Argos’ relationship with The Athletic poses ethical questions

The New York Times has a long piece about online sports media enterprise The Athletic and it includes an interesting tidbit about the Toronto bureau’s relationship with the Toronto Argonauts.

From the story, which talks about the approach of co-founders Alex Mather and Adam Hansmann:

Mather and Hansmann also don’t hew to traditional — they would say antiquated — norms about the separation of business and advertising efforts, and are already cozier with the teams they cover than many outlets. They have an agreement with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, for instance, whereby Argonauts season ticket-holders can receive a trial subscription to The Athletic, paid for by the Argonauts.

Hansmann said The Athletic pulled no punches in its reporting on the Argonauts, while Mather suggested The Athletic could partner with teams on insider video or events in which subscribers go to the stadium early for exclusive access. Fichtenbaum said his understanding was the Argonauts partnership was a one-off.

“Paid for by the Argonauts” raises a couple of interesting ethical questions. Even if we’re willing to accept The Athletic’s insistence that their coverage isn’t influenced by the economics of the arrangement – and that’s based more on our respect for the individual reporters involved than the organization itself – that slope is pretty slippery. Not hard to see the Argos questioning the value of the partnership if they aren’t happy with the tenor and tone of the stories or pushing for more coverage based on the number of subscriptions they are generating.

Not to mention the fact that offering an economic incentive to one media outlet while expecting (hoping?) others cover it under the more standard journalistic arrangement is unlikely to go over well. The Sun and the Star and the Globe are never going to ask for pay-to-play but they sure aren’t going to be happy that The Athletic is getting paid to be there.

The whole piece is worth a read, especially the part where Mather talks about their plan to essentially destroy local newspapers.

“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.”

While there has always been competition between media outlets, it’s more often than not respectful, if not downright friendly. There is a tacit recognition that communities are better served by having multiple outlets involved in the commission of journalism, that freedom of speech and democracy is better served by a plurality of voices. Also, he sounds like a guy from the U.S.: Canadians are generally too polite to muse openly about unleashing death and destruction upon the competition.

The story says the site has “raised almost $8 million in venture capital funding” but that only Toronto breaks even with others “on track to do so by the end of the year” according to executives. After the recent spending spree that saw them bring in some big names – including Pierre LeBrun as a senior NHL columnist – there are already questions about what happens if and when the initial blast cash runs out. Again, from the story:

While The Athletic aspires to be the Spotify or Netflix of sports media, the only media companies that have achieved scale with a relatively low price point (and the help of ads) are the very same newspapers The Athletic is intent on destroying.

Back to the issue at hand. Look, we get it: the Argonauts are having trouble getting media exposure and are willing to try anything short of wandering around Liberty Village with a sandwich board covered in Marc Trestman quotes (actually, that sounds cool.) And you certainly don’t have to tell us – a rabble-rousing website featuring a mish-mash of contributors owned by a legacy media company – that things are certainly changing fast in the media world. But paying for coverage seems like a bad idea for both the Argos and The Athletic.

Also this: the last time The Athletic wrote something about the Argos was Oct. 12, nearly two weeks ago.

UPDATE: readers & Twitter followers have pointed out the site has published a couple of other pieces since then. I made the mistake of scrolling down to the bottom of the site where it says “Argonauts” expecting all the content to be aggregated there but it hasn’t been updated. Anyway, apparently they’ve written two pieces since Oct. 12.