By Kaitlyn Wilson
COLLEGE PARK (2/14/19) — The Athletic may be the hottest new website around, but what the subscription-based sports website is embarking on isn’t all that new, at least journalistically.
“I think that their innovation isn’t journalistic; their innovation is technological,” Washington Post sports and media reporter Ben Strauss said at a panel hosted by the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism Wednesday evening.
“A lot of the reporting is very good, but they have not broken the mold on some way to report about sports. What is different about The Athletic is the way that it is presented. And I think what The Athletic does really, really well is cover teams.”
Members of The Athletic staff, as well as other local reporters and editors, gathered at the University of Maryland’s Knight Hall to discuss The Athletic’s role in the ever-changing journalism landscape.
Strauss was joined by Marty Kaiser, the Philip Merrill College of Journalism’s Howard Distinguished Visiting Fellow, alumnus Josh Land, sports editor of The Baltimore Sun, Greg Lee, senior managing editor of The Athletic D.C., and alumna Rhiannon Walker, a feature writer for The Athletic D.C. The panel was moderated by Povich Center director George Solomon and Professor Kevin Blackistone.
While all of the panel members agreed that The Athletic provides quality writing, they also rely on subscribers, not advertisers, which isn’t a novel concept.
“Advertising is gone,” Kaiser said. “You’re now going to serve subscribers, and, actually, I think that’s better for the whole industry. I’d rather be in debt to the readers than” advertisers.
One thing The Athletic has excelled at is landing top-notch writers. The site has been known for poaching local newspapers’ top talent, and has even tapped into the national market with high-profile writers like Ken Rosenthal, Jayson Stark and Seth Davis.
Walker, who previously worked at ESPN’s The Undefeated, said the high-caliber editors is what caught her attention.
“The reason I left The Undefeated, to be polite, was because I wanted to work under my mentors at The Athletic,” Walker said.
When you get down to the bottom-line, The Athletic capitalizes on the same thing sports publications across the country do, and that’s the public’s obsession with sports and their stars.
“Everyone likes sports,” Lee said. “… Sports are such an escape for people that people are willing to pay for it — just like people are willing to pay for an escape to watch Netflix. … Everything else could go to whatever in the world, but people still tune in to sports, and that’s my biggest faith in my company.”
If anything, The Athletic has forced other sites to hone in and focus on what they already know they excel at: local sports.
“I think it’s a lot about what you do locally,” Land said. “I think we strive to be the best on Orioles, Ravens, Terps, and then on top of that we try to provide some things that we know The Athletic is not working on, including a pretty heavy focus lately on quality storytelling about the faces of Baltimore and the stories you’re not going to see anywhere else.”
Adapting to the changes in the industry is nothing new. Publications have been doing it for centuries — from the emergence of TV, to the internet, and now The Athletic. It’s all part of the transformation.
“Journalism is in a transformational stage,” Blackistone said. “That’s happened before and it’s happening now. We’re in the second phase of a transformational stage in digital journalism, which The Athletic is a part of.”