The Demise of Sports (at The Times)
By David A. Andelman
“You go to a sports story for the voice of the writer and the expertise the writer brings,” Silurians’ president Joe Berger said in his tribute to three of The New York Times’ most brilliant sportswriters.
Assembled at October’s Silurians’ luncheon at the National Arts Club were Ira Berkow, Gerry Eskenazi and Harvey Araton, moderated by Newsday columnist Neil Best.
All three had been effectively silenced with The Times’ purchase of The Athletic – replaced, as Berger noted, by “wall-to-wall coverage of curling and cricket.”
Whatever happened, the four asked collectively, to flavorful and insightful coverage of the Yankees, Mets, Jets, Giants, Rangers, and superb Olympic roundups every four years?
Springing from the minds of two hedge fund managers, The Athletic, which replaced the entire sports department of America’s flagship daily, is still losing money while costing its readers the wonder, the texture, the images, the institutional memories, and collective experiences.
Ira Berkow has written 26 books and was part of the team that won a Pulitzer Prize for The Times; the 8,000 bylines of Gerald Eskenazi are the second most in Times history; and Harvey Araton covered 10 Olympics, many as a Sports of The Times columnist.
Berkow started off, hardly sheepishly, with an admission: “I don’t read the sports section anymore of The Times.” Eskenazi chimed in, “It was as if all these 46 years I had put in and all the people that I worked with—as if we didn’t exist anymore.”
The explanation Eskenazi said he got from one of the paper’s last sports editors was simple: “More than 50 percent of The New York Times readers are not New Yorkers.” Still, the paper had become a repository of great writing and editing, with a share of quirkiness as well.
Nonetheless, there was a nod that the nature of journalism had changed.
As Berkow saw it, the handwriting was on the wall several years ago when The Times stopped running baseball box scores. “A baseball box score is a gem,” Berkow said. “It tells you the whole story about the game itself and it was fun to see.”
When talking about journalism, Eskenazi recalled that his youngest son corrected him that “it’s not just newspapers. Journalism isn’t what we all grew up with.” He said the “new reality” is “that the papers are looking to see how many people read the online stories and that they might get more hits with Manchester United than they do with the New York Yankees…maybe we’re all old fashioned to think that the print should carry the day.”
Araton recalled that he had attended many Times staff meetings where reporters and editors argued about the scope of coverage. He said that he had initially been in favor of covering all the New York beats.
“But that slowly changed,” Araton said, partly because access to athletes had become increasingly restricted by team owners. “A lot of it has become just wasted money and manpower to staff these games night after night when all you’re doing is providing what the wires can provide—and you’re also at a time when money” is tight for many newspapers.
“That’s where The Athletic really began, with all the cutbacks around the country and the reduction in staff…The Athletic was founded to do all the things that newspapers weren’t doing, which is to staff every team.” Subscribers can program the service to “send the stuff that I’m interested in—if it’s Penn State football or the Yankees or Liverpool or Manchester United or whatever.”
Gerald Eskenazi hit on a central problem faced by The Athletic in replacing the sports department: “Do we know who they are? Do they know who their readers are? They don’t represent The New York Times because I don’t think they grew up with its culture. They didn’t grow up with the culture of New York City, and this is a problem.
Who exactly was responsible for replacing the sports department with The Athletic? Berkow thought it had to be the Sulzberger family. Araton’s view was more nuanced. “The Times had a billion-plus in their cash reserve…You don’t sit on a lot of cash; you try to invest it and grow your business.” He pointed to the Times’ successful acquisition and integration of Wirecutter, which reviews and recommends consumer products.
[Editors Note: On November 8, The Times reported that in the last quarter, The Athletic lost $7.9 million—a total of $68 million since the purchase. The Times said it still projects The Athletic will turn a profit after three years. It said total subscribers had surpassed 10 million – 670,000 print and 9.41 million digital. This reflected a net increase of 210,000 digital, but a loss of 70,000 print subscribers.]
Leave it to our esteemed president, himself a Times veteran, to sum it all up, turning to our three venerable guests of honor. “What’s been lost in this conversion to The Athletic is the wonderful voices of people like yourselves, and the expertise of people like yourselves, and that’s a huge loss.
ProPublica: A peek behind the curtain
By David A. Andelman
The astonishing revelations about Justice Clarence Thomas began with a threat from Paul Steiger’s wife.
The longtime managing editor of The Wall Street Journal was on the cusp of retirement, having reached the ridiculous compulsory retirement age of 65. “My wife said the first time I find you at home in sweatpants, it’s not divorce, it’s murder,” Steiger recalled to a packed luncheon meeting of Silurians at the National Arts Club in September. “And lo and behold, I got a phone call from a billionaire couple named Herb and Marion Sandler.”
They were giving away boatloads of cash and felt a “growing need for investigative reporting.” How about, say, $10 million a year, just to get you started? Steiger said yes to the offer. And so, 15 years ago, ProPublica—which this year unfurled those headline-making Thomas reports—was born.
