NYT Sports: An obituary


When the death of the New York Times sports department finally came this week, it sent shockwaves through an industry so regularly traumatized that it should be shock-proof by now. But still, it was thoroughly sad, with an unapologetically cruel end, killed from within by people meant to care about news and journalists. But what most people don't realize about the Times is, even back in the "good old days," before the Internet age came for us all, the sports department always felt like it lived on borrowed Times time. We lived with the feeling that the journalism blue bloods at the top barely tolerated us, believed sports frivolous, forgot about us entirely most days because in the old Times building on 43rd Street we were on a separate floor.

It survived as long as it did because readers loved Dave Anderson and George Vecsey and William Rhoden (my era; Red Smith and Robert Lipsyte and all the others before them) and because editor Neil Amdur scoured the country for the most talented journalists he could find that wrote about sports. When Tom Jolly hired me in 2003, I felt like I hit the top of my profession. I was a Times journalist for 11 amazing years, bridged the jump to the internet age, which also probably saved us then because sports readers were everywhere and could find us now with the click of a mouse. I joined the little sports web team in 2009, when we experimented with everything, did our own blogs and videos and I wrote a web column called Leading Off for five fun years before everything started to homogenize.

What we on the inside, and the readers who read our work, understood was that none of it was frivolous. Sports is overwhelmingly popular for a reason: it is real life drama, every day, without a script or a predictable conclusion. It's full of true human effort, the kind that shows losing doesn't equal failure, that trying against all odds is the courage everyone wants to emulate. Sure, it's sometimes silly, overwrought, corrupt, overcommercialized, run by corporate robber barons, but that just as easily describes politics or business or any other "respectable" news. There's a reason why, in the "new" Times building when Sports was no longer quarantined on our own floor, reporters and editors from throughout the building would gather in front of the TVs in our department to watch exciting ends to World Cup games, or the Olympics or NCAA Tournament games. Every section had televisions. They came to watch ours. With us.

Sportswriters and editors, unequivocally, were the hardest working people in every newsroom, the Times' included. The reporters traveled constantly, everyone worked on hellacious deadlines, every night, every weekend, endured deadline-hell overtimes and late-night crises of all stripes. At the Athens Olympics, I was joined at breakfast one morning by one of our foreign correspondents, on duty in case terrorism decided to become an Olympic sport, and he asked if I was working that day. I looked at him like he had three heads. "When you cover a war do you take days off?" I asked. "Yes," was his reply. Okey dokey. "We don't."

As Times writers and editors, we had to be better than everyone, not just because our readers expected it, but also because our disapproving bosses were always lurking. I remember my welcome lunch when I was hired in 2003, a group of new hires invited to then-publisher Arthur Sulzberger's office. As he asked all the others about their careers and their interests and what they hoped to accomplish, his only question for me was how I thought the Giants might do that season. My spot at the bottom of the Times totem pole might as well have been monogrammed, but at least my introduction to it came with a nice salad.

The dilemma that predated me, and lasted beyond my departure in 2014, was never solved. No one ever figured out how to keep everyone happy: sports fans who wanted all the details, the daily grind of games and practices and melodramas; and a set of bosses who couldn't care less about any of that. For years, we gamely did both: covered the sports as sports people expected and also wrote huge, award winning pieces and series and covered big, tough topics like the concussion plague, the Boston Marathon bombing and all the other big social issues that always end up intersecting with sports. One of those intersections happened in 2013 as my dear friend John Branch was celebrating his Pulitzer victory for the sports multimedia triumph "Snowfall." Then-executive editor Jill Abramson ran over to me as the news broke mid-ceremony and frantically asked who was covering the Boston Marathon (the answer did not land well: it was a former intern, Tim Rohan). There would be a Pulitzer the following year for photographer Josh Haner, for the photos that accompanied Rohan's coverage of a recovering bombing victim.

That dynamic will be lost with no sports section. The dilemma was canceled when the bosses prevailed. They jettisoned a staff that so often succeeded despite its unloved status, that covered both the routine and the spectacular and loved doing it. While I wish the Athletic staff much luck, the great irony of its temporary ascension is that the Athletic’s entire reason for existence is the kind of sports coverage the Times has no patience or regard for. But now it’s those writers and editors that will try to bridge the unbridgeable divide. I hope they get a salad.

Lynn Zinser was a sports journalist for 28 years, the final 11 as a writer and editor for The New York Times. She covered the New York Giants, Rangers and four Olympics. She took a buyout in 2014, went on to work as an editor for InsideClimate News and Climate Liability News and now considers herself a recovering journalist, teaches yoga and lives in Asheville, North Carolina.


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  • MarkLarson

    There's another reason worth mentioning here – employees at the Athletic aren't unionized... "the Athletic’s entire reason for existence is the kind of sports coverage the Times has no patience or regard for."

    Thursday, July 13 Report this

  • mfs600

    In its desire to be a national paper, the Times has often left its NYC readers in the lurch. It has certainly been obvious when it comes to its coverage of baseball, and perhaps other sports as well. But for me, at least, it's been particularly noticeable with baseball. I've sometimes thought that coverage of local teams should not only be plentiful but should be in the NY section of the paper, seperate from a more general sports section. Alas. I see no reason to assume that the coverage of NY sports by this NY paper will improve with the Athletic, which at least so far has seen no indication that it has anything to do with NYC.

    Thursday, July 13 Report this