Has the Old Gray Lady taken to sucking regional and smaller newspapers dry?

New York Times has bought sports-subscription website Athletic for $550m

In his first years as owner of the New York Times, Adolph Ochs was so cash strapped that he sometimes walked through the newsroom switching off lamps at empty work desks in order to save a few pennies.

He was offered $150,000 for municipal advertising hoarding from a friend but declined, fearing that he might adjust his operation to keep the contract and compromise the integrity of the Times.

The anecdote is reported in The Kingdom and the Power, Gay Talese’s entertaining and plummy romp through the rise of the NYT into “the newspaper that influences the world”.’ It was Ochs who coined the famous masthead slogan “All the News That’s Fit to Print”, distinguishing the still-young news organisation as the judicious and trustworthy choice: the newspaper of record, the Old Gray Lady.

Over a century later the NYT published a fascinating article on the Athletic, the specialised sports-subscription website which was expanding at an eye-catching rate since it began in 2016. The headline ran: 'Why The Athletic Wants to Pillage Newspapers' and gave prominent placing to a lusty quote from co-founder Alex Mather.


But the question everybody in sports media is asking is: what happens in three, five, seven years? Will the Athletics business model last that long?

“We will wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing. We will suck them dry of their best talent at every moment. We will make business extremely difficult for them.”

Mather later apologised for the tech-bro’ machismo of his words. But they were actually a neat summation of the idea behind the Athletic, which is to offer sports-fans dedicated stories, both long form features and up-to-date news, on all their favourite teams.

They expanded rapidly in North America and caused a flurry of excitement by branching into the UK a few years ago, attracting many terrific journalists from various regional and national titles.


Their boast is to treat staff well and to basically outshine the sports offerings from traditional media outlets. Subscribers will find that the website/app is a pleasure to use and they run occasionally excellent long form features.

But the claim of insider access is hard to see. They rarely break stories. And their interpretation of “sport” is very narrow. Athletics barely exists. Rugby and racing do not exist.

So far it predominantly covers American sports and football. It has 1.2 million subscribers but has yet to turn a profit, a question which was addressed in that NYT article. “But the question everybody in sports media is asking is: what happens in three, five, seven years? Will the Athletics business model last that long?”

Nobody then could have guessed the answer, which became apparent this week with the news that the New York Times has just bought the company for $550 million.

Meredith Kovit Levien, the CEO of the Times, explained the rationale: the Athletic would eat into profitability for several years at least but would help the Times reach its magic number of 10 million subscribers. (It currently has eight million). Thursday’s news instantly led to a stream of social media vows to unsubscribe by disgruntled Athletic fans who loathe the NYT politics or who believe that the scrappy start-up has lost its independence and integrity.

The big winners are, of course, Mather and his co-founder: they saw an opportunity, got funding, bet big and it has paid off: good luck to ‘em. But the acquisition is more significant in what it reveals about the prevailing mindset of the New York Times. Is the Old Gray Lady nowadays down with sucking regional and smaller newspapers dry?

Good conscience

Throughout the 20th century the Times adhered to Ochs vision; far from flawless but still deserving of its reputation for thoroughness and steadfastness and good conscience: the paper of record and a beacon of newspaper journalism which was – and remains – frequently terrific if occasionally a bit up itself.

In recent years it has carried many excellent stories and features on the plundering of local newspapers by vulture funds: bought up, squeezed for profit, redundancies, demoralisation and either shut down or reduced to phantom versions of the real thing.

And there is a bottom-line vulture sensibility behind the Athletic model. Yes, it will offer in-depth portraiture of Liverpool FC or the Boston Celtics, which are enjoyable to read. But unlike the Liverpool Echo or the Boston Globe, the Athletic doesn’t care a hoot for the localised sports of those cities – or what happens in the courtrooms, in government buildings, on the streets. They care nothing for those cities: they’ve no real skin in the game.

The idea behind a sports section in any city or town newspaper was that it was part of a package which offered its readers an understanding of what was happening in that area – and not just of the flashy, marquee teams.

Sucking those organisations dry does not advance the cause of journalism. So the notion that the New York Times somehow stands as a champion of journalism – a virtue it has paraded since the metamorphosis of Donald Trump – has taken a battering with this snap purchase. It is a bit like buying followers (at roughly $500 a pop).

This is the second largest deal in the history of the Times after the purchase of the Boston Globe for $410 million in 1993, when print journalism was in its last great roar of profitability. Maybe the NYT believes locality-based journalism is dead and buried.


Over the past few months there was speculation that the Athletic would fall into the hands of a sports gambling company like Fan Duel. Instead it has found a more august home.

Levien made it clear that the NYT has not bought the Athletic in order to build a giant betting platform – which will come as a relief to those of us who subscribe. “But I don’t rule out that there will be ways that we work with gambling companies over time,” she said.

It’s a desperately sad prospect and would turn the last of the lights out on the vision of Arthur Ochs.