How does The Athletic affect the traditional media landscape?

Photo: The Athletic official Facebook

How do elite collectives of journalists affect the traditional media landscape?

A super collective of journalists. That’s what the digital sports platform The Athletic presented in its UK expansion last summer when they introduced themselves to a new market and continent.

The Athletics idea is pioneering in the world of sports journalism: the elite of the elite on the same platform. They headhunted 55 journalists, all of whom are leaders in their respective fields from both national, regional and local press. All exclusive news, analysis, and interviews from the journalists with the best insight into various boardrooms and locker rooms in the UK were put behind one paywall.

“This is the biggest change in sports journalism since the digital era. There has probably been more reorganization in the last four months than in the last fifteen years” said a journalist who The Athletic tried to recruit to famous media analyst Ian Burrell in July 2019.

When founders Alex Mather and Adam Hansmann started The Athletic in 2016, the philosophy was to create a platform free of ads and click-bait, with a material of high enough quality for people to be willing to pay for it and fund the platform.

Prior to the UK expansion, on July 29, 2019, the platform had 500,000 monthly subscribers. One month after launching their expansion in the UK, at the end of August 2019, an additional 100,000 subscribers had joined to take part of their favorite journalists’ work and the journalism that The Athletic offers. If that wasn’t astonishing enough, The Athletic’s CEO Alex Mather said in an interview that they have an annual ”retention rate” of 90% (how many customers continue to subscribe every year) – which serves as an indication of huge consumer satisfaction and a confirmation of a successful concept.

The impact of The Athletic at both local, national and international levels sparked two questions for me: how do these elite journalist associations affect the traditional sports media landscape? And how would potential expansions take shape in other countries? For that, I will use Sweden as an example. That’s where I live and know the market the best, but there are many similar markets to which this would also be applicable.

First off, the effects of The Athletics’ entry into the UK’s market have been particularly noticeable at the local and regional levels. National media outlets such as The Guardian, BBC Sport, and The Daily Mirror have, to a great extent, seen the same exponential growth in followers on social media and readers, despite losing many of their top journalists. But local and regional newspapers such as The Liverpool Echo, the Yorkshire Evening News, and the Newcastle Chronicle have seen dipping figures.

A qualitative survey by Football Elements, via Social Blade, revealed that after The Liverpool Echo lost its’ top journalist, James Pearce, to The Athletic, their Liverpool FC focused Twitter account received an average of 8,000 digital less new followers per month between September 2019 (one month after The Athletics UK launch) and December 2019. During the same period, The Yorkshire Evening Post and The Newcastle Chronicle’s monthly average of new followers decreased by more than half after losing Phil Kay and Chris Waugh.

But unlike in Brittain, it is the national media that would be hit the hardest in Sweden, as the sports journalism culture in Sweden is fundamentally different from England.

In Sweden, the leading transfer journalists are found at the national newspapers unlike in the UK, where the majority of the leading journalists in those work fields are found in the local newspapers. For example, as mentioned before, at The Liverpool Echo or The Yorkshire Evening Post where you have the opportunity to attend every match and work in local editorials close to the clubs. Standard practice in England is that the national newspapers mainly cover the leagues in general, while the local newspapers where the journalists with access into the clubs are found focus on specific teams. There are similar examples in Sweden with FotbollSthlm and FotbollSkåne which are locally based and are exclusively dedicated to the Stockholm and Skåne clubs. These sites would probably be hit as hard as the local and regional newspapers in England if a Swedish The Athletic recruited their most click-driving journalists, as it is those journalists who are sites’ livelihood. They are also difficult to replace. Journalists with good insight and access do not grow on trees. But, generally speaking, in Sweden, it is Expressen, Göteborgs-Posten, Fotbollskanalen, and Sportbladet that lose the major assets, while in England it is the local and regional newspapers.

Expressen, which has Sweden’s two leading football journalists when it comes to exclusive transfer news has, according to Sifo’s latest market survey, 785,000 daily digital readers. Out of Expressen’s 2,623,000 daily digital readers, that corresponds to approximately one-third who follow SportExpressen. Then there’s Sportbladet which has two of Sweden’s leading football chroniclers and 1,141,000 digital readers daily. Seen to their parent newspaper Aftonbladet’s 3,554,000 daily digital readers, Sportbladet also corresponds to about a third of the newspaper’s daily readers. Therefore, it should be assumed that the sports editorials are quite big contributors to the newspapers financially. Should Sportbladet and SportExpressens lose their star writers, each media house would probably receive relatively hard blows financially through reduced daily traffic on their sports pages.

