The bloodletting — oh, sorry, “significant reorganization” — at The Athletic seeped through Monday.
Here’s former Arizona Diamondbacks beat writer Zach Buchanan:
I am among the cuts today at The Athletic. It sucks. I loved it and am really proud of all the things I got to write. Thank you for reading it. It was the best work of my career.
I don't know what's next, but I'm sure it'll be great. If you want to get in touch, my DMs are open.
— Zach Buchanan (@ZHBuchanan) June 12, 2023
Later, he added this postscript:
Here is my last byline at The Athletic. I stayed up until midnight putting it together. I had to buy a subscription to read it.https://t.co/fHUnm6arGl
— Zach Buchanan (@ZHBuchanan) June 12, 2023
Super. You lose your job and get to pay to read the last story you wrote.
If nothing else, give credit to The Athletic for hiring good writers who wrote memorable termination tweets, like this one from Chicago White Sox writer James Fegan:
You simply have to give Andrew some credit for calling it. https://t.co/GMOlM1emyW
— James Fegan (@JRFegan) June 12, 2023
Rating: 10 of 10. No notes.
Nick Groke, beat writer for the Colorado Rockies, went with an old-school news dump, dropping his tweet moments before the Denver Nuggets tipped off their championship-clinching game in the NBA Finals.
Hey y’all, long day, but I’m not at The Athletic anymore. It was always fun to talk shop with you and anybody and everybody.
Bud Black is right: the best part is the never-ending chinwag. See you soon…
— Nick Groke (@nickgroke) June 13, 2023
Ultimately, The Athletic, which was purchased by the New York Times in 2022, eliminated roughly 4% of its workforce, including about 20 writers. In addition to Buchanan, Fegan, and Groke, The Athletic did away with the positions of Corey Brock (Seattle Mariners), Dan Connolly (Baltimore Orioles), and Rob Biertempfel (Pittsburgh Pirates) as well as writers who covered the NHL, the NFL, the NBA, and the business of sports.
Changes also await those still with the publication. As Ben Strauss reported in the Washington Post, “[A]n additional 20 reporters would be moved from their current team beats to new ones, including regional coverage or general assignment roles.” Instead, The Athletic will focus on larger fan bases and bigger news stories (e.g., more NFL and Premier League coverage). That is, The Athletic will eliminate much of the local reporting that was its signature in favor of a fairly standardized approach.
To be fair, these cuts were made in the interest of saving money. (In the most recent quarter, The Athletic lost $7.8 million.)
I realize that a company needs to pay its bills. Moreover, very talented local beat writers will continue to cover MLB teams, so it’s not like fans will lose access to news about their favorite teams. However, these cuts may prove to have a long-term negative effect on the game.
5. Fans Will Get Less Coverage
For those who follow, say, the New York Mets or the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox or the Los Angeles Dodgers, this probably won’t matter much. Those writers remain at The Athletic, and major-market teams will always receive extensive local coverage.
But for those of us who follow, say, the Rockies or the Milwaukee Brewers (who lost their beat writer last year) or the Diamondbacks or the Tampa Bay Rays, it’s a big loss. The Athletic hired some of the best local writers, and they let those writers tell compelling stories shaped by an intimate knowledge of the team and its community. That’s largely gone now, and the absence will be acute.
Take this example from the NBA.
The Athletic stopped providing beat coverage of the Nuggets a few years ago, despite the fact that Denver was a competitive team with a back-to-back MVP in Nikola Jokić. Instead, the Nuggets got occasional national attention, and when, say, the Nuggets played the Golden State Warriors, that beat writer might put something together. That was it, despite the fact that the Nuggets were a winning team. When they moved through the NBA Playoffs this year, The Athletic quickly threw a bunch of their NBA writers on the beat along with their Denver Broncos reporter (who, in fairness, covered the Nuggets before moving over to the Broncos) and their Colorado Avalanche reporter (who does exceptional hockey reporting).
But fans develop relationships with reporters throughout a team’s season. The reporters who suddenly found themselves on the Nuggets beat did solid work, but they didn’t really understand the story like Harrison Wind at DNVR or Mike Singer at the Denver Post, reporters who had kept fans in the locker room throughout the season.
The easy answer is to subscribe to local publications for local coverage, but the great thing about The Athletic was that it provided access to local reporting without having to carry all those subscriptions because not many fans can afford the costs.
