When The New York Times acquired The Athletic in January, the bosses who got rich from the deal roundly assured Athletic staffers that not much of anything would change. A memo from cofounder Alex Mather said that The Athletic would operate “as a standalone editorial unit, separate from the newsroom of The New York Times.” Six months later, this promise is already being broken.
According to multiple staffers who spoke with Defector and internal meeting notes obtained by Defector, not only have those in charge limited reporters’ travel, making it harder for them to do their jobs, but they’ve recently laid down new laws in order to bring The Athletic’s editorial operations in line with those at the Gray Lady. (A NYT spokesperson said, “our overall travel budget is in line with pre-pandemic levels.”) Some of these changes—new verbiage for issuing corrections and new guidance for anonymous sourcing, for example—are relatively mild, but another, dealing with the thorny issue of politics and journalistic objectivity, is more drastic and has potentially far-reaching implications for the people whose work made The Athletic what it is today.
Many Athletic staffers, especially those hired before The Athletic cofounders became desperate to find a buyer and cash out investors, joined the relatively young start-up partly because they were sold on the company’s ideas about reporters’ autonomy. The Athletic, they were made to understand, was a place where staffers and potential staffers could be journalists and fully fledged members of society, not the smug lobotomy patients so often valorized by fuddy-duddy newspaper oligarchs. Its promise as a workplace where reporters would have the freedom to express themselves, fully and civilly, without worrying if they were running afoul of some onerous and unevenly enforced social media policy was what one staffer called a “major selling point” in the company’s sales pitch. After all, isn’t it the rigor of reporting and clarity of thought that matters?
As of June 8, that has changed. In a meeting last week addressing editorial changes including the new mandate, Chief Content Officer Paul Fichtenbaum acknowledged the no-politics policy was a “departure” from previous operating guidelines. He stated that in accordance with the new policy, staff members should not express their political beliefs on social media or any platform. In giving an example about what would count as political, he said:
We don’t want to stop people from having a voice and raising their voice for appropriate issues. But there comes a point where something that is a straightforward, “Hey, I’m concerned about guns in America,” for instance, right, that’s an apolitical statement. It becomes political when you say, “I’m concerned about guns in America and this political party is the reason why we’re having an issue,” right? That’s when it tips over. So again, we don’t want to stop people from having a voice and expressing themselves. We just need to keep it from tipping over into the political space.The Athletic Chief Content Officer Paul Fichtenbaum
The vast gray area between and outside of these two silly hypothetical statements went unaddressed, as did the question of who gets to decide what counts as the “political space.” In response to a question from a staffer seeking clarification on this question, Fichtenbaum said, “I don’t personally view matters of race as politics. Again, like, it could become a matter of politics if it goes that way. But on its own, I don’t think that race is a political thing in what we’re talking about.”
It’s unclear when exactly white newsroom execs got comfy deciding that racial justice isn’t a political concern, but the more pressing question is: What exactly do Fichtenbaum and his ilk understand “race” to be, if not one of the primary axes upon which politics are formed and enacted? Could he give one example of a “matter of race” that is not political? Defector put these questions to Fichtenbaum via two spokespeople from the Times; they declined to answer. A statement from Jordan Cohen, the NYT’s executive director of communications, did not answer Defector’s other questions about what staffers were and were not allowed to say and do under this new policy. It read:
The Athletic has updated its journalism guidelines to reinforce editorial independence and continue to serve its audience of dedicated sports fans. Created by The Athletic’s editorial leadership, these guidelines cover sourcing, participation in public life and conflicts of interest. We’re not going to comment on specific comments made during an internal staff meeting.
The new policy generously grants that reporters are allowed to vote, then goes on to say that “staff members can contribute to social causes although if that particular cause becomes newsworthy for The Athletic, that staff member will be forbidden from covering it.”
As one Athletic staff member told Defector succinctly, “This makes no sense.”
“What about Black Lives Matter? Is that a social cause? Who will write about athlete protests? What about trans athletes in sports?” the staffer asked. “Where this policy gets you is that the people who care the most about a particular issue, the people who are most informed about a particular issue, are now the ones who are banned from covering the issue.”
Several staffers wondered what exactly is the difference between “social” and “political.” They also expressed concern over if and how they are supposed to predict which “social” issue may become politicized, especially by an increasingly reactionary Republican party that’s constantly looking for new ways to expand their vicious attacks on the basic humanity of black people, transgender people, and women.
“We could stand up for our rights,” Fichtenbaum said in the meeting, “but we should not say we disagree with somebody’s politics.” It feels almost too stupid to type out something this obvious but apparently it must be said: Standing up for someone’s rights almost always means disagreeing with someone else’s politics.
Throughout the meeting, Fichtenbaum repeatedly asserted that this policy is one that 2,000 colleagues at The New York Times follow, as if black Times journalists, and thousands of other journalists across media, haven’t recently and publicly challenged these social media policies and broader notions about objectivity. This is not an abstract debate point for Athletic staffers looking to keep their jobs; it’s a labor issue.
Of course, some Athletic staffers, recognizing they have a relatively stable job in a chaotic media business, or perhaps hoping that they themselves might eventually be able to make the leap to the Times, are accepting of the new policy. But for others, especially those who know their identities or beliefs will make them a target for scrutiny, the policy and the way it was handed down is worrying.
There are four affinity groups at The Athletic—for queer staffers, black staffers, women staffers, and one for staffers to discuss mental health. Up until The New York Times “takeover,” as several staffers have taken to calling the acquisition, these affinity groups had the ear of company leadership, meeting once every three months to discuss with cofounders and other managers questions and concerns that arose in their newsroom. This dialogue, a staffer explained to Defector, allowed workers to hear perspective from leadership and share their own thoughts and insights, especially about topics that tend to get lost in broader sports media ecosystem. It wasn’t the formal line of communication a union would have with management, for example, but it was something. As of early this year, around the time The Athletic was acquired, these conversations dropped off.
“Since the merger we haven’t had a single meeting of that nature,” another staffer told Defector, adding that it made understanding this new policy—what counts as politics or not—even more difficult. “We have no sense of where that line is drawn.”
This staffer told Defector that the rationale offered by higher-ups was insufficient. “When we were asking questions about circumstances and asking for examples, all they would say is, We want you to feel confident in your identity, but you can’t show you disagree with politicians, political parties, and other organizations whose policy actively tries to take it away.”
Several staffers also emphasized that the process for what happens when a staffer is found to have violated this policy hasn’t been articulated clearly, let alone put in writing. In the meeting, Fichtenbaum said “we don’t want to be punitive,” but absent a real process and worker protections, like just cause for firing, The Athletic/New York Times could conceivably terminate any staffer for violating or “violating” this policy. (The Times declined to answer Defector’s question about the disciplinary process for a reporter found to be in violation of the policy.) The vagueness of the policy and lack of information about how a violation would be handled is alarming to some staffers.
“It feels like the deciding factor is if some right-wing Twitter account with a lot of followers decides to rally the troops and get pissed off at you, then [management] is going to say, Well, you crossed the line,” another staffer said.
The new policy invariably means staffers are rehashing the same crucial but exhausting debates about objectivity and what counts as politics, but it also means some of them are thinking in new ways about the material conditions of their jobs. If workers have no say over their new owners unilaterally demanding that they change the way they interact with the world or risk losing their jobs, what can they control?