Print journalism is not exactly a growth industry, and sports is no longer the exception that proves the rule—see ESPN’s rounds of layoffs.
But talent is always in demand, and as one of the nation’s most admired hockey writers, with 134,000 Twitter followers, Michael Russo fit perfectly into the playbook of Alex Mather, CEO of The Athletic, a sports website launched in 2016 with a paid subscription business model. It employs sportswriters in eight U.S. and seven Canadian cities so far.
Mather set his sights on hiring Russo away from the Star Tribune, where Russo built a following over 12 years; Russo is also covering his 23rd NHL season as a reporter. “He sold me on no space constraints,” Russo says, “no deadlines and total autonomy.”
Russo joined in September. Beyond covering hockey, he is the acting editor of the site’s Minnesota edition. Former AP reporter Jon Krawczynski is the other full-time employee; he reports on the Timberwolves and Vikings. “I have hired an army of freelancers,” Russo says, including admired MinnPost and Sports Illustrated vet Britt Robson, who also writes about the Timberwolves.
Russo recently wrote a two-part article on Wild center Matt Cullen, who has defied the odds and is still playing at age 41. The Star Tribune couldn’t have provided him with that amount of space, he says—“We are trying to give people things they can’t get in the newspaper.” It’s long-form journalism, such as a feature he did on the Wild’s Marcus Foligno and his brother, Nick, a Columbus Blue Jackets player, that he enjoys. “I can write more meaningful stories here.”
Minnesotans have responded positively to an introductory subscription rate of $42 annually. By September, Russo says, The Athletic reached subscription targets it had set for next July.
“Its model is low-cost enough that I could see them getting the critical masses they need to support the enterprise,” says Ken Doctor, media analyst for Newsonomics. “They have a shot at being successful because of the passion of sports fans.”
KFAN radio host Dan Barreiro, a former Star Tribune sports columnist, is rooting for the site “because it attempts to do stories, reporting and writing that’s important to people.” He doesn’t believe Russo made a risky move by leaping from an established newspaper. With Russo’s reputation, Barreiro says, he could get another job “in 10 minutes.”
The Athletic is still in expansion mode. “We are hoping to hire a [full-time] Twins writer by spring training,” Russo says. “We expect to eventually hire a full-time Vikings writer.” —Liz Fedor