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The Slow Hemorrhage Of The American Sports Desk

<> on December 7, 2009 in New York, New York.
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There was a retirement party Sunday night for longtime San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist Bruce Jenkins, and after the stories and the drinks and the laughs and the next round of drinks, it was generally agreed by all that Jenkins was getting out at just past the right time. Then more drinks were ordered because the real celebration was not of a successful career coming to a satisfying and bloodless end, but of the fact that someone was running a tab.

But the "getting out in the nick of time" part was never any further from anyone's lips than the next Tanqueray and tonic, and the latest reinforcement of that drunken yet sobering truth came the next morning when The New York Times announced what had long been suspected by cynical people who are always proven not to be nearly cynical enough: they were closing the NYT sports department and replacing it with whatever they feel like retaining from their 2022 purchase of The Athletic. They are exchanging a money drain for a money suck and passing it as a necessary economy for a changing world, when in fact all it was was the Times turning more into less with an idea toward turning it into nothing at all, because all the dough is tied up in real estate anyway.

The Times has never fully embraced the traditional sports section, always preferring to view it as theater for people who wouldn't be caught dead at the theater. The sports desk had its giants, its generations of brilliant stylists and award-winners, but the takeaway for the casual reader always seemed to be that the Times did sports only obligatorily.

When it freed itself of that obligation Monday morning by announcing it would replace its well-regarded financial sinkhole with a well-regarded but larger financial sinkhole, it reassigned its sports staffers to other parts of the paper (the business of sports to the business of business, for one example), and promised no layoffs.

In other words, there will be layoffs and loads of them. Why else would they do this? It wasn't to reimagine sports coverage. It was to reimagine payroll. It also served as one more gift to the journalists of the future, reinstilling in them the knowledge that there is no future, just a series of day-to-days.

The Times worked hard to represent itself as capable and even representative of a different kind of sports coverage; its last sports Pulitzer went to feature writer John Branch. But because nobody at Corporate imagines that anything can be different from an already decomposing norm, that difference stopped being celebrated as proof of the Times' unique place in journalism, and the desk was considered in the C-suite as just one more place with too much Mets coverage. Yes, this throwaway analysis seems to diminish the people who worked there and allowed us to imagine something other than the Post and Daily News, but their day is coming too. Across the country, papers are cutting back their last deadlines to pre-dinner hours so that the annoyance of night sporting events and their coverage can be eliminated, and the new enemy of profitability is the people who used to fill those pages.

If reducing drag is the heart of efficiency, the Times is the first to give in to the logical extension of this philosophy. If one could be sure The Athletic would actually broaden the Times' coverage, then this move might be defensible journalistically, but The Athletic has never been about reimagining anything. It just tried to out-newspaper newspapers, making writers hope their beats wouldn't suck so that they might get enough clicks to sell enough subscriptions to imagine themselves central to the business. And making the talent worry about the business is always a dangerous strategy, because it allows the business people to fail and blame it on someone other than themselves.

The Athletic made the essentially arrogant mistake of building a vehicle for editors rather than writers, and then doubled down on that by taking all their individual city coverages and centralizing the editorial process through one central hub in New York, proving yet again while one size does not fit all, it's easier to justify to the suits. Indeed, with only a few exceptions (Toronto; the Bay Area) The Athletic's big victories were expanding to England for soccer coverage, and finding someone to buy the slowly sinking dreadnought: the Times. And the Times wanted it not for the possibility of more and more comprehensive sports journalism but for The Athletic's subscription list. That is, until it pivoted to its current strategy of desiring its new workers to replace their current workers until it can trim off the new workers too. The most cost-effective boat, all things considered, is no boat at all.

Will this work? Of course it will, if you keep in mind that the goal here is not broadened coverage but workforce reduction. When the sports departments shutter in service of a bottom line that is already sunk, they won't create nearly the ripples of ESPN's recent detonations, but they will result in mass firings from places that won't be able to fall back on a $550 million turnkey sports desk.

And nobody will remember the business thugs who did today's deed because they thrive in the anonymity of the best hitmen. They might remember some of the people they read and enjoyed and learned from, but that's not what a newspaper is anymore. It's just another way to explain late-stage capitalism: eating the people who do the work and replacing them with fewer and cheaper ones. Retirees from this industry no longer have the choice of "just in time," but only varying stages of too late.

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