By Jason Snell
April 30, 2018 5:42 PM PT
I’m enjoying The Athletic, but it’s got lots of room to evolve
Note: This story has not been updated for several years.
Last fall I subscribed to The Athletic, in my continuing attempts to pay for journalism I want to read. The Athletic is a sports-journalism startup that’s building out coverage in numerous markets across North America, and has hired an awful lot of excellent writers—including numerous people who were previously employed at local newspapers that are hemorrhaging staff.
(Yes, in this New York Times profile the co-founder of The Athletic said he will let newspaper “continuously bleed” as they “suck them dry of their best talent.” He apologized later. The truth is, The Athletic isn’t killing newspapers—it’s pulling survivors out of the wreckage.)
As the site1 has gotten up to speed this spring with the advent of baseball season, they’ve made numerous new hires and, as someone who used to run a large editorial operation, it’s been interesting to see how they’ve struggled with a massive growth in the amount of content they post on a daily basis.
A month ago, if I had written this piece, I would’ve been a bit more critical of The Athletic’s struggles to organize its content. One of the things I appreciate about the service is that it lets you manage your feed based on your interests. For example, I follow teams (Cal, the Giants, the 49ers), leagues (MLB and NFL), a region (Bay Area), and even writers (Peter Gammons, Joe Posnanski). All of those selections lead to a custom-built front page just for me, based on my interests.
The problem is that The Athletic built itself out as a series of regionally targeted sites, and so it’s been interesting to see how they’ve tried to balance coverage of regional and team issues compared to national reporting. Let me give you a baseball example. As the season was starting, my home page seemed to be crowded with stories detailing the minutiae of various baseball teams across the country. My general interest in baseball seemed to be opting me in to articles I just didn’t want to read about how the Brewers were adjusting their bullpen or the Mets were dealing with an injury.
But in the past month, the service seems to have made adjustments, severely limiting the number of local stories that are allowed to break into the general MLB feed. This is probably happening by changing how content in the service’s content-management system is categorized, but the end result is that I’m seeing baseball stories that someone, somewhere has decided are of national interest, so I won’t see a notebook column about how the Tampa Bay Rays are juggling their roster.
Filtering content is a tricky problem, but of course it’s a combination of the technical and the editorial. The Athletic has a few other interesting challenges that it’s dealing with, most notably how to take a story cycle built for newspaper deadlines and turn it into something different.
If you don’t know, most newspapers have a rolling series of deadlines based on which edition is printing at which time. In addition, there’s the immediate deadline of the web itself. If I take my local San Francisco Chronicle as an example, Giants beat writer Henry Schulman will write a game story as the game progresses, so that the moment the last out is recorded, he can instantly file a story to go on the Chronicle’s web sites and in early editions of the paper. These are the papers that are printed first and distributed to outlying areas.2 Schulman will later update his story with quotes from players and coaches in the post-game press conference, and that story will override his previous web story and appear in later editions of the paper.
With The Athletic, there are no editions, which theoretically means that Giants writer Andrew Baggarly (formerly of the San Jose Mercury News) can take his time and file a single, complete story about the game. But one could argue that since The Athletic is an all-digital operation, its readers could demand instantaneous game coverage, the moment the game is over.
Right now Baggarly is focusing on writing a complete story, including quotes from the post-game press conference, and dropping that story when he’s ready. I think that’s a fine decision—I end up reading his story about the previous night’s game when I’m eating breakfast in the morning. But it does make me wonder… with an all-digital publication like this, are there different ways that these events could be covered? Should Baggarly file a quick-take piece about the game immediately following its conclusion, some sort of capsule with box score, and follow up with a longer story later? Does the traditional long newspaper “gamer” story make sense anymore at all? It’s worth considering the question.
And what about content and analysis during games? Right now, Athletic writers seem to be content to use Twitter to comment on the games as they’re going on, and that’s probably the right call. Twitter’s the perfect medium for that, and their presence on Twitter also serves as an advertisement for The Athletic. Still, I have to wonder if there might be a way to make my experience of watching a Giants game richer because I’m a subscriber to The Athletic. (One area where The Athletic is trying to leverage its digital presence is in having its writers participate in Q&A sessions and live chats, which are open to subscribers only.)
Finally, there’s the fact that The Athletic is still tangibly an editorial product that has its roots in newspaper journalism. That’s by no means a bad thing, but sometimes I think its writers would sometimes be better off writing shorter pieces as topics occur to them (yes, more like blog posts), rather than wrapping them up into longer columns that cover multiple topics. To be fair, The Athletic has also hired some writers who don’t come from a newspaper background, like former FanGraphs writer Eno Sarris, whose stats-based analysis is excellent. Sarris is also the author of a smart, funny weekly feature called “A beer, a ballgame, and a bag of mail,” in which he’s allowed to veer off topic to mix his beernerdness with his baseballnerdness in some delightful ways. I enjoy the latitude he’s been given.
It’s the very early days for The Athletic, and I expect it will continue to evolve. That’s good, because while I feel that I’m already getting my money’s worth, I get the distinct feeling like this is an organization that could take the best of newspaper, magazine, and blog coverage and create something new that’s a solid blend of all of those things. I hope the site’s editors and writers don’t just replicate the newspaper and stop; there’s potential for a whole lot more.
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