Joe Vardon is now a member of the fastest-growing demographic in America: sportswriters joining The Athletic. The former Cleveland.com scribe will be a senior NBA writer covering the Cavaliers and league at large. He’ll join former colleagues Zack Meisel and Tom Reed at the subscription site as it continues its stated goal of sucking local newspapers dry.
The spate of departures precipitated a strong internal email to employees by Cleveland.com president and editor Chris Quinn, which was obtained by Cleve Scene and published in full.
I want to say a word about The Athletic, which suddenly seems frantic to raid our staff because of its inability to groom talented sportswriters on its own. Most of you know Joe Vardon is headed there, and they do not appear to be finished in their recruiting efforts.
This has the feeling of desperation to me. As I’ve mentioned since this thing started, it’s financial model is not sound. In the print days, the Daily tried it. In the digital era, Patch tried it. Each time someone tries it, an investor kicks in a huge amount of money to get the thing launched but because the financial model is so unsound, it always fails. If you could sustain an experienced staff on digital subscription revenue alone, we’d have gone that way a long time ago. To produce the kind of content we produce takes more than digital subscribers.
But suddenly, across the nation, the Athletic seems intent on raiding the top sports reporting staffs of each major city. This has the feeling of a last-ditch effort at survival, a strategy to try to savage the reigning sports voice quickly and try to steers fans to their site. Again, I feel certain the effort will fail. We not only lead the region in sports audience, but we continue to grow it. No one is knocking on our door. And, frankly, the Athletic is pretty awful. The writing is bloated, seemingly unedited wheezing, not at all what our sports audience has made clear it wants.
As the Athletic makes this sprint to hire away the best sportswriters in the land, I worry about how lives will be affected. Their recruiting effort is rushed. You get a couple of days to decide and then the offer is gone. The pressure is intense. Think about that. What responsible employer does that? When we recruit, we give people all the time they need to work out the details and consider how a job change might affect their lives and their families. Our intention is to build a lasting relationship, and you don’t do that with a breathless offer that forces people into a corner. Doing what the Athletic does is desperate and uncaring.
I say all this because I suspect the onslaught will continue. If you get one of these limited-time offers, please take the time to talk with the folks here before making a rash decision. If they go under, a lot of veteran sports writers will be out of jobs in a suddenly glutted market. I’d hate for someone on our team to be one of them.
The Athletic seems as though it has spawned a think piece for every subscriber. Quinn’s skepticism about the business model is widely held, even by those who want the experiment to succeed. The spicy stuff is the “bloated” and “wheezing,” but this is a revealing look into the mind of someone whose staff is being aggressively courted by a competitor.
It’s also a revealing look at what can happen when you send a staff-wide email about a colleague making a poor career decision while that person is still working at your outlet.
Something tells me this is far from the only screed of its type from editors to sportswriters cautioning them to take a hard look at The HMS Athletic before jumping on-board for a life-changing cruise. Inquiring minds wouldn’t mind seeing the others of its ilk.