Taking Their Game Online
After leaving newspapers behind, Tim Kawakami and Marcus Thompson II now helm a subscription-based internet site that’s off to a fast start.
Tim Kawakami and Marcus Thompson II
Photo by D. Ross Cameron
About a year ago, Marcus Thompson II told Alex Mather and Adam Hansmann that if they wanted to meet, it’d have to be in Oakland—specifically at Brown Sugar Kitchen for chicken and waffles. Mather and Hansmann are the founders of The Athletic, a subscription-based sports website and app that launched in Chicago in January 2016 and since then, has expanded to more than a dozen cities in the United States and Canada.
By fall 2016, Mather and Hansmann had their sights set on the Bay Area. They had already met with Tim Kawakami, who, at the time, was a longtime sports columnist for the Bay Area News Group and Thompson’s co-host on Warriors Plus-Minus, their podcast. Kawakami was on board, and they hoped Thompson would be, too.
“I wasn’t sold. I’m a pessimist,” said Thompson, who was also a columnist for BANG at the time (Thompson is also a former longtime contributor to Oakland and Alameda Magazines). “If it sounds too good, I don’t believe it. Two white guys telling me about how they’re about to change my life already makes me like, ‘Man, get out of here!’ ”
Unlike Thompson, Kawakami had been looking for a way out. He’d grown increasingly dissatisfied with how the newspaper industry had become beholden to click-driven metrics, taking the focus away from sound reporting and storytelling. When Game 3 of the 2017 NBA Finals rolled around, and BANG’s printing press broke down, it might have been the last straw.
“The readers were owed more than that for this story. That’s why I was there; I was there to give them what happened in this game, not what happened in the second quarter on until the middle of the third,” Kawakami said. “I’m not sure I needed to be there anymore. And if I didn’t go then, then I don’t know when I was going to go.”
For Thompson, Kawakami’s departure would’ve created more space for the Oakland Tech alumnus to continue his rise to prominence. “My voice was starting to matter in the Bay Area,” said Thompson, who also garnered strong reviews for his April 2017 book, Golden: The Miraculous Rise of Steph Curry.
Thompson had been writing for BANG since he was 22 and quickly became a voice that both the players and the people respected. But as he thought about the benefits of staying and the prospects of leaving, he couldn’t look past one issue in particular. “One of the things that has always bothered me about the Mercury News is that I’ve never been paid what I was worth,” Thompson said. “As my career grew and all my colleagues are telling me that they see me this way, and they make more than me, that wasn’t going to last forever.”
The Athletic, undoubtedly, had more money to offer Thompson. According to The New York Times, Mather and Hansmann had raised $8 million in venture capital by this fall.
On Aug. 1, The Athletic-Bay Area launched with Thompson on board. The staff quickly grew to 12, and there are no long meetings, no click quotas, and no marketing campaigns. The staff communicates mostly via Slack. “I talk to them as much as I can,” Kawakami said of the journalists on staff. “I let them know if I like something; I let them know if I didn’t love something. I try and strengthen what they do, and [much] of their stuff is way better than anything I could do.”
As editor-in-chief, Kawakami is a boss now, but not a dictator. “I’ll never admit this to Steve Kerr, but I think he’s taught me a lot—just watching him try to be a good boss,” Kawakami said. “I’m not saying I am—I don’t know—but communication, transparency, and working as hard as anybody else is going to work in our operation have been what I’ve tried to do.”
Being editor-in-chief isn’t fret free, however. A few weeks ago, when Mather told The New York Times that they intend to “wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing,” Kawakami caught heat for it by proxy.
“This is not about killing off anything; it’s about growing in an area that’s there to be tapped and discovering new ways to do this,” Kawakami said. “I’m a newspaper guy. Marcus and I—we felt that as newspaper guys … you don’t sit there and plot their demise.”
Thompson shared that sentiment, tweeting on the day The Times story came out, “I don’t like what our founder said, or how he said it.”
Kawakami retweeted it. “He’s someone who shares my ideas, my vision, someone who I lean on,” Kawakami said in an interview, “and someone who has a vision of his own that is not nearly identical to mine, and I appreciate that.”
Kawakami calls Thompson his “co-pilot.” For Thompson, that’s more than enough. He doesn’t want to be assistant editor-in-chief.
“He knows I got his back. Whatever he needs from me, I will help him, but I don’t want that title,” Thompson said. “Tim got me paid. Tim supports me by letting me be me. He believes in me, so I don’t have to funnel stuff through the channels.”
Thompson said breaking from the deadline-bound, rat-race culture of newspapers has allowed him to do more of what he loves—craft compelling stories. “I can think more; I can be creative,” he said. “If I have another question while I’m writing that I didn’t get answered, I can go get that answer. I have to think about things differently; there’s more thinking involved—what’s the angle, what’s the real story? Everybody else is going to have this story; what’s my story going to be?”
Aside from his columns, Thompson has a section called “Sunday Randomness” in which he writes about what’s on his mind, from Maya Cooper and Kevin Burgess to losing $500 and wanting Nike’s $720 self-lacing shoes. He’s also working on a series called “Thompson on The Town.”
While Kawakami and Thompson both declined to say what their goal is for first-year subscriptions (which cost $7.99 per month), they said that they’ve already exceeded it. They attribute this to the staff’s combined talent and collective commitment to asking important questions and providing subscribers with context and analysis and reporting and storytelling.
“What about the novel idea of just putting good shit on the internet?” Kawakami said, recalling a conversation he had with a colleague. “That’s all this is. I’m trying to put good shit on the internet, as good as we can get, as often as we can do it. That’s hopefully what we’re doing.”