The sports journalism itself, however, would stand as one of three potential winners that I have identified if a The Athletic expansion would take place in Sweden. The recruited journalists would be able to dedicate their time to quality-enhancing work as the Atheltic have no deadlines. For example, the quality-harming pressure of having to fill an article quota to fill the newspaper with before the evening deadline would disappear. Instead, that time can be focused on developing unique angles, ideas and writing more in-depth and detailed analyzes that would raise the journalistic standard. The chain effect would then be that the remaining media landscape would have to raise its standard by striving for the same quality and develop new ideas in order to compete. All-in-all, a higher journalistic standard would emerge as a result of quality-enhancing conditions and increased competition.

The second potential winner is the consumers, who are given a more cost-efficient alternative to feed their hunger for sports journalism.

As mentioned before, Sweden’s leading sports journalists today are found in many different news outlets. That means that you must rely on different sources to get different kinds of information. While magazines like Aftonbladet and Expressen have some articles that are open to the public and others that are premium protected behind a paywall, it can still pay off with an alternative like The Athletic where everything is behind a single paywall – but where everyone is at the same place.

A subscription to Expressen Premium today costs £5.59/month, and a subscription to Aftonbladet Plus costs £6.15/month. If you want Expressen’s exclusive news about football transfers, and Aftonbladet’s famous chronicles, you need to subscribe to both. If you instead could have both behind one paywall on an ad-free platform for £4.85/month, where the journalists in question also get improved conditions for creating better content, an overwhelming majority would probably say it would be worth it. There would be a lower monthly cost, for much better content.

To back this up, a study by a US analytics company called AP NORC did in collaboration with the American Press Institute from 2019 showed that 53% of the respondents would be willing to pay for journalism if the content had a high-enough quality.

The third, and last, potential winner is the journalists. As previously mentioned, they would avoid various deadlines in order to focus on quality rather than quantity in their work. More time for research and being able to write longer, more in-depth, and original articles.

The Athletic also provides them with substantially better financial conditions. For starters, all journalists become minority stakeholders of The Athletic. That is unprecedented in the world of journalism. It also serves as a great incentive to attract more subscribers and create as great content as possible. If the company does well financially, so do you.

In interviews with in 2018, more than a dozen beat writers in the US who had been approached by The Athletic revealed that they were offered $70.000 per year in salary – not including bonuses. That would mean if the same applies to the UK, that the journalists employed by The Athletic UK would earn a total of £56.150 per year. That’s an average of £28.650 more annually than the median salary at £27.500 per year in the UK for a newspaper journalist (without seniority and/or experience), according to the National Council for the Training Journalists (NCTJ). The Wall Street Journal continues to say that the 55 journalists recruited in the UK cost a total of £4 million a year, which corresponds to around 100,000 subscribers – a figure that’s already been reached in the UK. The British expansion thus finances itself.

Of course, concerns may be raised that this is not economically sustainable in the long run. All areas may not fund themselves as the UK does. But for that, The Athletic has a $90 million backup tank from vulture funds, like Comcast Ventures, in the United States. The platform, however, has a constantly evolving structure where the sporting and geographical areas each day are getting closer and closer to self-financing, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The improved financial compensation that the journalists at The Athletic receive may also benefit the rest of the industry’s sports journalists. They are given a strengthened hand in the negotiations of their own wages and working conditions.

However, this can pose problems for some. For larger newspapers, this may not be a major problem. But for other regional newspapers with more limited budgets, it causes big problems. They may not be able to compete with the new financial standard on the market for wages and risk losing many of their journalists instead – which further down the road can create even deeper financial wounds by losing readers as well. This has happened both in the United States and in the United Kingdom according to the British Sports Journalism Association. And in the long run, if The Athletic manages to become self-financed by subscription fees at local and take over the local sports coverage, it could have even greater consequences for the local newspapers. Because according to Douglas McCabe, from the analysis company Enders Analysis, the local sports coverage provides a significant livelihood for these newspapers.

To conclude: a potential expansion of The Athletic, in other words, elitist journalistic collectives, would probably mean the end of sports journalism’s media landscape as we know it today. For good and for bad. The economic conditions and overall relations between employers and employees would change, operating conditions for local and national newspapers would change, and the quality of sports journalism would likely increase and directly improve the conditions and product for consumers as a result.

The journalistic standard would increase because of the new conditions. The Athletic’s brand new and improved conditions for their journalists would generate quality journalism over quantity journalism – and ripple effect would follow. The remaining media landscape would have to follow in order to compete. There are many ways to look at it – advantages and disadvantages – but one thing is certain: a revolution of the media landscape would take place.