Who reads this?
I mean, obviously, you do. Morgan reads it. I read it, sometimes. We have over 200 subscribers -- as always thank you all. But, our audience is small and niche. That might not necessarily be true forever (*whispers* tell your friends about us) but two writers with a preference for America’s third favorite sport and moderately heterodox rhapsodies about New York sports heroes will only have so broad of a readership. But, while I’m always thinking about making our work interesting for a variety of sports fans, one of my biggest tensions about our focus is that it rarely reaches the sports fans I talk smack with in real life.
The friends I grew up and still kick it with today aren’t snarking on Twitter or engaging in regular discourse about what does and does not constitute a sandwich. But they're still passionate sports fans who love the game as much as I do. But unlike my Hardwood Paroxysm- reading self, they might get their fix from the sports back page. So, like Morgan, I wonder what serves their appetite for sports news and updates. And I mourn any trend that would make it less likely for people to get basically reliable news, updates, and commentary on sports.
I’m hopeful The Athletic fills the void and find its people (of which I am almost certainly one). But like Morgan, I’m curious what this all means for average, everyday newspapers. Hope you enjoy her take.
Leadoff Hitter: Longform that lays off the first pitch.
Earlier this year I tried to purchase a subscription to the San Francisco Chronicle. I wanted the digital subscription; I’d route the Sunday paper to my parents’ house. But when I typed in their zip code, a bot informed me that my childhood home was outside their delivery radius. I raised my eyebrows—I remembered my neighbors receiving the Chronicle. I messaged the paper on Twitter to confirm that the area fell outside their borders. They didn’t return my inquiry. I moved on.
I haven’t lived in the Bay Area for nearly a decade and haven’t given much thought to a return. With the exception of my parents and handful of childhood friends, the Giants remain my strongest tie to the area. I frequently stream the local sports radio station. I read the local beat writers on Twitter and the Chronicle (until the paywall shuts me out) and flew back to San Francisco last year specifically to attend a Giants sportswriter events. (I was flattered when a beat writer told me he recognized me in the audience from Twitter.) I’ve come closer to purchasing a subscription for a newspaper in a part of the country I’ve never lived in during my adult life than the city in which I’ve spent the past three years.
So, let’s talk about The Athletic. For those of you who outside of Chicago, Detroit, Toronto, and Cleveland, meet an ad-free, subscription-only, hyperlocal sports site. Its Bay Area iteration launched this week, notorious Twitter-blockerTim Kawakami, its editor-in-chief. The site has cash: their latest investment round netted $5.8 million. This happened not even 100 days after ESPN laid off 100 or so journalists.
“The plan is to scoop up laid-off writers,” reported Bloomberg News recently noted. That may still be the plan. It’s certainly good news after the ESPN layoffs, after Vocativ’s shut down, after Vice Sports was the two percent of jobs the company recently eliminated. Long live The Athletic. So what’s the catch?
Potentially nothing. But there’s this:
When [The Athletic] launched in Cleveland earlier this year, it poached one of the most well-known local writers covering the Cleveland Cavaliers, and got 1,000 subscribers within 48 hours.
Kawakami and F&F friend Marcus Thompson? These are longtime writers with fanbases, poached from area newspapers. As a journalist who cheers for local news outlets and shudders at their financial struggles, these details tied a knot in my stomach.
Why? Here’s what one beat writer told news analysis org Nieman Lab in 2014:
Most of the [team’s] fans aren’t reading our paper. But most of them are going to my blog once in a while if not every day. They also go to [my newspaper’s] Internet site. My job security comes from that. My job is only still there for online journalism, because [media consumers] could just pick up [another paper’s] newspaper content [on the team he covers]. We offer more than just basic stories on our online sites.
In other words, sports played a critical role in keeping his institution relevant to a wider and broader audience, a prospect increasingly important in an era where the media itself has been the frequent target of the president. The New Yorker noted this last month that the President’s critiques of the media have devastated at least one local Colorado newspaper.
During the election season, it’s common for some people to cancel their subscriptions, but last year the Sentinel lost more of them than usual. That’s one of the ironies of the age: The New York Times and the Washington Post, which Trump often attacks by name, have gained subscribers and public standing, while a small institution like the Sentinel has been damaged within its community.
So yeah. I’m concerned that key stars ditching their longtime outlets for sites that specifically reward their talents as regional sports media will be another paper cut or two that kills the newspaper.
Here’s why I give a damn about local newspapers. At the basis of most communities: a common text. Many colleges ask their incoming freshmen to read the same book the summer before school starts. Consider the way entire religious communities center around the Bible or Quran.
The political community isn’t unique. This is a gap historically fulfilled by newspapers. This medium traditionally provides a common record to learn and better understand our past, allow frustrated citizens a place to express their complaints and content residents to articulate their gratitude, and learn who they are as a people tied together by geography. One reason I love sports: it offers folks an easy, non-polemic thing to love, support, and rag on.
Not surprisingly, The Athletic has found one of the few final value-adds the local newspaper has in 2017. Knowledgeable, opinionated, longtime writers who know, love, and tolerate the market, the team, and the fans. You do not raise Thompson or Kawakami overnight. In fact, you pay time and money to make one, then just plain money to keep them.
As referenced above, it’s been a seriously exhausting time to be in the newspaper industry.
This administration's wrath at the media or The Athletic (probably the first) could be the death knell of many a local rag but it’s been hemorrhaging since it failed to take the internet seriously. We’re in a period of cynicism and rage at the media that will bankrupt a number of local newspapers. Increasingly, we won’t have the lure of local sports to encourage those most tempted by #FakeNews to patronize legitimate, hardworking, fact-checking outlets.
Here is the end of Bloomberg’s piece. It’s a fitting conclusion to my own:
[One Athletic investor] used to work at Yahoo! Inc., and says local sports coverage inspired unusual loyalty among readers. "We knew from our experience it was an insatiable and increasingly underserved market," he said. "Everybody lives somewhere."