The Athletic’s plan to replace sports pages worldwide has taken another blow. It announced on Monday that it will be laying off about four percent of its staff, per The Washington Post’s Ben Strauss. Further proof that nothing in media is being replaced just yet. Instead, it is steadily eroding due to climate change.
This layoff is not as massive as the one in 2020 when The Athletic laid off eight percent of its staff. However, there does seem to be a shift from the publication’s original mission. Along with the downsizing, 20 team reporters will be reassigned to regional or general assignment beats. So instead of swallowing local newspapers market by market, I guess The Athletic believes that a group of reporters devoted to a section of the country can do a better job than the New York Daily News, The Boston Globe, Washington Post, and Philadelphia Inquirer do individually.
I take no pleasure in The Athletic having succumbed to the same realities as the rest of the media, after boldly declaring war on a newspaper industry already wounded in battle. I’m friendly with people who work there and regularly consume the site’s content.
Ice-cold capitalism just continues to give everything in its path hypothermia. The New York Times purchased The Athletic in early 2022 for $550 million. With the Times veering away from the local scene in its sports section, acquiring this mass of local sports coverage was seen as a way to still emphasize that work but on a national scale.
The acquisition also provided another source for the Times to goose total subscription numbers. Per Strauss, the goal of 10 million by 2025 has already been achieved. In business though, one goal reached is only a single-series victory in the never-ending postseason of perpetual growth. The Times’ new goal is 15 million subscribers by 2027.
While understanding that no one participates in any business solely for the love of the game, sports writing, as does all journalism, serves a greater purpose than simply profit margins and benchmarks to be reached. Our top priority should be not allowing powerful people to operate in the shadows. The best way to do that is boots on the ground, local journalism.
The Civil Rights Movement is the national story of a generation but as Roy Wood Jr. so brilliantly elocuted at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, local news coverage was imperative to the movement’s success. Whether it was his mother protesting in Alabama while at Delta State, or Mamie Till holding an open casket funeral in Chicago for her son Emmett and locally based Jet publishing pictures of his bloated and mangled face that ran in newspapers across the country, local media thrust Black civil rights into the national conversation.
Mississippi’s current welfare misappropriation scandal is national news because a local non-profit outlet published text messages from Brett Favre. Abuse at Penn State, USA Gymnastics, an alleged buried hazing investigation of the dominant Mater Dei high school football program, abuse from a high-level executive in the Detroit Pistons organization, it was local sports news that broke these stories.
National outlets with massive budgets like ESPN and Sports Illustrated cannot be the only outlets exposing the dirt that goes on in sports. Local news outlets must have the resources to be able to publish reporting and commentary that exposes wrongdoers to the world.
The Athletic has done that successfully, but its goal to monopolize that market is part of the reason why it is currently shedding salary and now directing some of its focus away from local sports journalism.
Local news is not The Wolf of Wall Street. Certainly, outlets are competing break stories first, but the industry is not supposed to be in the business of trying to corner and devour a market. It is supposed to serve the afflicted and keep the public informed of those transgressions to make society safer.
With The Athletic’s staff reduction and priority shifts, the rupture in local news continues to grow.