The Athletic’s fundamental change

Writing in Bloomburg, Gerry Smith and Lucas Shaw dropped a bombshell of a story Monday morning, reporting that the site is considering advertising on its site:

Since its debut in 2016, The Athletic has been heralded as a model for how sports journalism can survive on subscription revenue alone. Its founders now realize that only goes so far.

“When everything is paywalled, you’re limiting the audience you can reach every single day,” co-founder Alex Mather said in an interview last week. “For us to reach 5 million or 10 million subscribers, we’re going to have to reach more sports fans, give them a taste of our product, find ways to bring then into our universe and engage them and hopefully get them to become a paid subscriber.”

In so many ways, this is a fundamental change in how The Athletic has done business and presented itself.

The subscriber-only model — which is not the traditional online journalism paywall (which is just the freemium model where you get a few stories for free before having to subscribe) but instead required a subscription to read any content — was the defining feature of The Athletic upon its launch and during its growth period of 2017-2018. It was how it differentiated itself from the other sports media outlets at the time.

Galen Clavio and I did a study on those “Why I Joined The Athletic” columns that felt ubiquitous in 2017 and 2018. One of the main things we found in those essays was that a lack of advertising on the site was a critical feature of The Athletic. One of the primary frames Galen found was what we called “Selling the Model,” in which reporters promoted the subscription model, making the case that readers should pay for sports news in a digital world where so much news is free.

A big part of this sales pitch to readers was a lack of advertising. From our study:

Writers consistently focused on the advertising-free nature of the content delivery, in an obvious response to well-known consumer complaints about ads and unwanted videos on traditional media sites. “What’s more, the site is as clean as a freshly Zamboni’d sheet of ice. No ads, no annoying popups. Click on a story, and it’s right there without having to navigate through the muck” (Russo, 2017, p. 18). “There’d be no clickbait. There’d be no auto-play videos. There’d be no ads to weave through” (Suttles, 2018, p. 5).

Reporting over the past few months suggest that The Athletic is on precarious financial ground, that the venture capital investment that fueled the site’s growth a few years ago demands levels of growth that aren’t sustainable. Sales talks, according to Smith and Shaw’s reporting, have not been successful. Jacob Donnelly wrote that the next few months are critical to the site’s future.

Which makes these changes feel like an inevitability. And a huge change in the site’s story.

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