- Three-year-old The Athletic has big ambitions to take on sports media companies like newspapers and Sports Illustrated though a subscription-driven model.
- Former and current employees described how journalists there have article and subscription quotas and are encouraged to produce stories that can drive hundreds of subscriptions.
- The journalists said that approach favors stories about big teams and personalities that can be hard for local-focused reporters to deliver on.
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The Athletic wants to save sports journalists from the struggling print and TV industries.
The site, cofounded in 2016 by Alex Mather and Adam Hansmann, has raised $139.5 million from investors like Comcast Ventures and Bedrock Capital Partners. The Athletic last reported 600,000 subscribers in 2019, doubling its subscribers from 2018, and says it’s nearing 1 million subscriptions. It planned to be profitable this year before the coronavirus shut down live sports and led The Athletic to lay off 8% of its employees, equivalent to 46 journalists.
Business Insider recently spoke with 16 former and two current employees about how The Athletic tries to drive subscriptions, how it measures success, and what makes a hit story.
The Athletic reporters have subscription and article quotas
The Athletic hired top local sportswriters as well as big names like Ken Rosenthal and David Aldridge by pitching big salaries, the freedom to pursue long-form journalism, and workplace technology like Slack and other accoutrements of the modern newsroom.
“In the year or so before I joined, it felt like every other week a sports reporter I knew was getting gobbled up,” said a former journalist at The Athletic. “They were so aggressive — that was their game plan.”
Reporters have yearly subscription goals starting around 500 subscriptions for junior staffers and increasing with seniority, a former staffer said.
They also have quotas that range from 10 to 20 stories per month depending on their beat and whether a sport is in season or offseason.
Those quotas were significantly lower than the 30 to 40 stories a month that many staffers had to produce at their former newspapers, said one former employee.
“When you’re used to newspapers, and a lot of us are, you’re used to that constant churn and feeling like with every bit of news, you have a few hundred words that you can throw up as soon as possible,” the former journalist said.
Data tools and analysts show what topics and stories readers are most interested in. Stories that hit 100 subscriptions are called “home runs” and stories that generate 500 subscriptions are “grand slams.” Articles that hit those goals are shared on Slack, and a Slack bot pings staff when stories generate five subscriptions within 24 hours.
Articles on big personalities drive subscriptions
Several former journalists at The Athletic said that getting “home run” and “grand slam” stories is hard, especially for reporters who were hired to cover local teams.
“There’s a fortunate element to it,” said a former journalist.
The big stories tend to come from national reporters or reporters covering big teams and personalities like LeBron James from the Los Angeles’ Lakers or former NFL star quarterback Peyton Manning.
Jon Krawczynski, a senior writer at The Athletic, said that the big hits won’t keep readers coming back.
“Once you get a subscriber to subscribe, you have to give them reasons to stick around. They didn’t sign up just for the big, salacious story — they also want to be informed regularly,” he said.
Former journalists said that while there was pressure to grow subscriptions, they were never reprimanded for not hitting goals or publishing a story that didn’t drive many subscriptions.
The Athletic has made a bigger push for evergreen content that reliably drives subscriptions over time, though, a former writer said.
“They would find things that worked in one market that were evergreen and you’d find ways to try to make it work towards you,” said the former staffer. “It absolutely evolves around understanding your data.”