New York Times reporters rally as sports desk officially closes

Dozens of New York Times sports staffers and guild members marched through the Times offices Monday afternoon to protest the end of the Times’s stand-alone sports desk. They stopped near the main atrium and read the names of some 150 sports staffers past and present, starting with Red Smith, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and sportswriting pioneer at the Times.

Staffers called the march a vigil for a desk that was a staple of the newspaper’s report for decades. Starting on Tuesday, the Times will rely on the Athletic for the majority of its sports coverage, both in print and online.

The Times announced in July that it would disband the desk, and it has spent the ensuing weeks relocating around 40 sports staffers to different departments around the newsroom. The move has outraged the NewsGuild, the union that represents the Times newsroom, which has accused Times leadership of union-busting. The guild filed a grievance with the newspaper accusing management of replacing union work with nonunion work and last week formally filed paperwork for the case to be heard by an arbitrator.

The Athletic’s newsroom of around 400 reporters and editors is not unionized. The Times has said it is contracting with the Athletic, which the company says is not part of the Times newsroom, the same way it does with a wire service such as the Associated Press.

In continued protest of management’s decision, staffers protested at the office and rallied outside the Times headquarters, accompanied by a brass band.

“The people who run The Times let our department twist in the wind, either purposely obscuring their plans for the future of sports coverage at The Times or spending $550 million on another sports publication without an editorial plan,” sports investigative reporter Jenny Vrentas said at the rally. “The way they’ve chosen to handle this has been unfair to workers at both The Times and The Athletic.”

In a tribute to the desk’s work over the decades, staffers produced and distributed a farewell sports front page, which included contributions from columnists George Vecsey and Harvey Araton.

“This has been a wretched summer for New York teams,” Vecsey wrote. “The Yankees stink. The Mets’ ownership quit on the team and its fans. And the New York Times is shutting down its sports department.”

Vecsey added: “Why garrote the sports section, produced by Times employees, conditioned by Times standards, aimed for literate adults?”

Despite the dissolution of the sports desk, the Times company will continue to cover sports and more robustly than ever. The Times paid $550 million for the Athletic last year and acquired the site’s approximately 1 million subscribers. Its efforts to integrate the Athletic into the newsroom have been rocky, with Times staffers bristling at the shuttering of the sports desk and asking questions of management about the Athletic’s editorial standards and business model. The Athletic laid off around 20 staffers earlier this year, and it lost nearly $8 million in the most recent quarter, according to Times filings, though revenue is up 50 percent from last year.

Several former Times sports staffers have found new homes at the Athletic. Longtime baseball writer Tyler Kepner will continue his coverage there; veteran sportswriter and editor Matthew Futterman will lead the site’s tennis coverage; and Oskar Garcia will be an editorial director at the Athletic and serve as a liaison between the Athletic and the Times.

A number of other sportswriters have been moved to other desks in the newsroom, where their roles will continue to include some sports coverage. Scott Cacciola, formerly an NBA writer, will move to Styles; longtime sports staffers Andrew Keh and David Waldstein moved to Metro. The Times also has plans to create a new pod to focus on sports business. The pod will exist within the business desk and include Ken Belson, who has covered the NFL, and investigative sports reporters Vrentas and Kevin Draper.

This story was updated after Monday’s rally.

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