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New York Times will close sports desk, sending readers to the Athletic

The New York Times will close its sports department, the company said Monday, relying on the Athletic for coverage of major sports. (Mark Lennihan/AP)
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The New York Times announced Monday that it plans to shutter its sports desk, once the home of Pulitzer-winning commentary and groundbreaking reporting on steroid use and concussions, and rely instead on coverage from the Athletic, the subscription sports website it purchased last year.

The Times said it will offer jobs elsewhere in the newsroom to current sports staffers and plans to start a new team on its financial-news staff focused on the business of sports.

But the move — which executive editor Joe Kahn and managing editor Monica Drake said would “give our readers an even more comprehensive array of sports coverage” — enraged members of the New York Times Guild, which called it “a profound betrayal of our colleagues and of Times values.” In a statement, the guild said it would “fight this flagrant attempt at union-busting with every tool we have.”

The Athletic newsroom is not unionized. According to a person with knowledge of the new arrangement who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, the Times wants to use a subcontracting provision in the guild contract to allow non-guild workers to do work for the Times, which the guild has plans to challenge.

The company, the guild said, “is attempting to outsource union jobs on our sports desk to a non-union Times subsidiary under the preposterous argument that The Times can ‘subcontract’ its sports coverage to itself.”

“We are not going to allow union jobs to be replaced by non-union labor,” Ken Belson, a sports reporter covering the NFL, said in a statement distributed by the guild.

The Times bought the Athletic last year for $550 million in an effort to boost its subscription business and add to its noncore news offerings, such as cooking and games. The Athletic, a start-up that launched in 2016, brought with it around 1 million paid subscribers, thanks to around $140 million in venture-capital funding.

Since the acquisition, however, there has been friction in how the Athletic should operate in conjunction with the Times’s own sports desk, which, as of last year, had around 40 to 50 people. There was notable overlap in coverage between the two newsrooms, which prompted Kahn to tell sports staffers earlier this year that there needed to be more integration between the two staffs.

As fears mounted that their desk would be dismantled, Times sports staffers wrote a letter to company executives over the weekend demanding input into the section’s future.

The Times made its announcement as its leaders were meeting with sports staffers Monday morning. The meeting, which was in person and virtual, was described as contentious by two people who attended it. 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 pod, others the national, obituaries and breaking-news desks. No layoffs are planned, the company said.

After the Times’s announcement, the Athletic’s publisher, David Perpich, wrote to Athletic staffers that he was “pleased” with the change, calling it a “big step” for the publication. The change, he said, 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.”

At the Athletic and New York Times, a marriage with promise and tension

The note from Perpich said that the Athletic will continue to operate as an independent newsroom and that there are no plans for restructuring or other significant changes in response to the Times’s announcement.

The Athletic announced last month that it was laying off around 20 staffers and shifting its coverage strategy, reducing the number of teams that will be covered by dedicated beat reporters. It has around 3 million subscribers now, according to the Times, but lost nearly $8 million in the first quarter this year, according to the Times’s most recent public filings.

The shuttering of the Times sports desk is emblematic of the ongoing erosion of traditional sports journalism. Sports media giant ESPN recently laid off a number of high-profile analysts; Sports Illustrated has been degraded by rounds of layoffs in recent years; and Vox Media axed a number of websites from its network of team-specific fan sites in January. Just this week, the Los Angeles Times announced that its revamped sports section will no longer have box scores, standings, daily schedules, game stories or TV listings.

Longtime sports journalist and former New York Times reporter Robert Lipsyte, who started as a copy boy at the paper in 1957, called the move to disband the sports desk “strange” but said it represented “a really great opportunity” if the company can articulate a clear vision for what sports coverage should be. “What is their attitude for sports?” Lipsyte said in a phone call Monday. “Is it an extension of the cultural department? Is it entertainment? Or is it an aspect of news and American life that we should be covering seriously?”

Regardless of the specifics of the arrangement, the end of the Times sports desk marks a significant departure from how the newspaper has covered sports for decades. Columnists Red Smith and Dave Anderson won Pulitzer Prizes, and its sports coverage was a leader in coverage of concussions in the NFL and steroid use in baseball.

It also represents a new era for the Athletic.

“Six years ago, one of the founders of The Athletic bragged in the pages of the New York Times sports section that he would ‘wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing,’” Kevin Draper, an investigative reporter on the Times’s sports desk, wrote in a text message.

Draper, who wrote that story, added, “I guess he was right.”