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We might be nearing the end of 'the sports pages' in newspapers as we know them

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Two of the country's largest newspapers announced big changes in the way they cover sports. The New York Times is shutting down its sports section entirely. Its coverage of sports will shift to The Athletic. That's the online site the company bought last year. And the LA Times is doing away with game summaries, box scores and standings. It says its sports section will now have the look and feel of a daily sports magazine. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik is here to tell us more. Hi, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good morning, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: So if someone is a reader or a subscriber to The New York Times and likes its sports journalism, wants sports coverage, what are the practical implications of the sports desk being shut down because there still will be sports coverage, right?

FOLKENFLIK: Right. The New York Times' website and even its print edition will be infused with the team coverage and larger sports coverage of The Athletic, which it purchased for a half-billion bucks. They say that this is a move that will allow them, if anything, provide more day-to-day sports coverage than The Times has presented in recent years. But, you know, these are different newsrooms with different cultures and different standards.

PFEIFFER: David, you mentioned standards. Is there any reason to think The Athletic would have a different or lesser editorial standards or code of ethics than The New York Times?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it's certainly an issue that's been raised both by sports journalists at The Times I've spoken to and by the NewsGuild, the union that represents the newsroom of The New York Times. They operate under different codes of conduct. As Times officials have said, they feel that the core and the essence and the principles driving the standards and driving the ethical codes are analogous, but they're not identical. You know, there's a journalist at The Athletic who reports a lot on transactions in sports - who's been cut, who's been injured, who's been signed, who's been drafted. That particular journalist actually has a contract with a sports betting major company...

PFEIFFER: Interesting.

FOLKENFLIK: ...Himself. And sports journalists at The Athletic are allowed, if they cover the worlds of betting and gambling, to gamble on sports events, to sort of understand how that industry trade works. That's something that's been prohibited for years at The New York Times.

PFEIFFER: So some potential minefields to work through as this transition happens. And, David, what about the LA Times? When they say a magazine-style sports section, what does that mean? What does that look like?

FOLKENFLIK: The most immediate and important effect is they're not going to be covering in the next morning's newspaper the events of the night before. They can't because they've pushed their deadlines back to 3 p.m. Pacific Time. But it also means they're not really assigning their journalists to be covering the day-to-day game results and events. And you can say, well, look, newspapers have in general become much more like daily magazines. They leave behind a lot of the quotidian developments day to day, perhaps. But in sports, a lot of the texture of how character or how life emerges or consequential events occur because you're covering the games, because you're seeing what happens in a pitchout in the seventh inning in what promised initially to be an unremarkable game, because you are watching how two players feud or come together in a pivotal moment. The LA Times is saying actually, we can't afford to do that anymore, and therefore we're going to go broader brush.

PFEIFFER: David, what is driving the change of these two companies? Is it finances?

FOLKENFLIK: The New York Times is in some ways being driven by the finances. They're promising not to lay off a single sports journalist at The Times, but what they're going to do is scatter them at different parts of the newspaper. In a sense, they're taking some $5 million - that's my back-of-the-envelope calculation - that they can put into other elements of investigative work, enterprise work, business reporting, culture reporting, profiles, the like. They say we can do more with this money. Let's enhance what we do. We already have a huge hundreds of people devoted to covering sports, The Athletic. Let's infuse that inside. At the Los Angeles Times, I think, there is a real inflection point in finances. It's been owned for the past five years by the Soon-Shiong family that is seen to operate it as a civic good, but they want it to be financially sustainable. At the LA Times, they're still operating in the red.

PFEIFFER: These two announcements may be coincidental, but does it tell us anything about what readers want from their sports coverage, that they want something different?

FOLKENFLIK: You know, we have so much ability to get this stuff from elsewhere. The newspapers said, what can we do that other people aren't doing? The New York Times provided, in a sense, this magazine coverage. The LA Times is going to. Both are making virtues of necessity. Both are saying they're still going to serve their readers in ways that their surveys and analysis prove to be vital and important. But they are relying on subscriber revenue more than at any time in their histories. So these are significant bets, and they're also ones that affect the legacy of such rich and dynamic sports departments that it's a bit of blow to newspaper readers like me, former newspaper reporter like me and you, to see this happen.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's David Folkenflik. Thank you, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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