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An obituary for NYT Sports
While sports journalism may not be on its death bed yet, The New York Times’s decision to shutter its sports desk is a sign that the sickness is spreading.
For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to write for The New York Times. It was the goal I set for myself when I first decided to become a journalist and it quickly grew into an all-encompassing obsession.
For many years, I didn’t think I was good enough. “Who am I to write for the Times?” I’d say to myself; “Why would they want to work with me?” Yet I continued to strive for that goal, carving out a niche covering the intersection of sports and politics while collecting bylines at some of the world’s leading magazines and newspapers. I began to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
One day, on the advice of one of the organization’s sports editors, I decided to pitch The Times. To my great surprise, they accepted my pitch, which meant that if all went well, I would have a story in The New York Times—maybe even in print (!!!).
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On April 15, 2022, my first New York Times story, co-authored with the fantastic sports investigations reporter Kevin Draper, was published under the title “Some U.F.C. Fighters Have Ties to a Chechen Leader Loyal to Putin.” The article revealed that, despite facing U.S. Treasury sanctions, Ramzan Kadyrov continued to maintain ties to UFC fighters and others in the organization. It was a big story at the time—the culmination of years of difficult, sometimes dangerous, reporting on the Chechen warlord. The article was the lead story in the sports section of the paper, and my colleagues were kind enough to send me a few copies.
It was only when I saw my name in the physical paper that it dawned on me: I had finally done it. I had written something for The New York Times.
It was here that I began dreaming about a new goal, one that was even loftier than the previous one: I wanted to become a New York Times journalist, specifically a sports journalist. I started working towards that goal, publishing more stories with the Times and building my body of work with the paper of record. My big break came a few months ago, when I approached the Times with a scoop involving Lionel Messi and the Saudi Arabian tourism authority. After several painstaking months of reporting, editing, and fact checking, Tariq Panja and I published a story called “Lionel Messi, Saudi Arabia, and the deal that paid off for both sides.” It was easily my biggest story with the organization to date, one that offered unprecedented insight into the inner workings of the kingdom’s sports deals and how they relate to the Saudi government’s overall ambitions.
On Monday, June 18, the story appeared on the front page of the Times—a rare milestone for any journalist and one that took me entirely by surprise. I celebrated that night with the knowledge that I was one step closer to achieving my goal.
Then on Monday, July 10, The New York Times announced that it was dismantling its sports desk, which has more than 35 journalists and editors. The news organization will instead rely on sports coverage from The Athletic, a website it bought 18 months ago for $550 million and whose staff is made up entirely of nonunion workers. While The Times’s executive editors called it an “evolution in how we cover sports,” it felt more like the end of an era, and sudden demise of the last bastion of sports journalism.
The journalists and editors previously assigned to the sports desk, some of whom I have worked with, will reportedly move to other roles in the newsroom, raising further questions about their future, as well as that of their important work on how sports interacts with society at large.
On a more personal note, it also shattered my dreams of becoming a sports journalist for The Times.
It is hard enough to find work in sports journalism, especially when your job is to uncover the seedy underbelly and never-ending corruption of the sports world. It is a job that requires patience, persistence and, perhaps more importantly, funding. It is also a lonely job. At times, it feels as though you are floating across an endless expanse of ocean with nothing but a poorly-constructed raft. You feed on the fish to stay alive and hope that the sharks circling beneath you doesn’t get you in the meantime.
The Times was different. I was offered guidance, support, and a robust editorial process that I did not know still existed within sports journalism. Editors like Oskar Garcia and Andrew Das made me feel like one of the team while journalists like Draper and Panja were kind, welcoming, and encouraging. It was a totally alien experience for me as a freelance investigative journalist. That place is now gone, at least in its current iteration, because The Times saw no value in keeping its sports desk.
When I was working my way up the sports journalism ladder in the mid-2010s, companies such as VOX Media and VICE were on the rise, backed by significant venture capitalist funding. There was a moment where they seemed to think that journalism was supposed to turn a profit. When they discovered the obvious truth, the capital dried up while the layoffs came in droves. I was one of those layoffs; VOX Media decided to stop funding BloodyElbow.com, where I worked as a staff writer, along with hundreds of other SBNation websites. It was the second time I had been laid off due to budget cuts in the last two years, and it underscored an industry in crisis.
It was here that I decided to take matters into my own hands. I launched Sports Politika, moving a significant portion of my investigative reporting and columns to a subscriber-driven newsletter with no middleman and no venture capital funding. The response was greater than I had anticipated: nearly 2000 people subscribed in a little more than three months, while my articles have been read more than 250,000 times. And while the subscription model isn’t fool-proof, it offered me an opportunity to secure some supplemental income while I attempted to navigate these tempestuous waters. It also offered me a platform to continue producing important work in an environment where freelance budgets have been dramatically slashed.
As I continue to pursue a journalism career in an industry that feels as though it is rotting from the inside, I wonder what the landscape will offer young and emerging journalists, the ones who are yet to succumb the inevitable gravity of disappointment. What does the future hold for, say, the student journalists at Northwestern Daily who broke the blockbuster story about hazing at a college football program that led to head coach Pat Fitzgerald get suspended? How many more stories will they write before they realize the system is rigged against them? Will they find out about the demise of their sports desk by news alert, as The Times’s sports staff reportedly had?
While sports journalism may not be on its death bed yet, The New York Times’s decision to shutter its sports desk is a sign that the sickness is spreading. Meanwhile, the corrupt executives, team owners, and politicians plaguing the sports world can rest easy knowing that one of the last bastions of sports journalism is no longer in business.
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