Will ‘The Athletic’ Beat Writer Layoffs Affect Minnesota Sports Coverage?

The Athletic rocked the sports media world nearly a decade ago when they blew onto the scene by methodically stealing just about every top local beat writer from every major pro sports team in America.

The business plan, back then, was clear and extremely effective. Overpay the best local beat writers in sports to do the same job they were already doing for their previous employer, but with more freedom and without word limits. Then, pair those local writers with one or two of the biggest national news breakers from each sport (Shams -NBA, Rosenthal – MLB, Pierre LeBrun – NHL, etc).

Then, offer subscriptions for one low cost and give readers access to every story on The Athletic website/app. The monthly cost, depending on which promotion was running at the time, could get as low as $1 per month. That could be 300% less than that of a local newspaper subscription. Here’s a real-life example: I chose the yearly subscription for The Athletic and it costs $39.99. The Minneapolis Star Tribune charges me $62.27 every three months ($249.08 per year).

The Athletic bleeding money…

But while the emergence of The Athletic — which was sold to the New York Times last year for $550 million — successfully changed the landscape of sports reporting forever and scared the shit out of legacy mainstream media outlets, it’s business plan has struggled to produce revenue. That’s why, earlier this week, they announced company-wide layoffs to their beat writer army.

According to an internal memo obtained by the Washington Post, The Athletic told employees that 20 writers would be laid off and 20 others would be re-assigned to a different beat. Soon after, In all, the company still plans to employ over 100 beat writers.

That strategy marks a departure from the outlet’s onetime mission, which was to cover every team from every major league across the country with a dedicated reporter. The Athletic has been successful editorially, with millions of subscribers, but that coverage — and the travel and staffing associated with it — is expensive.

“The Athletic has generally viewed every league in a similar manner, with similar beats and offerings. But our growing body of research and our own understanding of the sports we cover compel a more nuanced approach,” the note said. “There is no perfect formula for determining which teams to cover, but we are committing dedicated beat reporters to the ones that most consistently produce stories that appeal to both large and news-hungry fan bases, as well as leaguewide audiences.”

The Washington Post
The Athletic takes over Minnesota sports scene

The Minnesota sports scene was one of the first to be majorly affected by The Athletic’s initial takeover. That’s because they immediately targeted and brought aboard the Star Tribune’s longtime Wild beat writer, Michael Russo, one of the best and most respected media voices in all of hockey.

From there, they snagged Jon Krawczynski, who covered the Timberwolves for Associate Press. They weren’t done, though. Popular podcast host and trusted Twins writer, Aaron Gleeman, soon joined the crew, too. All three have huge local followings and are regulars on the only mainstream FM radio outlet in town, 100.3 KFAN, which only amplified The Athletic’s reach locally.

And just like that, The Athletic became one of (if not THE) most trusted sports news outlet in Minnesota. Since, they’ve cycled through Vikings and Gophers writers and the Twins paired Dan Hayes with Gleeman, to cover the Twins. Joe Smith was recently added to their Wild coverage, too.

What happens to their local sports coverage now?

So what do these beat writer layoffs mean for all the Minnesota sports fans who rely on The Athletic for their mainstream sports coverage throughout the year? Senior writer and The Athletic original, Michael Russo, told MinnesotaSportsFan.com on Thursday that The Athletic (New York Times) has no plans to eliminate local beat writer positions in the Minnesota market.

Why? Because according to Russo, sports fans in Minnesota buy up The Athletic subscriptions and read its stories at a much higher rate than that of other markets.

“Minnesota shouldn’t be affected at all because the market has been so successful thanks to the thousands of subscribers that support us. We’re still all here and covering the local teams here like a blanket.”

Michael Russo via email response to questions regarding The Athletic’s layoffs possibly hitting Minnesota sports coverage

While this may be the case for now, I’ll be interested to see if that’s remains the plan going forward. Sure, this local market might read The Athletic more often than others. But will that matter, if more cuts eventually come?

And if you’re Jonny K or Aaron Gleeman, are you passing up other job opportunities should they present themselves? Probably not. And losing any of Russo, Krawczynski or Gleeman would take a huge chunk out of that readership.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan

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