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  • Writer's pictureBen Standig

The Athletic Fails To Raid The Washington Post Sports Desk

Originally published Aug. 23, 2018 on Deadspin by author Laura Wagner

The Athletic, the venture capital-backed digital sports media venture that’s plundering sportswriters from news organizations all over the country and has said it wants to brutally kill newspapers, finally announced on Monday that it is turning its gaze to Washington, D.C. The company’s voracious recruiting, however, hasn’t yet yielded the flock of sportswriters that it has in other cities. That isn’t for want of trying.

According to sources at the Washington Post, The Athletic has tried to hire a significant chunk of the Post sports department, but there haven’t been any takers so far. D.C.-area sportswriters also say The Athletic has reached out to other reporters in the region, with similar results. The Athletic co-founder Adam Hansmann said in a statement to Deadspin, “As we have indicated publicly, we do intend to make some D.C. staffing announcements very soon, some of which have been finalized and some of which are still being wrapped up. But we’re thrilled with the team that’s coming together.”

A variety of reporters at the Washington Post and in the D.C. area, who spoke to Deadspin about The Athletic’s efforts, described a failure to execute an audacious plan to pillage one of the last good sports desks at an American newspaper (even as the newsroom within which that desk is situated goes to war with its cartoon plutocrat owner), an inability to entice other notable reporters with roots in the area, and a failure to either notice or care that a ready-made operation with deep local connections was right there, ready to be absorbed. The end result is that The Athletic’s entrance into the nation’s capital, one of the biggest sports markets in the country, has stalled before it even started. What that means for the narrative of triumphant inevitability, which has been The Athletic’s strongest selling point both to the public and to its investors, is nothing good.

Sources at the Washington Post say the Athletic has approached, and failed to hire, sports editor Dan Steinberg, Capitals reporter Isabelle Khurshudyan, Redskins reporter Kimberley Martin, columnist Barry Svrluga, Nationals reporter Jorge Castillo (who recently announced he was going to the Los Angeles Times), soccer writer Steven Goff, and college sports, tennis, and WNBA reporter Ava Wallace. It’s unclear whether Nationals reporter Chelsea Janes and Wizards reporter Candace Buckner have talked to The Athletic and if they are considering—or have accepted—jobs at The Athletic. (Update: Sources familiar with the situation say Janes and Buckner were also approached by The Athletic. They are both staying at the Washington Post.) Hansmann said in the statement:

Unlike other newspapers around the country, the Post—backed by the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (who’s so obscenely rich his penchant for evading taxes and screwing over his workers must be purely sadistic)—is financially stable, not roped into a race-to-the-bottom ownership group like Gannett or Tronc, and thriving by most measures. Of course no workplace is perfect, and at the Washington Post, Bezos is the problem as well as the bankroller. After 14 months of contentious contract negotiations, the Washington Post’s union bargaining committee was only able to negotiate meager improvements to salaries and benefits. A statement from the union, after an agreement was reached in June, read, in part:

There is little to celebrate. The Post, perhaps more than at any time in recent memory, approached bargaining with an aggressive posture and an unwillingness to compromise on almost every single topic. The best we can say is that the Guild fought off several proposals that would have made your life here much worse.

It’s also clear after two contract cycles under owner Jeff Bezos that even as the Post thrives, the working conditions and financial well-being of its employees will likely be-come worse — unless you act now. You may be working in a cool, new building. You may be surrounded by many new colleagues in a seemingly ever-expanding newsroom. You may be drinking free coffee.

But on issues that truly matter — your job security, your retirement benefits, your working conditions and your ability to balance career with family and personal life — you are not going to like what’s coming, if these past contract talks are any guide. Unless we can persuade more of our colleagues to join the union and — this is key — become more united and vocal in our demands for change, you will lose ground and fall further behind peers who work for competitors such as The New York Times.

Despite the threadbare contracts and Bezos’s alarming corporate posture, the editorial strength of the Washington Post has so far been enough to keep writers from defecting when The Athletic came calling. But it’s not just Post writers the Athletic is having trouble hiring. The Athletic has struck out trying to hire others, including Associated Press hockey writer Steve Whyno and former Post and current Chicago Tribune reporter Rich Campbell, according to D.C.-area sportswriters.

