business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

This morning's Eye-Opener isn't really about your business.  It actually is about my business.  (Not MNB, but rather the broader media world.)  But I think it teaches us several lessons - good and bad -about how to approach evolution in an entrenched business model, and how to talk about it.

First, the positive lesson.

It was a big media story yesterday when the New York Times announced that it was eliminating its sports department and turning over virtually all of its print and online sports coverage to The Athletic, a website that it acquired about 18 months ago for $550 million.

Here's how the Times framed the change:

"The shuttering of the sports desk, which has more than 35 journalists and editors, is a major shift for The Times. The department’s coverage of games, athletes and team owners, and its Sports of the Times column in particular, were once a pillar of American sports journalism. The section covered the major moments and personalities of the last century of American sports, including Muhammad Ali, the birth of free agency, George Steinbrenner, the Williams sisters, Tiger Woods, steroids in baseball and the deadly effects of concussions in the National Football League."

The Times noted that the "Sports of the Times column was started by John Kieran in 1927, and would later include a distinguished group of writers, including Robert Lipsyte, William Rhoden, Harvey Araton, George Vecsey and Ira Berkow.  Three Sports of the Times columnists, Arthur Daley, Red Smith and Dave Anderson, have won Pulitzer Prizes for their sports writing. Mr. Daley wrote more than 10,000 columns for The Times over 32 years."  (This is what you call a pedigree.)

The Times goes on to say that "the staff of The Athletic will now provide the bulk of the coverage of sporting events, athletes and leagues for Times readers and, for the first time, articles from The Athletic will appear in The Times’s print newspaper. Online access to The Athletic, which is operated separately from the Times newsroom, is included for those who subscribe to two or more of The Times’s bundle of products."

Times sports reporters and editors will be reassigned, the company said, with no expected layoffs.  The internal memo referred to the change as "an evolution in how we cover sports."

Now, I'm sure there will be a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth in some circles with the broad reporting of this news.  To be honest, my immediate response was outrage - I have been reading the New York Times for virtually my entire life (online more than on paper these days), I've always been a fan of its sports coverage, and I once actually met Arthur Daley.  (It was toward the end of his career, and from my brief experience he defined "imperious."  But he'd earned that right, I suppose, and in retrospect I have been more intimidated than he was intimidating.  Heaven knows what he would've made of the Internet.)

It did not take me long, however, to reconsider my first reaction.  

When you really think about it, sports coverage in general and in the Times specifically has changed a lot over the years.  There aren't box scores, and frankly, not even many game day stories.  There are a lot more columns and features and pieces of enterprise reporting, all of them with links that heighten the ability of the reader to get more information and deepen the ability of the Times to be a resource.

Just because the Times always has done a thing one way doesn't mean that it always should or will do things that way.  Sometimes evolution in thinking and execution has to happen.  Plus, writing a $550 million check for a thing tends to get the gears going when it comes to reconsidering longtime business models.

Here is what I don't understand, and where I think the Times missed the moment.  The emails I received this morning announcing the change came from the Wall Street Journal, the New York Daily News, and assorted other news sources.

But from the Times?  Crickets.

I had to go to the Times website to read its coverage of a story taking place within its own walls and own its own platform.  Here's what I learned from a "Publisher's Note" posted online:

"We intend to utilize The Athletic — which has among the largest sports newsrooms in the world — to provide Times readers with a greater abundance of sports coverage than ever before. Under our plan, the digital homepage, newsletters, social feeds, the sports landing page and the print section will draw from even more of the approximately 150 stories The Athletic produces each day chronicling leagues, teams and players across the United States and around the globe.

"Since the acquisition of The Athletic 18 months ago, our goal has been to become a global leader in sports journalism, which represents a major pillar of our company strategy to be the essential subscription for curious people around the world. The Athletic has expanded on its award-winning, deeply reported coverage of teams, leagues and players to more aggressively cover the biggest, most compelling sports stories of the day for devoted fans everywhere. This journalistic excellence has translated into meaningful growth for The Athletic in terms of audience, revenue and number of subscribers with paid access."

I don't know about you, but when I read that, it sort of sold the whole idea to me.

I simply do not understand, however, why I - a longtime subscriber and reader - had to find out about the story from other news organizations, and why I had to go looking for the Times' side of the story.

That's not how you treat customers.

So those are my Eye-Openers.  I think the Times got it right in being willing to change its approach to a function that was deeply embedded in its history and DNA. That's a great lesson for any business.

But I think it got it wrong by being slow to communicate the news and tell its own story to the very people it counts on to cherish its approach to news gathering.  Again, a great lesson - to the best of your ability, you have to tell your own story so others do not control the narrative.