Enter Stephen Engelberg, editor of the Portland newspaper The Oregonian, whose Pulitzer entries had caught Steiger’s eye, following a stellar career as a New York Times correspondent in early post-communist Poland, followed by a star turn as The Times’ investigative editor. He became the founding managing editor of Steiger’s fledgling enterprise and is now its editor-in-chief.
Some 1,100 resumes promptly flooded in as soon as it became known what kind of game was afoot. Real estate mogul Sam Zell, owner of the Los Angeles Times, only helped the process by suggesting to his staff, “If I say you put f’in puppies on the f’in front page that’s what it’ll be.” Not surprisingly, of the first 18 hires, a half dozen were from the Los Angeles Times.
Then there was the “secret sauce.” As Engelberg put it, you hire “curious, energetic people, send them in promising directions, and let them follow their instincts. The story should come from the bottom up, not the top down.”
One of the first was Sheri Fink’s scoop in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—the inside story of a leading New Orleans hospital where doctors played god, injecting with lethal doses of morphine patients they thought might not be capable of fleeing flood waters rising inexorably from floor to floor in the facility.
Steiger said eighteen got the yellow diamonds pinned on them. “A number died.” He said a relative of one patient sent a boat to the third floor window, rescued the patient. Engelberg recalled, “The New York Times decided to put it on the cover of their magazine.”
David A. Andelman, Silurian president emeritus and moderator of the luncheon event (and author of this article), recalled he had voted to award the same piece a National Magazine Award.
An editor at ProPublica must “be more patient than you could imagine,” Engelberg said. “Because great reporters will ultimately—through the chaotic, misdirection, errors, and then redirection—they will find their way. And if you trust great reporters with great ideas, you’re going to end up with stories like this.”
“If there’s any secret source—it boils down to trust your reporters,” Engleberg said. “With almost every success ProPublica ever had, there was a moment where a sane person would have quit before the good stuff arrived.”
The Clarence Thomas investigation began with ProPublica’s top editors musing that 2024 would be “an epochal year for American democracy, Engelberg said, “and we should have a group of people who are thinking about various aspects of the democratic system under threat, or change, or stress.” One of these was the courts. What better court to begin with than the United States Supreme Court?
“We were lucky to be able to search the internet in all kinds of creative ways,” Engelberg recalled. “I will say this, there is an ability now through software to search for people’s photos, people put stuff on Facebook, and it’s out there and we found photos of Harlan Crow…That was a sort of a great starting point. So, we did the first story, and then one of the reporters who was on a television appearance after that got a call from somebody who said, you know, Crow bought Thomas’s mother’s house in his hometown. And we thought, oh, that’s nuts.
“But the reporters got on a plane Monday morning at eight o’clock, got to the courthouse by lunch and had the records by dinner. And there it was. You know, we had to do a lot more work to kind of figure it all out.” But they had it, and indeed it went from there.
Clearly, ProPublica has come a long way from its earliest origins. From 25 editorial employees, it has grown to 180 reporters and editors—while Engelberg’s Oregonian saw its staff shrink to 70 from 420 full time editorial slots. From ProPublica’s first-year budget of $10 million, “coming into the 2016 election, we were planning a 2017 budget of roughly $17 million,” Engelberg said. “So, we had expanded 70% from the Sandler days. After Trump was elected, things changed. And today’s budget is roughly $41 million. It all [still] comes from donations. Basically, the model is somebody other than me on the business side raises lots of money, and I spend it.”
Indeed, there is an entire page on the ProPublica website whose headline is “Steal Our Stories.” That’s precisely what the editors and board of ProPublica want, even as they continue to partner with relevant media around the world—from the Washington Post to The New York Times who often vie to partner on any number of stories, to several Liberian outlets that featured a ProPublica probe of “an American run charity in Liberia, with the people who ran it abusing the children in their care,” said Engelberg. That sent demonstrators into the streets of Monrovia “chanting and waving signs about ProPublica.”
Somewhat surprisingly in these litigious times, ProPublica has been sued, but “we’ve never settled, we have prevailed each and every time, but the expense is not trivial,” Engelberg said. Clarence Thomas and his wife have not been among those who’ve threatened or sued. “We don’t hear much from them, interestingly enough. My sense is that if they have anything to say, we’ll read it in the Wall Street Journal editorial page.”
So, what’s next going into yet another extraordinary election year? Well, ProPublica has been thinking about that. “I think we have to continue to play the role in the democracy that the founders and people expect us to play, which is to be very clearly nonpartisan,” Engelberg said.
What are the unique ProPublica lanes for 2024? “The whole idea of ProPublica was, we don’t want to do a better story by 10% than what other people are going to do anyway,” Engelberg said. “We want to find a lane that hopefully is different and add something to what our very fine colleagues are doing. Money is a big thing for an organization like ours to cover. It’s harder and harder to track it. But you know, my email address is on the internet. If anybody has any brilliant ideas [about] covering 2024, feel free to send them to me.”
Sort of like how they found out about Justice Thomas’s adopted child whose tuition was paid by Harlan Crow. “That came from a teacher in the school,” Engelberg smiled, “So I mean people do call, and we follow up on it, and it is often quite productive.”