Sports Journalism Institute

Helping women and minorities get into newsrooms since 1993

After a slow start, the Athletic makes strides in diversity

By Eric He
SJI Class of 2019

One of Sherrod Blakely’s first acts as the chair of the National Association of Black Journalists Sports Task Force was to email The Athletic’s co-founders regarding a recent hire they made who was a person of color.

Although other staffers the site had brought on full-time had less experience, this person was only hired part-time. According to Blakely, “the “young man became full-time a few weeks after that.”

“That was the moment I knew they understood they had to improve and get better [regarding diversity],” Blakely said.

The subscription-based website, launched in 2016, has expanded to 48 markets in the United States and Canada. As The Athletic has grown, staffers and leaders of journalism diversity groups believe, it has taken major steps to improve its diversity.

Last year, Gregory Lee, a former NABJ president and former Sports Task Force chairman, tweeted out research that found The Athletic’s staff was overwhelmingly white. Lee – a longtime advocate for media diversity – is now the senior managing editor of The Athletic’s Washington D.C. and Baltimore site.

Josh Tolentino (SJI Class of 2017), who joined The Athletic in August of last year to cover the Green Bay Packers (he now is the Tampa Bay Rays beat writer), sees the difference in diversity between when he first joined and the site today.

“[Lee] had a point,” Tolentino said. “They were lacking a lot of minorities and diversity. Looking at it now, a year later, it’s pretty crazy. I’ve talked to many established people who agree The Athletic is one of the most diverse sports media companies out there.”

A few weeks ago, Tolentino stopped by The Athletic’s headquarters in San Francisco when the Rays played the Giants on the road.

“Almost the entire room was either women or people of color,” he said. “It was incredibly diverse.”

Victoria Lim, co-chair of the Asian American Journalists Association Sports Task Force, said that although she is not familiar with The Athletic’s strategy on diverse hiring, “We have recognized that it has a staff that represents diversity.”

Blakely, also a Boston Celtics and NBA writer for NBC Sports Boston, has worked with The Athletic on hiring more people of color and sees a vast improvement.

“They are light years ahead of where they were a year or so ago,” Blakely said. “They have made a very clear and conscious effort to get better and improve in that particular area.”

Blakely noted that his dealings with The Athletic’s management have improved progressively over time. He believes they have received the message of bringing more minorities on their reporting staff, pointing to the hiring of David Aldridge as the editor-in-chief of The Athletic’s Washington D.C. site last fall despite Aldridge not having the “cookie-cutter resume” of an editor-in-chief.

A diverse staff is important, especially for an outlet that has found a niche in the media industry at a time when traditional newsrooms and even outlets dedicated solely to sports coverage are struggling, according to Lim.

“Diverse voices provide better coverage and better stories, providing perspectives and context that interest, entertain and enlighten a broader audience,” Lim said.

For instance, Tolentino recently published a story on Rays’ outfielder Tommy Pham — who is both Vietnamese and African American — touring the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. They might not be friends, Tolentino said, but being Asian helped him connect with Pham.

“You’re able to relate to that person or subject more, being people of color,” Tolentino said.

The next step for The Athletic, Blakely said, is diversifying the management team, the people who really pull the strings.

“That’s where they need to get better at,” Blakely said. “They know this. I know this.”