The Slow Death of Sports Journalism


For a 24-year-old guy, Tyler Kepner had made serious career progress. Already a beat reporter covering a major league baseball team for a metro daily newspaper, Kepner couldn’t be much happier, writing about the sport he loved. Then his phone rang, and he became even happier. Leaving a December 1999 press conference at brand-new Safeco Field in which the Seattle Mariners introduced the free-agent signing of hometown hero John Olerud, the New York Times called Kepner, seeking to pry him away from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

It wasn’t hard. Kepner leaped at the chance and has been a national sports journalism star since. Last week, his phone rang again while he was at Safeco-Field-cum-T-Mobile Park. This call did not make him happy.

In the middle of major league baseball’s annual celebration, All-Star Week, a boss called to say the NYT was dissolving its 35-person sports staff. The suits and some news executives were turning over the operation’s much-decorated sports coverage to The Athletic, an independent digital newsroom begun in 2016 and purchased by NYT 18 months earlier for $500 million, despite never having earned a dime of profit.

He was told he would retain a job. Just not covering baseball for NYT.

“Baseball is all I’ve known,” Kepner, 48, said in the stadium press box before the All-Star Game. “The P-I, and the Times.

In the time-honored dark humor that envelops the sports-scribe tribe, I said I could forward him the list of the five best restaurants in Kiev for his new assignment. He smiled. Barely.

The Times will re-assign Kepner to another desk, as we journos call areas of coverage. But as these things traditionally go, the new job will be sufficiently dismaying or clumsy enough to inspire Kepner, and/or some of his temporarily marooned colleagues, to quit. He could be hired by The Athletic, although it has been busy with getting rid of sportswriters too. It recently dumped two Seattle writers, Christian Caple (UW Huskies football) and Corey Brock (Mariners), leaving Michael-Shawn Dugar (Seahawks) to populate alone the fragile Northwest sports journalism frontier.

Maintaining the cynical tone, I could label Kepner something else: Newspaper killer. While it’s true the P-I did not survive and NYTimes remains, industry guilt resonates in the journo diaspora that is not allowed by custom to know how the business operates (the “firewall” between ad revenue gathering and news gathering). Somehow, we think, it must be our fault.

The decline of journalism, sports and otherwise, does not mostly rest with journalists. But lest I digress into a yelling-at-clouds, get-off-my-lawn rage at bosses and bankers devouring a bulwark of democracy, I’d like to suggest that there are forces at work here other than publishers-are-dopes tropes (I tried yelling when the P-I was murdered in 2009; didn’t help then, won’t help explain things now).

Often overlooked in the sports journalism hand-wringing (which was worsened on the same day of the NYT boat-rocker by the decision of the Los Angeles Times to abandon daily game coverage, box scores, etc. in favor of a magazine-style format) is the fact that the pro and college sports leagues shrewdly have taken over the business of daily news coverage of themselves. In creating,,, etc., the sites’ wall-to-wall coverage far outstrips anything a single metro newsroom, or even a chain of newsrooms, can provide. Plus the house media entities get for free all the video/audio rights to the enterprises’ games. (Years ago, I was approached by an independent producer to make a film from my 2002 book on the Mariners saga, “Out of Left Field.”  The film required some game/interview video content. Cost quote from MLB: $25,000 a minute and use was subject to MLB review. Never mind).

Sports leagues recognized long before newspapers the disruption caused by conversion to digital. Years ago, websites began hiring away newspaper print writers and editors, installing them into technologically advanced newsrooms that are envied to this day by all the big news networks. Think about it: MLB Advanced Media has streamed and posted complete content  — full-game and highlight video, still photos, stories, analysis and analytics, quotes, social media  — of more than a dozen games a night, semi-simultaneously, for years. As a result, many sports consumers under 30 choose almost by default the sophisticated, glitzy league sites over the comparatively feeble, video-sparse newspaper versions.

In a long-ago conversation with entrepreneur Jonathan Sposato, whose Seattle site, Geekwire, has been a business success covering local, national and global technology stories, I asked him what would have happened to the Geekwire marketplace if Facebook, Google and Amazon had each included in their launches a 100-person newsroom to cover themselves.

“I hadn’t thought of that,” he said. The sports leagues did.

The journalism shortcoming, of course, is that these sites are house organs. Their coverages of scandals, controversies and just plain stupid stuff that players and teams do is nervous-cough perfunctory. But the audience that used to care about such matters, especially when tax dollars were involved in stadiums/arenas, dwindles, while the audience groomed to appreciate the league sites’ gee-whizzery grows, oblivious to the distinction. I have maintained that the single greatest feat in the history of baseball was the invention of MLB Advanced Media, which, year by year, highlight show by highlight show, helps shrivel its audience’s capacity for critical thinking about the business of the game and its social impacts. And even though ESPN is owned (for now) by Disney, many of its decisions around controversial stories are colored by “sensitivity to concern of partners,” the leagues whose seemingly endless supply of fresh content keeps national dopamine levels high and the lights on in Bristol.

And to think, the brilliance of blending content supplier (team) with “news” purveyor (stream) all started in Seattle. In September 1995, local innovation shop RealNetworks successfully streamed the first baseball game, Yankees at Mariners. That was about four years before the call that helped make Tyler Kepner’s baseball writing career, and 24 years before the call that (temporarily, I hope) unmade it.

RealNetworks is still around, with offices in Home Plate Center, the building that houses KING5 TV opposite the main entrance to the ballpark where Kepner, about 300 feet away, took his fateful calls from New York a quarter century apart. Talk about circling the bases.

