On Monday, The New York Times announced that it was dissolving its sports desk in favor of drawing on sports coverage from The Athletic, an online sports news outlet that The New York Times Company bought just over a year and a half ago.
Although the move leads to no direct layoffs, the sports desk staff will “move to other roles in the newsroom,” according to executive editor Joe Kahn and deputy managing editor Monica Drake.
Khan and Drake, speaking on behalf of The New York Times, said that the change is “an evolution in how we cover sports.” But how is dissolving an integral part of your newspaper an evolution? How can you claim to be a paper of record for one of the biggest sports cities in the world without a sports desk?
In a letter to The New York Times Company staff titled “Our Plans for Sports Journalism,” chairman A.G. Sulzberger and CEO Meredith Kopit Levien write that those who transition to other desks in the newsroom will “continue on their new desks to produce the signature general interest journalism about sports — exploring the business, culture and power structures of sports.”
But, given that The Times already focuses on the power structures of just about everything under the sun, there’s only so much the now-displaced sports desk can cover. The Athletic does its fair share of that — I don’t mean to disregard the quality of work it produces — but fading sports coverage away into the darkness, absorbed by other departments, is hardly the innovative push The Times thinks it is.
The New York Times also had some of the best sports columnists in the business. Aside from just covering sports, the reporters breathed life into events, players and big issues with impactful columns about anything and everything sports.
The sports desk was not taking anything away from the coverage of The Athletic. There also wasn’t anything, at least to my knowledge — of which, admittedly, there isn’t a preponderance — preventing The Times from using The Athletic to supplement its regular print coverage.
The Times is claiming that this is a move to expand its sports coverage, calling it an “evolution” in the way sports is reported out of 620 Eighth Avenue. In truth, it looks more like an evolution in balancing the budget, a desperate attempt to retain revenue at the expense of over 35 sports reporters of The Times’ sports desk and dedicated readership from all around the world.
When The Times first acquired The Athletic in 2022, Levien told the New York Times that the move will enable the company to “expand (the) addressable market of potential subscribers.” While I don’t condemn making moves to secure a stream of cash in an industry already struggling to stay afloat, it is hard to believe that this move will do anything extraordinary for sports reporting.
As the Daily Cal’s sports editor, I’m aware that this might sound self-important, a way to aggrandize my own role and the role of my nearly 50 dedicated and hard-working reporters. But I truly believe that a dedicated sports desk is crucial to any major — or even minor — newspaper. A sports desk is an important part of culture both inside the newsroom and at newstands. Outsourcing all of your sports content to an outlet that you bought — that has yet to generate a profit — is a monumental about-face for one of the world’s most well-known publications.
I hope The New York Times reporters affected by this get to move on, whether that’s to other desks or other publications, with dignity and without feeling obsolete. I also hope that those working for The Athletic, a publication that is not unionized, benefit from The Times’ new employee contracts that were ratified earlier this year.
Here’s to hoping that the “evolution” will actually improve coverage, and is not just a bid to make The Athletic acquisition turn a profit, leaving New York Times reporters out of a job.