The New York Times sports section finally, officially shuttered, making way for my old employers, the Athletic, to operate under the NYT aegis. That all makes sense because the New York Times bought the Athletic specifically to fill its sports void. If you read the (surprisingly) vast amount of media eulogies to the New York Times sports section, though, you’d hardly get a sense that there was any void to fill. Instead, what happened is depicted as a lamentable tragedy, possibly born out of small-minded corporate callousness. It’s the result of the NYT looking to undermine its unionized “guild” writers. The New York Times sports section, like so many defunct media properties, was superb, flawless even.
Except, that’s not entirely what’s going on.
I wouldn’t deny that fantastic New York Times sports coverage has existed. Howard Beck, now at the Ringer as an NBA columnist, was one of the best NBA beat reporters ever. The NYT featured excellent articles by Harvey Araton, John Branch, and many others. I especially wouldn’t dismiss the fine contributions of legendary sports writer Robert Lipsyte. Why especially? Because Lipsyte, at age eighty-five, bluntly explained what actually happened here while the rest of sports media pretended not to know. Sure, there’s talk about what was wrong with NYT sports behind the scenes, but only Lipsyte admitted that customers’ wants were rejected, an issue that doesn’t seem to rise to the level of media concern. We’ll get into that.
I think, beyond the ideological issues people have with The Media, there’s another subtler, semi-related problem. I see it nearly every time I mention a former colleague or peer in a critical context and take pains to note that they’re a nice person, or even just competent in some capacity. When this happens, one of my customers will appraise the aside negatively. My subscribers by and large aren’t assholes; they’re just annoyed that I’m creating some clubby barrier between us, and by extension, perhaps between myself and some honesty.
They’re paying me to be a class traitor. They’re not paying me to talk about how a smug pundit they despise is actually really swell to hang out with at the media get-togethers. They flat-out don’t like the sense that I’m compromising my tone for the sake of social graces.
So much criticism of The Media is ideologically loaded, focused on the misalignment between journo political priors and those of the populace. That’s an important difference, but a social misalignment also factors into the recent, massive drop in trust of The Media. I’m not certain if a survey has captured this dynamic but I believe there’s a popular sense that we in media a) make content for one another, as opposed to the public and b) protect our own from deserved criticism.
The “protect our own” aspect might seem paradoxical in an era where media members are regularly defenestrated by peers over perceived social insensitivities. Welcome the return of basketball to your city, and colleagues might publicly attack you for dismissing the WNBA. It’s not hard to get crushed by other media members over failing to “read the room” over the topic du jour, especially if via a tweet. But those are assumed ideological faux pas, violations of wokeness or whatever new, less stigmatized term you can use to mean “wokeness” just to stay within the boundaries of this exact social class. If you look closely though, you might notice that almost nothing is criticized on any other grounds. Every article is great. Every writer is great. Every approved institution is flawless. They cannot fail; they can only be failed.
All that said, I don’t want to pretend, out of sympathy for the ousted, that the New York Times sports section was very good. It had quality aspects, sure. But it didn’t exactly do sports, perhaps similar to how this Substack doesn’t exactly do sports. And why?
Cue former New York Times sports writer Robert Lipsyte, in an interview with New York magazine titled “Robert Lipsyte Says Good Riddance to the NYT Sports Section”:
When you first heard the news, what were your initial thoughts?
Fucking about time!
Yeah. I started in 1957 as a copy boy, and sports were always like the New York Times comics. They were always faintly embarrassed about having a sports section. If you remember, that was the only section where you didn’t have to call people Mr. or Mrs. International news is the Times. Sports is not the Times.
Goddamn it, yes. This is the exact institutional dynamic and has long been. It was especially noticeable in the context of the NFL, which the NYT seems to constitutionally hate. It’s hard to excel at something you believe, at some level, is beneath you. Lipsyte gets into specifics here, with an eye towards the modern day:
What are your thoughts on the paper’s sports coverage in recent years?
I think the Times has come to the end of its old relationship to sports. For some years now, it’s been covering European soccer more than the Mets. If I’m from the Bronx, Tottenham doesn’t mean anything to me.
It’s a funny quirk of history that the New York Times was the only paper to really thrive in the internet age, all while struggling with sports, which gets so aggressively followed on the Internet. You can say that it’s an international paper, too big time to cover a podunk operation like…the Yankees. Look, I’m not saying it’s a great argument, but it’s one you can make. The problem is, though, that the paper didn’t exactly attack sports with an eye towards the general interest of sports fans writ large, either. Instead it generally wrote about dreary topics that bore many sports enthusiasts.
