How The Athletic showed me the future of news

Earlier this summer The New York Times published a presentation outlining its recent performance and strategy for investors. The fact they talked so openly about their future plans was notable, but something else stood out for me, too. 

The deck comprised 163 slides and 18 of them were devoted to The Athletic, the US and UK-based sports publisher that the NYT bought earlier this year. You might think that this is not unusual for an organisation to explain to investors the logic behind a recent purchase. But it got me thinking about how The Athletic might just represent the future of news.

The NYT deck talked in glowing terms about the size of the addressable audience for the leagues The Athletic covers and how sports content is a regular year-round prospect (something to which, as a former deputy sports editor of The Sunday Times in London, I can attest). It noted, in particular, the worldwide fanbase of the English Premier League as a potential driver of international subscriptions for the master brand. There was a lot of talk of bundling. 

The document was robust in its assessment of the title’s prospects. “The Athletic provides the ideal platform for The Times to enter the sports market due to its quality, breadth, depth and business model,” it said. 

This is the key sentence, I think. While the sports department of The New York Times might justifiably feel a touch peeved to learn that the business is only now “entering” the sports market – ”what do you think we’ve been doing?!?” – I think there is a lot to be said about how the quality, breadth and depth of the Athletic’s coverage might represent a new future for quality journalism.

My feeling comes partly from my experience as an observer of media trends – I’ll get to them later – and partly as a consumer. I know that it can be dangerous to extrapolate to the general from one’s own experience … but, even so, The Athletic has entirely changed my reading about football (and by this I mean soccer).

I support Tottenham Hotspur and up until a few years ago I got all my news about the club and its fortunes from traditional sports pages in newspapers. Every match they played would have a report and often there would be news stories about some aspect of the club (transfer speculation, injuries, etc). Like many, I felt that sports coverage in Britain’s national papers was one of their strengths. I was a satisfied customer. 

A friend of mine, also a Spurs fan, was not. He suggested that I should switch to reading the bloggers who were growing up around the club. He reasoned that, unlike the football reporters from national papers, who would in effect cover the whole league, they watched the club’s games every week. Consequently, the bloggers had a much more in-depth understanding of the team and its progress than the generalist reporters, though they were paid a lot less – in most cases, nothing.

Following this recommendation, I started to read a few blogs and also picked up a couple of fan-led podcasts, to which I became an avid listener, particularly when the team were playing well. But I still had my basic diet of national newspaper coverage. 

The Athletic changed all that, though. For the uninitiated, the publication does not produce traditional match reports of individual games. Instead it reports the stuff that surrounds them, with club news, tactical insights, data analysis, transfers, as well as broader investigative features. 

An example: rather than report the details of Tottenham’s recent pre-season games in South Korea, as most titles did, The Athletic sent its reporter to the hometown of the club’s local hero, Son Heung-min. There it reported on the quirky football academy where he learnt his skills under the tutelage of his father and, in another piece, unpicked how he has become the most famous and beloved man in Korea. 

You don’t get match reports from The Athletic, but you do get an unmatched volume of content about your team. And that’s not just for Tottenham. In football’s case, every team in the Premier League has at least one dedicated reporter, and there are journalists covering the whole league, data, tactics, women’s football and a number of foreign competitions. It is nothing if not comprehensive.

This might sound a bit like an ad for The Athletic, and I am undoubtedly a huge fan, but here’s the wider point about the future of journalism. 

Increasingly I believe that publishers will have to serve two types of readers: generalists and specialists. 

The generalists just want an overview of what’s going on. In the football sense, they’ll just want the score of a match and a few details about what happened. In the print era, newspapers did this perfectly well. With the switch to digital delivery, those needs can be served by push notifications or Twitter and by free sites, often state-funded, like the BBC in the UK.

Specialists will want much more from their coverage. They’ll want the voluminous detail and expertise that I’m getting from The Athletic about football. All my experience of user interviews and data shows that super-fans can never get enough of their subject, whether it be ballet, opera, gardening, music, crosswords or food. And lo, The New York Times is catering to the latter two of these passions with their Cooking and Crosswords verticals.

Of course, you could argue that this coverage is out there in the form of blogs or Facebook groups. However, the opportunity for publishers is to bring journalistic rigour and expertise alongside enthusiasm to these areas. I notice that I no longer read fan blogs, nor listen to fan-based podcasts relating to Tottenham. My gut says, “These guys are just fans like me – what can they tell me that I don’t know.” 

As well as an opportunity, there is also a challenge for publishers. Traditionally the daily newspaper has catered to generalists, who wanted a broad overview of the world. Now, the basic facts of almost any story are everywhere, instantly – on your homescreen, on desktop alerts, on free websites of many different flavours. It is very difficult to charge for this kind of content in the long run (I’m taking it as read that there are only so many publishers who can be sustained by an ad-only model). 

Consequently publishers have to provide something distinctive and different to encourage people to support their reader revenue model once traditional newspaper (and magazine) readers die off. Newspapers are not set up to do this, though some are trying. We should note that the digitally native publications that have survived and in some cases thrived are those catering to specialist interests in the kind of depth we’ve never seen before. Alongside The Athletic you have Politico (politics), The Information (tech industry) and Axios (politics and other verticals) to name but three of the most prominent.

I see a future in which people will get their general news from multiple sources for free, but then subscribe to specialist publications that feed their passions. 

So I think to be a generalist is potentially a scary place to be, if not right now, then in the near-future as demographic shifts take hold. How they respond to this will be either the making or breaking of them? In the meantime, what interests me is what specialist publisher the New York Times might buy next.

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