Now-former Cleveland.com Cavs beat writer Joe Vardon announced this morning that he is departing that gig to join The Athletic Cleveland to cover the team and the league. Locally, he joins fellow former Cleveland.commers Zack Meisel, Ari Wasserman and Tom Reed on staff. Nationally, he joins a growing wave of sportswriters who've ditched daily newsrooms for the subscription sports site, which is adding reporters left and right after raising $28 million in venture capital .
Both the sustainability of the business model and the method by which The Athletic — now with some 300 employees in 38 markets — is stocking its mastheads have been topics of speculation and conversation. The latter especially after an interview the founders did with the New York Times
last October in which Alex Mather said, “We will wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing. We will suck them dry of their best talent at every moment. We will make business extremely difficult for them.”
It wasn't the nicest way to say it, and they sort of apologized afterward, but it's exactly what they're trying to do.
So yeah, there has been and will continue to be consternation in daily newsrooms across America as talented writers jump ship, which makes sense.
But there was also this, a rambling and angry internal email Cleveland.com editor Chris Quinn sent to his employees on Saturday, Sept.15, on the topic of The Athletic, which seems like one of those emails you should leave in the drafts folder for a day or two and then delete after you've cooled down.
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.
Anyway, we're not going to go on and on here but a few things:
1) Joe Vardon was still on staff when this email was sent. Imagine giving four years of your professional life to an organization and then getting an email from your boss that essentially calls you an idiot for making a decision that you think is the best for you and your family.
2) For anyone at Cleveland.com to point to another site and complain that it is poorly edited is a level of hilarity that can't even be accurately measured.
3) "What our audience really wants is not reported features but Facebook live videos filmed from the living room of one of our social media guys," is a weird argument to stand on.
4) If anywhere in that email to his employees does Quinn even begin to address the reasons why an offer from The Athletic might be very attractive compared to remaining at Cleveland.com, and what they might do in the future to make sure those offers aren't as attractive, we missed it.
5) "This has the feeling of desperation to me." Yes, indeed.