Five thoughts on The Athletic

I deliberately have not written much about the growth of The Athletic and other subscription-based sports journalism sites over the past few months. My podcast partner Galen Clavio and I are conducting a research study into these sites, and I want to approach this issue with as open a mind as possible. I have opinions, but I’d rather immerse myself in the research rather than react to everything that happens.

But with this week’s kerfuffle that raised the ire of the Internet Outrage Machine, here are five thoughts:

  • The comments that Alex Mather, The Athletic’s co-founder, made to Kevin Draper at The Times are at best impolite and, at worst, confirm every stereotype of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.
    • That said, I don’t believe there’s anything inherently wrong with the sentiment behind them. It reminds me of the old two-newspaper-town rivalries. It reminds of of the way Yahoo competed against ESPN for years. Competition can be a very good thing. In 21st Century media, there’s a lot of “we’re all in this together,” that it’s almost a bit refreshing to see a company go old-school and want to win. Of course, there are better ways of saying that than wishing for hundreds of people to lose their jobs.
  • Angel Rodriguez, the sports editor of the L.A. Times, had a wonderful Twitter thread about this issue this morning. Rodriguez’s main point was that too many newspaper sports sections have driven away readers with poor web design, early deadlines, laying off copy editors, etc. In an attention-driven economy like 21st Century journalism, you cannot rely on the goodwill of your readers as a business model.
  • There is a lot about The Athletic that feels like a classic Silicon Valley start-up story — the boost of venture capital, the incredibly fast growth, the brash talk. One thing that often happens in start-ups is the demand of growth from investors can change the company’s mission.
  • Netflix changed so many things in the online space. Before Netflix, the conventional wisdom was that people would not pay for online content. There’s so much free stuff, why would you pay for it? What Netflix proved is that people will pay for content if it is what they want and it is done well. That’s the lesson for The Athletic, and every other sports media outlet- if they give people good content that is well done, they will pay for it. But the content must be worth the money.