July 11, 2023

At first, the news seemed stunning, an absolute bombshell.

The New York Times announced Monday that it was dismantling its sports department and turning over its coverage of sports to The Athletic. The storied section — once home to legendary sportswriters such as Red Smith, George Vecsey and Dave Anderson — has a rich history of dazzling writing and dogged reporting that made for provocative, entertaining and important storytelling that continued right up until its final moments.

To suddenly pull the plug on that was a shock, almost impossible to conceive.

Until you really thought about it.

Then you realize that we should have seen this coming. This has been in the works since January 2022, when the Times bought The Athletic for $550 million.

You don’t spend half a billion dollars on something without a grand plan to use it.

Still, what a sad day Monday was. The New York Times sports section is no longer.

Times executive editor Joe Kahn and deputy managing editor Monica Drake told staff in a note that it was “an evolution in how we cover sports.”

They wrote, “This evolution in our coverage strategy and newsroom is intended to give our readers an even more comprehensive array of sports coverage — which will also include greater use of daily news and features from The Athletic’s extensive sports journalism on our homescreen, newsletters and other channels, such as print.”

They also wrote, “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. At the same time, we will scale back the newsroom’s coverage of games, players, teams and leagues.”

What does it all mean? So much is still unknown. But here’s what we do know.

The Times’ Katie Robertson and John Koblin wrote, “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 two or more of The Times’s bundle of products.”

And what will happen to the Times staff, which is believed to have had around 40 or so staffers? The Times said there will be no layoffs. Some of the staff will be integrated into other departments, and there’s talk that some staffers could join The Athletic. But most of the Times’ sports staff belong to the New York Times Guild and it remains to be seen how the union could impact the changes. (The Athletic does not have a union.)

The Guild put out a lengthy statement Monday, saying they were “baffled and infuriated by the Times proposal to dissolve our storied and award-winning Sports department.” They also wrote, “We will fight this flagrant attempt at union-busting with every tool we have. And we will work with our members in Sports to defend their rights under our union contract.”

Times sportswriter Juliet Macur said, “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 unceremoniously is an insult to all of our writers and editors, both past and present.”

And Times NFL writer Ken Belson said, “We are not going to allow union jobs to be replaced by non-union labor.”

It wasn’t immediately clear how exactly what would happen to each of the Times staffers, assuming this all goes through. Some Times staffers, however, could write sports-related articles in other parts of the Times, such as how you might read a sports business story in the business section. (More on that in a moment.)

The Athletic’s publisher, David Perpich, told his staff in a note that he was “pleased” with the announcement. He said this all will expose “many more readers to our stories and our brand, which will allow us to further expand the audience for the excellent work we do.”

Perpich also said The Athletic will continue to be an independent newsroom.

A sad day

Reaction inside the Times sports department was one of profound sadness. I spoke with several staffers Monday who were heartbroken by the news. Several used the same phrase: “A sad day.”

In their story for the Times, Robertson and Koblin wrote, “The Sports of The Times column was started by John Kieran in 1927, and would later include a distinguished group of writers, including Robert Lipsyte, William Rhoden, Harvey Araton, George Vecsey and Ira Berkow. Three Sports of The Times columnists, Arthur Daley, Red Smith and Dave Anderson, have won Pulitzer Prizes for their sports writing. Another sports reporter, John Branch, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for his feature on a deadly avalanche in Washington State, and Josh Haner won the feature photography prize in 2014 for documenting the recovery of a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing.”

But like most media outlets, the Times sports department saw significant changes in recent years. The standalone print edition of the sports section was dropped and sports became a part of other print sections. The Times stopped assigning beat writers for the local New York teams, and the paper leaned into what it had always done well: big, sweeping trend stories and features that concentrated on the macro of sports, as well as breaking news and investigations.

It remained one of the most interesting and important sports sections in the country, consistently winning awards, while setting, defining and analyzing trends. Aside from covering major sports such as the NFL, NBA, baseball and college sports, the Times also provided best-in-the-business coverage of other sports such as soccer, horse racing and tennis, in addition to off-the-beaten-path subjects and features.

In their note to staff, Kahn and Drake wrote, “Our deep admiration for that legacy makes this decision bittersweet for all of us.”

But, apparently, Times staffers were kept in the dark about everything. Washington Post sports media reporter Ben Strauss wrote Sunday that the Times’ sports staff sent a letter to editors, demanding answers for what was going on with The Athletic.

They got their answer less than a day later.

The Times reported Kahn and other Times leaders met with the sports department on Monday in a meeting described as “contentious.” The Post’s Strauss and Laura Wagner reported, “Several sports staffers were in tears and repeatedly told the masthead that the way the process was handled was disgraceful. Sports staffers met with higher-ups throughout the day and were given new assignments within the newsroom. Some were assigned to the newly created sports business desk, others the national, obituaries and express desks.”

And The Athletic?

The Athletic continues to struggle financially since it was bought by the Times. The number of paying subscribers has grown to more than 3 million as of earlier this year, but it reported a loss of $7.8 million in the first quarter of this year. The Times has set a goal of 2025 for The Athletic to turn a profit.

Last month, it laid off about 20 staffers, or 4% of its staff. The original plan of putting a reporter on every team in every pro market hasn’t worked out. The site has pulled out of some major pro markets altogether.

