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The long-anticipated slap in the face to The Athletic’s politically angled approach to sports has finally arrived.
And it’s The New York Times delivering the smack to The Athletic‘s hedonistic approach to sports journalism, encouraging its writers to mix political commentary with sports coverage, liberally.
To combat sliding subscription numbers and oft-divisive coverage by the writing staff, the Times is proposing new policies to The Athletic‘s editorial direction — notably a zero politics rule, which goes against the site’s ethos.
In a staff meeting on Jun. 8, The Athletic’s Chief Content Officer Paul Fichtenbaum outlined political speech no longer permitted by the updated editorial guidelines.
“We could stand up for our rights,” Fichtenbaum told staff members, “but we should not say we disagree with somebody’s politics. It feels almost too stupid to type out something this obvious but apparently it must be said: Standing up for someone’s rights almost always means disagreeing with someone else’s politics.”
Fichtenbaum added that social media and similar platforms used by The Athletic staff members should not promote radical political rhetoric.
“We don’t want to stop people from having a voice and raising their voice for appropriate issues,” Fichtenbaum said.
“But there comes a point where something that is a straightforward, ‘Hey, I’m concerned about guns in America,’ for instance, right, that’s an apolitical statement. It becomes political when you say, ‘I’m concerned about guns in America, and this political party is the reason why we’re having an issue,’ right?
“That’s when it tips over. So again, we don’t want to stop people from having a voice and expressing themselves. We just need to keep it from tipping over into the political space.”
One Athletic staff member responded to Defector’s investigation, and heavily questioned the merit of the new policy.
The member was not happy with the decision, stating that the people “most informed” about these issues in sports are now being silenced.
“What about Black Lives Matter? Is that a social cause? Who will write about athlete protests? What about trans athletes in sports?” the employee told sources from the outlet. “Where this policy gets you is that the people who care the most about a particular issue, the people who are most informed about a particular issue, are now the ones who are banned from covering the issue.”
Ficthenbaum also touched on an internal issue within The Athletic which calls for the Times to up their limited spending allowance for travel, which the Athletic’s writers claim hinders the quality of their work.
The Times noted that travel budgets have remained identical to pre-pandemic norms.
Once the sports site was sold to the NYT, a ticking time bomb set off for the heavy-handed political sway within The Athletic’s coverage that posed a significant identity problem: a sports site alienating readers over non-sports-related issues.
According to the report, four affinity groups at The Athletic previously met with the site’s leadership to discuss unconventional, often deemed “woke,” topics to cover in the publication.
These Athletic affinity groups were made up of “queer staffers, black staffers, women staffers, and one for staffers to discuss mental health.”
One of the staffers said, “Since the merger, we haven’t had a single meeting of that nature.”
Following the announcement, members from The Athletic have grown concerned with not being able to distinguish which politics will be permitted or banned. “We have no sense of where that line is drawn,” the anonymous staffer added.
“It feels like the deciding factor is if some right-wing Twitter account with a lot of followers decides to rally the troops and get pissed off at you, then [management] is going to say, Well, you crossed the line,” one staffer mentioned.
With a cash purchase of $550 million, the Times is already pressing for a return on investment — five months into the deal (Jan. 6).
As relayed by OutKick’s Sam Amico, a source spoke out after the purchase, speculating that editorial changes would be on the way to make the site a worthwhile investment for the Times.
“When you take over a company that had lost, you know, $100 million over the last two years, it’s never going to be business as usual,” the source said. “Generally in these changes of ownership, yes, there are always changes in personnel — whether it’s professional sports or writing or talking about professional sports.
“This isn’t going to be any different. It would be foolish to believe otherwise.”
In the first month of the Times‘ purchase of The Athletic, the total readership fell by 1,100 subscribers, with other issues such as limited coverage stunting potential for growth.
Athletic co-founder Alex Mathers said this about his modern-day sports publication: “[W]ait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing.”
Here’s what OutKick founder Clay Travis had to say:
Follow along on Twitter: @AlejandroAveela