Yes, it’s awful what’s happening to the sports departments of the New York Times and the LA Times, as well as to smaller platforms. Then again, when the profound changes being delivered by AI via chatGPT are implemented wholesale by media companies in, say, about a week and a half, demolishing even more of the human newsrooms, the observations in this story will have a life span easily measured by baseball’s new pitch clock.

Art Thiel
Art Thiel
Art Thiel is a longtime sports columnist in Seattle, for many years at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and now as founding editor at


  1. There’s one other factor here, Art, that leaped to my mind immediately on hearing this news. The NYT sports staff were all Newspaper Guild members. The Athletic, of course, is a nonunion shop.

    Yes, it’s true that the displaced sports staffers still have union-protected jobs at the NYT. But, as Kepner’s case illustrates, those will be jobs that don’t necessarily play to their strengths as journalists, nor to their subject matter expertise, built up over years, maybe over decades. This inevitably will reflect in annual performance reviews, if they are not nimble enough to adapt quickly to their new situations. It could be a not-so-subtle way of easing them out.

    Dave Zirin, at the Nation, had plenty to say on the subject. He came right out and called it a union-busting move, which, in addition to the other factors you mention, I agree with.

    • True, Ivan. I made a similar point in conversation with others. I left it out because I thought it seemed as if it were one shop’s politics, when I was aiming for the big picture. It should have been included. Glad you mentioned.

  2. Union-busting will likely become a new sport, I’m sorry to say. The history of unions is barely known in this country, as are the benefits unions brought to working people.

    • In some service industries, there seems to be a union comeback (looking at you, Howard Schultz). I suspect when some tech workers get angry enough, awareness will grow. Then again, once chatGPT is full throttle, few companies will need coders or programmers.

  3. This certainly sucks for Kepner and NYT sports coverage, and I feel for those writers. Having said that, I’ve found The Athletic (included in my NYT sub) to be the best sports journalism outlet in a while – at least for my beloved Washington Wizards.

    Is there a way to square these things? I have little concept of The Athletic’s profit model. I assume they’ll rehire some PNW correspondents soon.


  4. I think The Athletic does a very good job. Lots of quality writers and editors have left traditional newsrooms to make the platform a compelling read. But at launch, they vowed to be ad-free and rely only on subscriptions. Now ads have entered their once-pristine site, and it has to reach the black in any year. That may change now that NYT readers will be forced to take a second subscription to read sports.

  5. The exposure of the Northwestern football scandals by the NU student newspaper shows why there’s a need for more local and investigative journalism. How to foster that while maintaining financial solvency, that requires a more imaginative business brain than I have.

    (BTW, a student newspaper publishing in the summer? Wow. I wanted to study journalism at NU after high school because of that department’s reputation; good to know its high standards remain.)

  6. Not even the digital media platform is immune with ESPN doing a mass purge of their anchors and reporters not too long ago. At some point we might go back to print and not necessarily by choice but probably not in our lifetime. Until then we will be inundated with information that will overwhelm us about mundane topics such as JRod running from 2nd to 3rd by various news outlets, bloggers and social media hanger ons. Only on the Internet can a single action go trending in seconds.

  7. I think it was George Will that wrote a few months back that as journalism moves from subscriber-based business models to sponsor-based financing, news gathering would become more ‘siloed’ into narrow categories. One can see that in the pages of the Seattle Times where five or six narratives predominate where coverage of other beats, such as the arts and general business is pretty much non-existent. Fortunately the management of the Seattle Times realizes that many, maybe most, readers take the paper for the sports section, particularly the Seahawks.
    While the New York Times, the financially-strongest newspaper in America, still relies on subscriptions, one has to wonder if management at the NYT is now dominated by uber-Journalists rather than newsies.

  8. I am not certain the New York Times took sports coverage very seriously. Newsroom types referred to sports as the ‘toy department’ … respected commentary from you, Art, Larry Stone and others will carry the day. Although I like Mariners broadcast coverage, it too is subjective when compared to network coverage of Mariner games.

  9. Below is basically the same comment I left in the NYT on one of their stories on this topic last week, edited slightly with some minor added Seattle references.

    I had the good fortune of working a 4/10 schedule for much of the 1990s through early 2015, when I voluntarily switched back to a more traditional 5/8 work schedule. One simple pleasure I enjoyed during much of the 1990s and early 2000s was to grab a NYT paper on Friday mornings and go find a restaurant to have breakfast [most often at the 5 Spot on top of Queen Anne]. Even in winter on those Friday mornings I could find stories on baseball in the Times Sports section, the only traditional sport I really cared much about.

    I quit reading the [NY] Times Sports section on a regular basis about the time Ira Berkow left. He was a favorite writer of mine. His columns read like you were having a conversation with a friend across the table.

    About a year or two ago I looked to downgrade my subscription to the Times. I am now retired, looking to slim my budget just as the Times is, and had just received a notice that the price was rising to $66/mo. I noticed over the years that the subscription price tended to rise about $5/mo. each year. Frankly, it became too expensive for me, the Sunday morning delivery – thrown from a car – landed further and further from my house each week (and later and later), and by the time it arrived, I had already read the paper electronically.

    I still enjoyed the Cooking section, I found I could bundle that section with access to the daily paper for about $28/mo. The bundle also came with The Athletic. I’ve tried reading it; but it’s never caught on for me. But, by then, I had quit reading Sports by that point anyways.


    I still read the SeaTimes Sports section – occasionally. I like Larry Stone and Matt Calkins. In my nearly 40 years in Seattle I think the city has had good sports columnists in both the SeaTimes and the former PI, including Ty Kepner.

    I like and appreciate the other, unmentioned sports writers as well currently at the SeaTimes.]


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