Welcome to research Wednesday, a regular feature in which I look at noteworthy and interesting sports media-related research and scholarship.
“Why I Joined The Athletic.”
Five words which, over the past few years, have become a kind of meme in the sports journalism world. The seemingly ubiquitous essays, in which reporters announced they were joining The Athletic, were a way to sell subscriptions and serve as a means to define and legitimize the site’s ad-free, subscription-only business model.
But can these essays tell us anything about the state of sports journalism?
We think so.
Dr. Galen Clavio and I collaborated on a study that has been published in Communication and Sport. A final version of our study, “Here’s Why I Joined: Introductory Letters From New Hires to The Athletic and the Framing of “proper” Sports Journalism”: was published online last week and will appear in an upcoming edition of the journal.
Galen and I did a qualitative content analysis of 88 “Why I Joined The Athletic” columns from the summer of 2017 to the summer of 2018. We read and coded the articles based on the following research questions:
RQ 1: How did journalists frame their decision to join The Athletic, and were there common themes among these characterizations?
RQ 2: How did journalists use their introductory columns in The Athletic to reflect self-perceptions of their jobs and the profession of sports journalism?
Our research found three primary frames used by The Athletic’s authors: “Personal Context,” “Selling the (Athletic) Model”, and “What Readers Expect and Deserve.” The Personal Context frame is where the writers told their biographical stories and detailed their journalism experiences. The Selling the (Athletic) Model frame was seen when the writers explicitly promoted the concept of The Athletic and the idea of paying a subscription to access stories — which runs antithetical to how readers have traditionally accessed online news.
In the What Readers Expect and Deserve frame, we saw The Athletic’s writers position themselves and the site on the side of the readers and would provide the fans with the kind of coverage they deserved. In some instances, this frame included direct critiques of newspaper sports journalism, saying The Athletic would provide better stories and more in-depth coverage than the daily churnalism of so-much sports media.
Many writers emphasized that The Athletic would allow them to finally cover their teams the right way … The arguments presented within this theme track closely with the journalists’ perceptions of what an idealized sports journalism industry should be able to provide—not just to audiences but to the journalists themselves, their professional egos, and their beliefs on why their work matters and why it should be treated as if it matters.
This last point is the most interesting and important that we found, and directly answers our second research question.
Taken at face value, these essays are exactly what they are — sales pitches for The Athletic. But these house ads tell us a lot about how they, and The Athletic, view sports journalism. From our study:
Within those claims by the writers is a collective definition of idealized sports journalism from the perspective of the writers. The Athletic is portrayed by most of the writers as a platonic ideal of sports journalism, a place free from deadline pressure, clickbait stories, invasive advertisements, editors that want the writer to take the extra time to write the important story, and a focus on writing to the most passionate of sports fans rather than the casual consumer. In other words, the environment at The Athletic mirrors the type of sports writing that most aspiring writers fantasize about in their college newspaper’s newsroom. ...
For a digital platform that is ostensibly forward-thinking about the future of sports media, the definition of what sports journalism should be, and what readers want and need, is very much rooted in the past, within the print tradition of journal- ism. Rather than being forward-looking, many of the pieces here offer a back-to-the- future promise to readers. To some degree, the core message of this theme is that the newspaper industry failed in its efforts to transition online but The Athletic is now here to fix it. ...
The data suggest that these columns serve as a way for sports journalists to define what is proper sports journalism—which is the ultimate sales pitch for The Athletic.
If you would like a copy of the study and can’t access it because of Sage’s paywall, please email me and I’ll be happy to send you a copy.