come into public view over the last year and a half, from Athletic reporters taking criticism for introducing themselves as Times journalists to conversations about The Athletic policies versus NYT ones to NYT executive editor Joseph Kahn saying the paper needed to integrate The Athletic more to NYT sports staffers’ Sunday letter to management demanding answers on their future.
Well, the paper provided that answer Monday, and it’s a stunning one. They’ve settled on the complete disbanding of the storied NYT Sports section, with those writers reassigned and with more coverage from The Athletic brought in in its place. Some of those writers will still be covering aspects of sports, but for other Times sections. Here’s more from the Times‘ own news piece on that, from Katie Robertson and John Koblin:
The New York Times said on Monday that it would disband its sports department and rely on coverage of teams and games from its website The Athletic, both online and in print.
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 staff of The Athletic will now provide the bulk of the coverage of sporting events, athletes and leagues for Times readers and, for the first time, articles from The Athletic will appear in The Times’s print newspaper. Online access to The Athletic, which is operated separately from The Times newsroom, is included for those who subscribe to NYTimes.com.
Journalists on the sports desk will move to other roles in the newsroom and there were no planned layoffs, Mr. Kahn and Ms. Drake said. A group on the business desk will cover money and power in sports, while new beats covering sports will be added to other sections. The moves are expected to be completed by the fall.
This is quite a dramatic move from the Times, affecting more than 35 journalists and editors in their sports section (to say nothing of the freelancers who have contributed there). And it ends a long and storied history of the paper’s own sports department, which includes 1896 Summer Olympics coverage, the since-1927 Sports of the Times column, four Pulitzer Prizes (won by columnists Red Smith, Arthur Daley and Dave Anderson and feature writer John Branch), and much more. It also comes after nearly 20 layoffs at The Athletic last month and discussion of a shift there to more national and less team beat coverage. And it comes with potential union tensions, as The Athletic is not unionized, while the Times itself is. The letter Sunday signed by nearly 30 Times sports staffers, as reported by Ben Strauss of The Washington Post, discussed the union issue and more:
“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.”
…Sunday’s letter alluded to that [union] 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?”
Following this move, the “no layoffs in the Times newsroom” promise does seem to hold, but only partly. Yes, the NYT isn’t specifically laying anyone off here, but it’s quite conceivable that many of those from the Times sports department will not be thrilled about the prospect of doing only sports-adjacent or non-sports work and may look to go elsewhere. As for how the union contract is going to apply after this change, that’s going to be interesting to watch. Having a sports section (and a printed sports section in particular) produced by non-union staffers while much of the rest of the paper is unionized seems challenging, but how that may or may not work will depend on the specifics of that contract.
Beyond that, there are lots of questions ahead for the Times writers and editors affected by this, and for the paper’s attempt to replace their sports coverage with coverage from The Athletic. The NYT Sports section has earned lots of recent praise for leading the way on several national stories, including Jenny Vrentas’ coverage of the Deshaun Watson saga, Ken Belson’s coverage of NFL business moves, Tyler Kepner’s MLB coverage, and Juliet Macur’s story last fall on a female soccer player’s escape from Afghanistan. Much of that is work that doesn’t have an easy analogue at The Athletic. And while some of these writers and others may stay on at the Times, and may even continue doing sports-adjacent stories in other sections, the NYT is giving up a lot of particular sports expertise with this move.
Update: Several of those figures, other NYT Sports staffers, and the NYT Guild weighed in on this in strong terms Monday afternoon. Front Office Sports’ A.J. Perez has many of those reactions in a Twitter thread; here are a couple.
Full statement from members of the NYT Guild:
“As members of the New York Times Guild, we are baffled and infuriated by the Times proposal to dissolve our storied and award-winning Sports department. This announcement is a profound betrayal of our colleagues and of Times…
— A.J. Perez (@byajperez) July 10, 2023
Statement from Times sports features columnist Juliet Macur:
"So many of us have worked so hard to uphold the high standards of The New York Times and produce distinctive journalism that for generations set our coverage apart. For management to dispose of our section so…
— A.J. Perez (@byajperez) July 10, 2023
Times sports (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) reporter John Branch:
"I am immensely proud of the long legacy of The New York Times sports section and the thread that runs through esteemed journalists like Arthur Daley, Red Smith, Dave Anderson and all my colleagues on the sports…
— A.J. Perez (@byajperez) July 10, 2023
As noted above, there had been discussions of tensions between The Athletic and the Times sports desk since the NYT acquired that site early last year, with those particularly showing up last fall. But a full shutdown of the NYT Sports desk is quite the change. And it’s a move that hadn’t seemed widely-telegraphed; even the letter Sunday only raised questions about that, and sources who spoke to Strauss “said they feared some sports jobs could be eliminated.” So this is a much bigger decision than many expected this quickly. And the Times‘ corporate response to Strauss was very non-specific and non-imminent:
“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 nytimes.com 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.”
Well, they certainly had more to share Monday. And that’s going to lead to major changes for the Times, and for The Athletic.