Per Deadspin’s sources, some reporters approached by The Athletic thought that the company didn’t fully understand the dynamics of the market when it began recruiting. Several were worried that the public wouldn’t pay for The Athletic at all when so many already subscribed to the Post, which has robust local and national coverage.

So far, The Athletic DC hasn’t officially announced any hires, but according to a report from Russian Machine Never Breaks and a not-so cryptic tweet from Tarik El-Bashir, who most recently covered the Washington Capitals for NBC Sports Washington, he will be joining the team. Other names that have made their way through the D.C. sports gossip mill as possible Athletic hires include Rhiannon Walker of ESPN’s The Undefeated, Chicago Tribune reporter Chris Kuc, and editorial head Greg Lee (who last year slammed The Athletic on Twitter for their lack of diversity). When reached, Walker, Kuc, and Lee declined to comment. A text message to El-Bashir was not answered.

These potential hires would represent a departure from the Athletic’s usual strategy of hiring reporters who have already built huge followings covering teams in their city. Kuc has covered the Blackhawks since 2007, and as such his following is mostly in Chicago; Walker is an associate editor at ESPN’s The Undefeated, where she covers general sports news, rather than a specific team. El-Bashir is the only one of these hires who’s a D.C. beat reporter with a local following. But with the Post’s roster of sports reporters apparently not budging—and likely having leveraged offers for tidy raises—The Athletic has had to get creative. There’s one option, however, they seem to be studiously avoiding.

In February, an Athletic-like D.C. sports site cropped up. The Sports Capitol, co-founded by longtime sports media reporters Todd Dybas, Ben Standig, and Brian McNally, is a digital- and podcast-focused, no-advertisement, subscription-based website dedicated to D.C. sports. The site is credentialed by all four major D.C. sports teams and charges $5.99 a month for access. And it fills a hole in the D.C. media market: Between the the Post, which is sometimes knocked for being too focused on national sports, and NBC Sports Washington, which is tied up in conflicts of interest that affect its reporting, there is room for more local coverage and competition. (Ted Leonsis, the owner of the Caps and Wizards, also has an ownership stake in NBC Sports Washington, formerly CSN Mid-Atlantic. NBCSW is also the official network of the Redskins, and because the company dedicates coverage to team that it has financial partnerships with, it doesn’t cover the Nationals at all.)

Though hiring Dybas, Standig, or McNally wouldn’t give The Athletic the PR splash that swiping a Post reporter would, all three have sizable Twitter followings (McNally has the most with nearly 20,000 followers), which the Athletic prizes dearly, and connections in the D.C. sports world. The fit with The Athletic looked like a natural one, and especially after being ultimately turned down by so many other reporters, it seemed inevitable that The Athletic would come calling at The Sports Capitol. So far, it hasn’t.

Whether The Athletic sees The Sports Capitol as too small-time, or is ignoring it out of spite for attempting to beat the company at its own game, is unclear. Hansmann said, “Out of respect for the privacy of any individuals involved, we do not comment on any specific recruiting conversations that we may have.”

For their part, the three Sports Capitol reporters seem unperturbed by the looming specter The Athletic DC, and used it to plug their site in a blog post published early this morning called “Where we Stand After Six Months.” In the post, The Sports Capitol doesn’t reveal how many subscribers it has, but said:

We know there is intense competition in the market. We have known for weeks more is coming soon. That doesn’t bother us. We welcome it because we believe in this model completely. ... We are David competing with corporate Goliaths and will continue to punch above our weight. We have to take that insurgent approach given the resources our competition has and will have in the future. But no grassroots effort succeeds without help from the masses, fellow dreamers.

The Athletic is either a force that’s going to change sports media forever, or, perhaps more likely, a racket perpetuated by excitable venture capital dudes who are going after an artificially inflated valuation by paying top dollar for mediocre-to-good beat reporters whose followings are largely a function of their previously existing platforms, and by making attention-grabbing hires of sportswriting relics of the 1990s. One less than ideal rollout probably won’t alter The Athletic’s overall trajectory. Even if it doesn’t hurt in the long run, though, a failure to establish itself in Washington, D.C.—home to the Stanley Cup champions; one of the best players in baseball; a football team that’s a constant source of fascination even, and probably thanks to, its clownishness; the Wizards, who exist; and the Georgetown Hoyas, who also exist—would be, if nothing else, a bit of an embarrassment for a company that sees itself, or at least wants to be seen, as the Spotify or Netflix of sports media.

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