4. MLB Teams Will Receive Less Scrutiny
When you read that last section, you may have wondered if a weird team with a losing record like the Rockies actually merits beat coverage — and it’s a fair question.
But consider that MLB is a highly profitable business ($10.3 billion in 2022). Each of the 30 owners of MLB franchises should be reported on carefully. You may laugh at the Rockies but do not kid yourself about Dick Monfort’s influence with his fellow owners. These men are running businesses with a significant economic impact, and they should be reported on carefully. With Nick Groke’s termination, there’s one fewer reporter on the Rockies beat. And all those Nolan Arenado trade stories and laundry jokes folks still revel in? They’re the result of work Groke did with Ken Rosenthal. Those kinds of stories are told because of hard work and long-standing relationships built by reporters.
That’s one example. What’s going on with the ownership of the White Sox? In removing Fegan from that beat, readers of The Athletic will have less insight.
At a time when MLB owners are exploring expansion, continuing to pressure local communities for new stadiums, and have begun discussing contracting the size of their front offices in a cost-saving effort, we need more local media, not less.
3. The Cuts Ignore the Changing Narrative of Baseball (or Any Sport)
After these cuts, roughly half of all MLB teams will not have dedicated beat coverage at The Athletic — that includes four of six teams leading their divisions.
Do you want an exciting team right now? It’s the Diamondbacks. They seemingly came out of nowhere with Corbin Carroll, who’s not only one of the most exciting players in baseball right now, but also a leading contender for NL Rookie of the Year and an outlier for the NL MVP. Buchanan is the perfect person to tell the story of a young team that embodies the ways in which the new rules are reshaping baseball. Unfortunately, he’s no longer with The Athletic.
Before the 2023 season began, no one saw the Pirates, led by veteran Andrew McCutchen (and a killer home run celebration), atop the NL Central, but for now, it’s happening. The Athletic decided to cut Biertempfel. What a lost opportunity.
Who knows what the next cool story will be? You can’t know because it’s baseball, and unexpected things are inherent to the sport. Local beat writers found and shared those stories in real-time. Unless the story happens in a major market, The Athletic will probably not have staff to focus on it as it unfolds.
2. Sports Media Continues to Contract
It’s no secret that media outlets have been cutting jobs. According to Sara Fischer of Axios, 2023 has seen a record number of job reductions in U.S. media — at least 17,436 positions. That’s the most on record at this date for a single year. Obviously, there’s more being lost here than sports coverage, but it sends a discouraging message to future sports writers.
At a time when sports need more media coverage, not less, market forces continue to dictate what gets seen.
1. It’s a Missed Opportunity to Engage More Fans
It’s been years since I paid much attention to the Cincinnati Reds or the Baltimore Orioles. But when I subscribed to The Athletic back in 2018, I started watching again because Trent Rosecrans and Dan Connolly were such good writers whose work I followed. I got caught up in the stories of rebuilding teams, and I’ve especially enjoyed reading their reporting this season when everything is coming together. These seasoned writers had been through the good times and the less good ones, and their knowledge and enthusiasm were infectious.
Here’s Rosecrans on the night Elly De La Cruz made his MLB debut:
Wow… this stadium hasn't felt like this in a long time
— C. Trent Rosecrans (@ctrent) June 7, 2023
Knowledgeable reporting provides context — and few sports outlets did it better than The Athletic. Thankfully, Rosecrans still has his job.
Connolly, who had done exceptional reporting on the Orioles, did not escape the cuts.
Sorry to upstage Flag Day with personal news. Friday is my last day @TheAthletic, cuz of its decision to move on from localized beat coverage. This is my 23rd season covering O's (5 for TA). Thanks to awesome teammates there & readers who stuck with me. Hoping for a new chapter.
— Dan Connolly (@danconnolly2016) June 14, 2023
Any world with reduced Adley Rutschman coverage is a lesser place. Connolly’s writing could have brought in new fans to baseball and new subscribers to The Athletic. But we’ll never know.
Here’s a kicker: The All-Star Game and its attendant activities will be held in Seattle next month. Too bad Corey Brock won’t be providing insights or interviewing Julio Rodríguez for The Athletic subscribers.
Baseball is an ecosystem, and what happens in one part of it affects other areas. That’s why these cuts matter.
Plus, you can never have too much good baseball writing. These reporters will find other jobs — they’re too good not to — but there will be ramifications from this decision.