Amid the turmoil with the Athletic, the New York Times sports staff is demanding answers

The New York Times sports department sent a scathing letter to the paper’s management Sunday demanding answers about the future of the section amid concerns it could be shut down in an ongoing effort to further integrate the Athletic into the Times. The letter, signed by 28 writers and editors in the sports department, was addressed to managing editor Joseph Kahn and AG Sulzberger, chairman of the New York Times Company.

“For 18 months, The New York Times has allowed its sports staff to twist in the wind,” reads the letter, which was obtained by The Washington Post. “We’ve seen the company buy a competitor with hundreds of sportswriters and weigh decisions about the future of sports coverage at The Times without, in many cases, so much as a courtesy call, let alone any call for our expertise.

“The company’s efforts appear to be coming to an end, with The Times pursuing a full-scale technology migration of The Athletic to The Times’ platforms and the threat that the company will effectively shut down our section.”

In a statement, a New York Times spokesperson said: “We’ve had conversations since we bought The Athletic about what that means for the future of our sports coverage. We rolled out some changes, such as including Athletic stories on the home screen. As with all areas of coverage, we have carefully considered how to deliver the best possible sports journalism for our growing audience. We’ll update when we have more to share.”

At the Athletic and the New York Times, a marriage of promise and excitement

The Times bought the Athletic, a subscription sports outlet, last year for $550 million and has since sought to integrate it into its suite of offerings that include recipes and games. Athletic employs around 400 staff in North America and Europe, where they provide general coverage of the English Premier League. As of last year, The Times had between 40 and 50 sports writers and editors, according to two people with knowledge of the department, although some have since left the section and have not been replaced.

Since the acquisition of the Athletic, there has been notable overlap in sports coverage between the two entities, prompting Kahn to tell sports staff this year that the Times had more reporters covering sports than any other subject and that there needed to be more integration.

A complicating factor in any attempt to do so concerns the state of employment contracts at the publications. The Athletic is not unionized, but Times employees work under a new labor contract that was ratified this year.

Sunday’s letter alluded to that issue, saying management promised there would be no layoffs in the Times newsroom and also that the company acknowledged “that the New York Times Guild has jurisdiction over newsroom jobs and that any plan for Athletic employees to perform Bargaining unit work must be done in accordance with our union contract.”

The letter then asked, “Do these promises still apply?”

Several current and former Times sports staffers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they feared some sports jobs could be eliminated, potentially forcing them to move to the Athletic or to other areas of coverage at the Times.

Regardless of how the new arrangement plays out, the concern among staff is that it could mean the end of the Times’ sports department, which has been a staple of the paper’s daily report for decades. The letter notes the history of the section, dating back to coverage of the first Olympics in Athens in 1896. Columnists Red Smith, Arthur Daley and Dave Anderson won Pulitzers, as did John Branch in 2013 for feature film.

The letter also highlights the sports department’s insightful scoops and leading coverage on issues such as concussions in football, doping in horse racing, Russia’s detention of Brittney Griner and the injection of billions of dollars from the Middle East into global sports.

Among the signers of the letter were prominent baseball and NFL writers Tyler Kepner and Ken Belson; Jenny Vrentas, an investigative reporter who has written extensively about NFL quarterback Deshaun Watson; and Juliet Macur, who last year chronicled the harrowing journey of a female soccer player out of Afghanistan.

If reporters eventually join the Athletic, they will join a publication in transition. The Athletic laid off about 20 people last month as part of a shift from hiring beat writers for most major professional sports teams in the country to a more nationally focused outlet. The Athletic grew thanks to $140 million in venture funding and never turned a profit until the Times bought it. It has more than 3 million subscribers, according to the Times, and has helped the company meet its lofty subscriber goals, but lost $7.8 million in the most recent quarter.

Several current and former Athletic staffers have wondered in recent days whether more cuts could be coming at some point, given that the outlet may need fewer reporters to carry out its mission with less expansive coverage.

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