The Athletic: Paywall sports journalism plants its flag Detroit | Crain’s … – Crain’s Detroit Business

The Athletic isn’t offering the enormous wages that The National spent to hire prestige journalists such as Frank Deford and Mike Lupica, but it isn’t being cheap. They’re paying salaries and benefits luring talent away from old-line media, while also picking up jobless sports reporters laid off in the waves of local and national cutbacks.

The site’s owners say they’re keenly cognizant of burning through cash. They’ve raised $7.7 million in three equity funding rounds, including $500,000 from Courtside Ventures that’s partly backed by Detroit billionaire Dan Gilbert. The rest of the money is from subscribers.

“If we weren’t paying competitive salaries, we would not have been able to make some of the hires we are making,” Hansmann said. “We’re not being foolish with the capital on hand. We’re extremely focused on that.”

The Athletic landed Paul Fichtenbaum, who was Sports Illustrated Group’s editor-in-chief from 2012 to 2016, in July as chief content officer. Another notable hire was baseball reporter Ken Rosenthal, who lost his platform when Fox Sports pivoted entirely to video. He’ll write baseball stories for The Athletic, but still do on-air work for Fox Sports and MLB Network.

The Athletic has about 60 full-time journalists across its sites, and about a dozen people working in functions such as marketing, product, and engineering, Hansmann said.

In Detroit, former ESPN hockey writer Craig Custance was hired as the site’s top editor. He’s also covering the Red Wings.

Custance, 40, explained The Athletic’s journalism strategy in an age when other media are cutting staff and pivoting to video: “It’s a pivot to text. Our focus is on the written word. This is going to be our niche. We don’t want anything in the way of great storytelling and reporting,” he said.

Don’t expect much, if any, video content on the site, but it will offer podcasts. Those still are in the works, Custance said.

Reporters for The Athletic sites are not asked to provide a recap or hot take immediately after a game. Instead, they’re given the time and latitude to develop unique angles. They’re not doing the three or four stories in the hours after the game ends that daily beat writers must churn out.

“What we think our advantage is, to fans, is that we’re allowing our writers on staff at these events to spend as much as time as they need for a story,” Custance said.

For example, when Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer — the 2016 A.L. Rookie of the Year — had surgery to repair a nerve in his pitching elbow, The Athletic didn’t rush out a story. Instead, site managing editor and Tigers beat writer Katie Strang spent a couple of days crafting a detailed story about the nature of the injury, the surgery itself, and the process and timeline of recovery.

It’s process stories that Custance wants, narratives that explain how and why things happen. Those require time and space. Strang had that luxury.

“She had the time to talk to doctors that have performed that surgery,” Custance said. Athletic stories also dig deep into analytics, game film breakdown, and business aspects such as salary arbitration.

Do fans want to pay for that sort of filigree journalism?

“We find readers are excited to get that level of detail,” Custance said.

The site also uses a stable of freelancers to augment coverage from its full-time writers. Custance declined to discuss freelance pay rates. He said it’s Athletic policy to pay for journalism, which isn’t true of other major sports sites.

“We pay our writers,” he said.

The Detroit site has five full-time team reporters and a number of paid freelancers and contributors. That doesn’t include the open full-time jobs covering Michigan and Michigan State football.


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