Sports Journalism Institute

Helping women and minorities get into newsrooms since 1993

Newspapers feeling competitive crunch from upstart The Athletic

By Tashan Reed
SJI Class of 2018

When The Athletic launched in January of 2016, it was seen as an ambitious project to say the least. It emerged as a subscription-based sports website in an era with more free information available than ever before.

People had become increasingly reluctant to pay for access to news, and that fact hasn’t changed two years later. While the company isn’t profitable yet, according to The Wall Street Journal, The Athletic has grown to cover both college and professional teams in more than 20 North American cities.

A subscription for The Athletic costs $48 for first-time buyers or $8 a month. The website boasts in-depth coverage, a loaded team of sportswriters, personalized content and no ads, clickbait or auto-play videos.

Co-founders Alex Mather and Adam Hansmann have described The Athletic’s mission as a simple one: “produce smarter coverage for die-hard fans.” Their staff of full-time writers are perhaps the most crucial part of accomplishing that feat, and one of their prime recruiting spots has been newspapers.

“We saw media outlets continuously downsizing because they depend on an antiquated ad-based business model that is unsustainable, leaving world-class talent by the wayside,” the co-founders said.

In March, The Athletic announced that it had raised $20 million during the company’s third funding round, led by Evolution Media. With the money, it plans to expand to every market with a professional sports team by the end of the year and more than double its current staff of 120.

“I think that’s terrific,” Washington Post sports editor Matthew Vita said, “because at a time when so many news organizations, and newspapers particularly, are struggling financially, to have a new startup offering employment opportunities for really good journalists, both on a national and a local level, is a really good thing.

“I think, generally speaking, competition is a healthy and good thing for any newspaper or any newsroom. To have other news organizations who cover the sports and the teams that we cover and cover them well and aggressively makes us better.”

Local newspapers, of course, have been the target in this expansion. While many remain unscathed, some have already faced the brunt of The Athletic’s ventures.

The Denver Post lost three beat writers — Nicki Jhabvala, Nick Kosmider and Nick Groke — to The Athletic in late March.

“There’s nothing specific regarding reporters leaving,” Denver Post sports editor Scott Monserud said. “People are always going to move in our business, especially with the rapid changes our industry is undergoing.”

The paper lost 30 newsroom staffers to layoffs and is making its second attempt at a paywall, both of which have become trends with metro newspapers across the nation.

“I would also like us to add a paywall for sports content, not necessarily as a response to The Athletic, but I just think it makes sense,” Monserud said. “We need revenue and with print and advertising revenues continuing to decline industry wide, it’s imperative we have readers pay for online content just as they pay for print content.”

Even large publishers such as the Bay Area News Group have been affected by The Athletic.

“We’re a bit of an extraordinary case,” BANG sports editor Bud Geracie said. “We not only lost so many, but we lost them in such a short span of time, one after another after another.”

The Athletic hired one of BANG’s most popular columnists before extending offers to some of its most valuable reporter which couldn’t be matched. When they managed to match one of the offers, the reporter still chose to leave. After losing four reporters, BANG convinced one to stay.

“When we came out on the winning end of that one, I received a text from one of the guys who’d left,” Geracie said. “We were still friendly, and remain so, so he knew it would be taken in the right spirit. It read: Athletic 4, Merc 1.”

In total, BANG lost five people last August to The Athletic including two columnists and the beat writers for the Warriors, Giants and Raiders. It also lost a columnist to retirement and its lone multimedia journalist to ESPN.

The losses forced BANG to immediately add new reporters with the skills to adapt as journalism continues to evolve. It sought out tech-savvy reporters with large digital toolboxes who could work on either side of a camera, were active on social media and willing to try new things.

One of Geracie’s hires was Logan Murdock, who participated in the Sports Journalism Institute Class of 2017.

It’s been an invigorating experience for Geracie, and he’s enjoyed how the fresh perspectives of the new hires has meshed with the wisdom of the veterans who remain.

“I would never go so far to say the mass exodus was a good thing,” he said. “We lost a lot of brand recognition, a lot of institutional memory and a lot of talent. But losing so many at once enabled us to retool our staff — all at once.”

With the emergence of the subscription era, publications have started convincing people to spend money on something that they’ve grown accustomed to getting for free. It’s a tough task, but not an impossible one.

“It’s everything from the quality of what you produce to the public, for a lot of different reasons, realizing that supporting first-rate journalism is a healthy thing to do for our country and for our democracy,” Vita said.

In some ways, sports have an advantage. “No other part of a newsroom presents the audience — in terms of numbers, captivity and passion — with greater potential to drive subscriptions,” Geracie said.

Vita believes that more readers are becoming willing to pay for subscriptions, noting that the Washington Post has over one million paid-subscribers.

“They’re recognizing that, in a really crowded media environment in which there are all kinds of news sources – some much better than others – that they’re looking for filters and for ways to distinguish from what’s quality and what’s first-rate journalism and what’s not,” he said. “When they discover those good outlets that are producing top-flight journalism, they’re demonstrating a greater willingness to pay for it.”

The Athletic is pushing itself as one of these top-flight outlets, and so far, it seems to be working. Despite the promise shown, however, whether it’ll leave a lasting impact on the industry remains to be seen. It could still either flop or be a huge success — and only time will tell.