Quoting the paper of record:
AG and newsroom leadership made this decision after careful deliberation and with deep admiration for our colleagues in Sports. They have long produced some of The Times’s most distinctive journalism — from investigations into urgent topics like concussions and doping, to must-read features on a women’s soccer team in Afghanistan, a tragic avalanche in Washington and much more — and we have no doubt they will continue this tradition from their new desks in the future.
Concussions, doping, a women’s soccer team in Afghanistan, a tragic avalanche in Washington … worthy stories, but what does this have to do with the Mets?
The word I’m not seeing a lot of in the NYT Sports eulogies is “customer.” You certainly don’t see it in a Vanity Fair article titled, “‘There Hasn’t Been Empathy’: NYT Staff Frustration Spills Over After Sports Desk Closure.”
I can’t find “customers” discussed in a WaPo column lamenting the sports section’s demise, but the article does mention fans:
The Times sports section was never close to a traditional one, nor was it particularly a sports section for sports fans, certainly not red-blooded American sports fans who are caught up in who won and who lost, who was the hero and who was the goat. That’s a choice, and a defensible one.
Is it, though? Is it a great idea to be a newspaper sports section for people other than “red-blooded American” readers, the sort who aren’t “caught up in” game outcomes? How big an audience is this? Was it really such a bad idea to let Howard Beck cover the Knicks for a few years? It’s not like his median reader was a human beer koozie. Many educated professionals, the sort who subscribe to the New York Times, also enjoy thoughtful coverage of actual teams playing actual games.
In theory, it shouldn’t be so subversive to note this avoidance of customer interest. People discuss it behind the scenes. I suspect that many within the industry are refraining from saying so because the whole matter has become a cause, with the unionization topic featured prominently. Quoting Ben Strauss (no relation) in his Washington Post report on a protest against ending the sports section:
Dozens of New York Times sports staffers and Guild members marched through the Times offices Monday afternoon to protest the end of the Times’s stand-alone sports desk. They stopped near the main atrium and read the names of some 150 sports staffers past and present, starting with Red Smith, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and sportswriting pioneer at the Times.
Staffers called the march a vigil for a desk that was a staple of the newspaper’s reporting for decades. Starting tomorrow, the Times will rely on the Athletic for the majority of its sports coverage, both in print and online. The move has outraged the NewsGuild, the union that represents the Times newsroom, which has accused Times leadership of union-busting. The guild filed a grievance with the newspaper accusing management of replacing union work with nonunion work and last week formally filed paperwork for the case to be heard by an arbitrator.
So now you have the good and pure unionized sports section vs. the evil corporate plan to undermine solidarity. Few sports industry professionals want to confound that story with observations about the union-backed section’s shortcomings, lest they get attacked for being a spiritual scab.
And yet, the section did come up short. Customers within and outside of New York largely weren’t served by it. That’s why it got replaced. You don’t even need to blame individual writers for what happened, as this was mostly the result of managerial perspective. The sports section wasn’t designed to win, so it got outcompeted and ultimately outsourced away.
Again, I don’t want to make a bad day worse for anybody. I just think there’s value in honesty and value in self-assessment. Since my industry collectively eschews the former, we inspire less of the latter. Every fired person is someone a future publication will be “lucky to have.” Every shuttered publication is merely a corporate crime. We do all this backslapping and consoling in public. I was the beneficiary of such soothing praise in 2017.
It’s an understandable tone in the aftermath of firings, but our media club omertà cuts against public trust. It’s why even some of my readers who might ordinarily be predisposed to sympathy are unmoved by something like the NYT sports section wipeout. Hell, this might be the first time they’re aware of it happening, because this supposedly globally transcendent section hasn’t been part of their lives. Now they see the story, come to understand that the major publications are giving big coverage to it, and observe how it’s presented as a drama they, the customer, is wholly uninvolved with. They’re told what’s happening is bad because “sports jobs are union jobs” and because this holy section didn’t debase itself by appealing to the kind of rubes who enjoy sports. It’s not exactly an endearing message, this lament broadcast for the sake of industry peers, but visible to all who see it.
Overall, legacy sports media looks like a business more obsessed with protecting a sense of status than with serving people. I say that as someone who can occasionally get criticized as pretentious or discursive. I’d counter that it’s okay to sometimes warrant such criticisms, as long as you have an audience, or at least one in mind. Absent a target audience, you can still feel fulfilled creatively, and validated by your industry peers. It’s just not going to last very long. That’s not a tragedy; That’s the expected outcome for all the other businesses of the world. We aren’t different, though we might want to be. We’re not transcendent, though perhaps we try. We’re just workers, serving the interests of people we’re no better than. When we forget that, we forget how to do the job.
This story was adapted from a post at House of Strauss, a newsletter on sports business, media and culture.