Yet it has also discussed increasing the overall headcount and is looking to pump up coverage on the most popular sports, particularly the NFL and English Premier League.

My two cents …

Monday was a crummy day for those who love sports journalism. I say that as a subscriber and big-time fan of The Athletic. But what the Times did and what The Athletic does are two different things.

The Athletic does include long-form journalism, but not as much (or, frankly, as well) as the Times did. The Times sportswriters and section, from top to bottom, is as good as any section in the country — with the possible exception of The Washington Post, which I consider the gold standard.

Perhaps The Athletic will incorporate some of the Times’ excellent journalism, but I’m skeptical until I see it regularly. Will The Athletic publish some of John Branch’s incredible adventure/outdoor features? What about NFL writer Jenny Vrentas or baseball writer Tyler Kepner, two of the very best at what they do? What happens to the kind of stories that the Times allowed them to do?

Again, I like The Athletic. The daily coverage, particularly inside-the-team beat work, is superb. Too bad the Times couldn’t have figured out a way to let us have both.

I echo what many Times staffers said. It’s a sad day.

Speaking of sports …

The West Coast also is seeing a change to a well-respected sports section. Although it isn’t shutting down, the Los Angeles Times is making a major shift in its sports publication.

Iliana Limón Romero, assistant managing editor for sports, wrote the print edition will now be home to “more innovative reporting, in-depth profiles, unique examinations of the way teams operate, investigations, our distinct columnists’ voices, elite photography and more.”

She also wrote, “The printed sports section will take on the look and feel of a daily sports magazine, with a different design showcasing our award-winning reporting and photography. Our new layout highlights our best, most ambitious sports journalism — distinctive work you cannot find anywhere else.”

That’s all well and good, and the Times certainly has a talented staff for this kind of work. But it should be noted that this shift is because of new earlier deadlines following the sale of the paper’s printing plant. The new deadlines make it impossible to include stories from most events played the night before.

Romero wrote the Times’ print product will no longer include “box scores, standings and traditional game stories.”

Early deadlines are impacting papers across the country, so the Times isn’t the first to have to adjust its thinking on sports and breaking news coverage for the print editions.

Romero wrote the Times still will have “local game results, breaking news, instant analysis, commentary and more as games and tournaments are unfolding” on its website.

One more thought

Longtime Boston Globe sports columnist Bob Ryan tweeted, “I barely know what to say. The NY and LA times are both abandoning traditional (and valuable) true sports coverage on the same day. July 10 will always be the Day of Infamy for American sports journalism. I am eternally grateful when I did it when I did it and where I did it.”

San Diego Union-Tribune sold

The Los Angeles Times announced Monday that it has sold The San Diego Union-Tribune to an affiliate of MediaNews Group, which is owned by investment firm Alden Global Capital.

In an email to staff, Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong wrote, “Our intention now is to focus on the ongoing work of transforming the L.A. Times into a self-sustaining institution. Our hometown of Los Angeles and the state of California — really, the West Coast — needs a strong, independent news organization.”

Soon-Shiong bought the Times and Union-Tribune from Tribune Publishing in 2018 for $500 million.

The Los Angeles Times’ Meg James wrote, “In the five years since the purchase, the newspaper industry has become more fraught due to subscriber losses and shortfalls in advertising revenue that intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. Two years ago, Tribune sold its operations, including the Chicago Tribune, to Alden for $633 million.”

Northwestern student paper continues good work

In Monday’s newsletter, I praised the work of The Daily Northwestern, the student newspaper at Northwestern University. The paper talked to a former player (and got confirmation from another) about hazing within the program that included coerced sexual acts. The reporting earned the paper praise from journalists throughout the country, including those who commented on the courage of the students to report on their own university.

On Monday, that strong reporting continued with this story from Nicole Markus, Alyce Brown, and Cole Reynolds: “Former NU players describe racist environment in football program.”

They wrote, “Three former Northwestern football players told The Daily the football team had a ‘culture of enabling racism,’ recalling multiple racist actions and remarks from both coaching staff and players.  All three players, who played for the team in the late 2000s, also corroborated some of the hazing allegations reported by The Daily on Saturday.”

Then came Monday evening’s breaking news: Northwestern fired head football coach Pat Fitzgerald.


A photo of Meta’s new app Threads. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

CNBC’s Ashley Capoot reports that Twitter’s traffic has slowed since Threads, the social media app from Meta, debuted last week. Threads already has more than 100 million sign-ups.

Last week, Poynter spoke with several journalists to get their first impressions of Threads.

I heard back from veteran journalist Katie Couric, who told me on Monday, “It seems like a kinder, gentler Twitter, at least for now. People seem to be enjoying but also figuring out what kind of content should be shared there. I’m posting mostly personal, fun, lifestyle stuff at the moment. But I’d like to start sharing the content KCM (Katie Couric Media) is producing every day — especially our health and wellness and cultural zeitgeist-y stories. It doesn’t seem like a place for a lot of hard news.”

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Correction and clarification: This article has been updated to correct the title of Iliana Limón Romero, who is the Los Angeles Times assistant managing editor for sports. Also, an original version of this story said the Times’ deadlines were 3 p.m. That’s the time most sports copy is due to be turned in, but the official paper’s deadlines are later than that.

Also, this story was updated to identify Alden’s description as an investment firm.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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