Grant Wahl’s firing and the slow, painful death of journalism

I’m very sorry to hear Grant Wahl has been let go by Sports Illustrated. I can only imagine what it’s like to devote more than two decades to something and have it end in an instant. Grant was covering soccer when covering soccer wasn’t cool, and he has been an important voice in the sport.

Between Grant and SI, though, I’d bet on Grant having the better future, by a long way.

Ian Thomas, an excellent sports business reporter, passed along a memo from one of the vultures at Maven, the company that owns SI.

My thoughts upon seeing that:

  1. Even by modern corporate standards, that’s crass.
  2. While I’m sure SI paid well, there’s no way Grant was making $350,000 a year.

And Grant indeed tossed icy water on that:

I think Grant will land on his feet. For one thing, he and Caitlin Murray seem to be the only people who have figured out how to write soccer books that sell. (Since Long-Range Goals, I’ve posted a loss on the books I’ve written. Seriously — I haven’t made enough to cover expenses.) He could always set up shop as a soccer-specific John Feinstein. Or he could go to one of the places offering six-figure salaries for journalists, like …

Well, there aren’t many.

The speculation on social media is that The Athletic should hire him. It wouldn’t be fair to Grant for me to speculate about his next move, and this post isn’t going to be about Grant. It’s going to be about the state of journalism. Buckle up.

Jobs like Grant’s, with good pay for a handful of in-depth features a year, have always been rare. Today, they’re all but extinct.

A decade ago, we had actual bidding wars. A 2007 New York Times story said ESPN was poaching newspaper writers “double and triple what they were earning — $150,000 to $350,000 a year for several writers, and far more for a select handful.” (The “select handful” would be celebrities like Bill Simmons.) Washington Post managing editor for sports Emilio Garcia-Ruiz had a great quote: “My counteroffer usually comes down to asking them what kind of cake they want at their goodbye party.” (I don’t remember what cake I had at USA TODAY, but it was a very nice farewell.)

Since then, ESPN’s business model of raking in cash from cable subscription fees has taken a serious hit, and they’ve had some significant layoffs. They’ve also shut down their magazine.

So now The Athletic is the organization poaching journalists from various news organizations. But as Deadspin reported, their efforts fell flat in D.C. because the salaries at the Post — the same paper that could only wave farewell to reporters leaving for ESPN a decade earlier — were too good. Praise Bezos.

And even though The Athletic is still throwing around startup money, which tends to disappear with time, what it has done to some good journalists isn’t much better than how SI treated Grant. Some of those journalists live paycheck to paycheck.

Who else is out there? ESPN will be OK but has to watch its budget. SI is doomed — the magazine is less frequent and thinner, and the desperate layering of ads on the site renders it unreadable. Vice slashed its sports “vertical.” Fox Sports got rid of all its writers. (Along with FourFourTwo cutting off its U.S. operations, that’s two freelance gigs of mine that disappeared.)

So The Athletic is the biggest ballgame at town, at least as long as the venture capital lasts. And still, it’s not like everyone there is making six figures. Aaron Gordon took a detailed look at The Athletic and the business in general, informed in part by his own layoff from Vice, and found some people can make a ton but it’s more typically $70,000. (Hey, still more than I ever made at USA TODAY, even adjusting for inflation.) A Washington Post piece pegged entry-level pay at $50,000 — you’d think an organization with the ambition of The Athletic wouldn’t have “entry-level” employees, but they do. For the same money, you can go to SB Nation and spend every waking hour tethered to an unrelenting content calendar.

Local newspapers? Good luck. Any opening will attract dozens, if not hundreds, of resumes, and they weren’t known for paying well even when they had steady income from department store advertising and classified advertising.

Want to go freelance? That’s a great gig for the independently wealthy. I cleared $30,000 one year, then had a steady gig yanked out from under me when a news organization shuffled editors.

So you end up with this question: Is The Athletic going to offer a lot of six-figure salaries when they’re not bidding against anyone?

The failure is on the business side. We’re 25 years into the Internet era, and media organizations haven’t figured out a way to deliver ads that are noticeable but not obtrusive. The very biggest newspapers can offer subscriptions, and in some cases like the Post and the Times (or less traditional organizations like ProPublica), they’re worth subscriptions or donations because they provide a valuable public service in the fight against misinformation (cough, TV). I’ve written stories I consider to be important — investigations on U.S. Soccer finances with an eye toward fixing youth soccer, pieces on sexual abuse in Olympic sports, etc. — but I’ve never felt subscribing to sports content was saving democracy.

Some publications/sites are vital reading in a small niche. That’s why I don’t feel guilty about plugging Soccer America, now entering its 50th year as the most vital source of news and analysis in soccer. The Equalizer is also the news org of record in its niche — women’s soccer. The Athletic has the occasional piece I want to read, but so do The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Los Angeles Times, The Oregonian, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, etc. The Athletic would have to hire a lot of people to get my money.

I’ve said it before — news organizations should band together for a universal subscription. I won’t pay $10/month to one newspaper just to read one more story beyond the three or five that I get for free, but I might pay for a subscription that offers me access to many news sites. I’d also be interested in paying a la carte, which is probably easier if you have some sort of universal sign-in.

Consider what restaurants and retailers have done in the COVID-19 crisis. They’re changed their business models on the fly. One of my favorite local restaurants is now offering takeout that I can order through a service I’d never heard of before I started looking for a good way to get fish for Good Friday. We’re also seeing a boom time for delivery services that serve many different restaurants — you can get your food from a local Thai place without that place having to hire its own delivery drivers.

Newspapers? Magazines? Again — 25 years. And they still haven’t figured it out. I started out making $10/hour in 1991, and that job doesn’t even exist any more. Today, a lot of freelance gigs are below minimum wage.

That’s why jobs like Grant’s are going extinct. And that’s why journalism won’t have people like Grant in the future.

And that stinks.

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