Interview: Tim Kawakami on leaving The Mercury News and joining The Athletic

It’s been five days since Tim Kawakami announced his departure from The Mercury News after 17 years. His tweets surprised many and brought up several questions from longtime readers. For instance, I was asked on more than one occasion whether he would be replacing J.T. The Brick (the Las Vegas Raiders mouthpiece whose tenure with 95.7 The Game lasted less than a year) in the 10-to-noon slot.

However, he isn’t leaving the newspaper industry to become a sports talk host. Instead, as has been suggested elsewhere, Kawakami is actually moving to a relatively new media company called The Athletic. At a time when many sports media outlets are laying off staff and/or shifting from written content to video (due more to the ability to lure advertisers than consumer demand), The Athletic is banking on a subscription-based model instead of the traditional digital route (banner ads, CPM, etc.).

As Kawakami prepares to launch The Athletic’s new Bay Area venture in two weeks, I recently spoke with him about his motives for leaving the Merc, his thoughts on news aggregation, and what to expect in the coming months from The Athletic and how it will fit in — and challenge — the current media landscape.

Full disclosure: I will be joining Kawakami’s staff as a regular freelancer.   


BASG: You’ve been a newspaper reporter and columnist for your entire career, right?

KAWAKAMI: Correct. Started in 1987, Philadelphia Daily News.

BASG: How would you describe your path from Bay Area News Group to The Athletic?

KAWAKAMI: I think everybody’s looking around at this industry. Maybe five years ago, if you’re smart, you realized there’s some troubled things going on that aren’t changing. From that point, maybe I started to think there’s got to be a next step. I didn’t know what it was. I understood newspapers, mine included, were looking at ways to try to bridge this gaping chasm in front of us.

We’re like Wile E. Coyote suspended in midair right now as we’re about to drop. I don’t mean that specifically about Bay Area News Group, I mean that about the entire industry. I know smart people everywhere are trying to figure out ways to make sure there’s something under us when we land. But I’ve seen the numbers. This is happening. It’s happening at a geometrically increased pace every day.

I always knew that what I did kind of helped the newspaper try to bridge that gap. Everything that I’ve done new was basically based on my own initiative. Basically, not quite understood by the paper, and then embraced by the paper — you can go from the blog to the podcast. I understand that. It’s new thinking, trying stuff. I wasn’t sure all that stuff was going to work. But somewhere in there, it became: how much of this is going to last if I’m at the newspaper, and how much can I use to carry me to something else?

Because I’m not sure that this industry — other than the New York Times, Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, maybe USA Today, I think we can scale a pretty decent future for those. I’m not sure about the others. And I’m not sure what it’s going to look like if they survive. I think we’ve already seen, in the television websites, that there’s an incredible retreat from the digital reporting side. And I’m not sure where newspapers are going to fall on that in five years. Maybe in two years.

As I’m beginning to think about this, and you know where this newspaper is, Silicon Valley. I had little nibbles and conversations and thoughts from smart people, smart people who saw a future that I could not see with newspapers. And as you begin having those conversations, you begin thinking to yourself, maybe I’m more and more ready for a big conversation.

The Athletic guys are obviously based in San Francisco. We met in November for the first time. They’re the smartest guys I’ve talked to who are interested in this business, who are interested in staying in this business and interested in changing this business. The first time they bring out “subscriber model,” obviously any newspaper guy is going to be a little leery of that. No matter what, even if we’re incredibly successful right away, there’s going to be a dramatic lessening of readership. Just pure numbers.

But if you think through it, you realize this is the way newspapers, or however we do this in the future, is going to turn out. Has to be. Digital advertising just isn’t going to make it for what we do. Things (the founders of The Athletic) predicted to me were going to happen began to happen, in every tangible way at other places – not necessarily my own, but other places.

As I saw other subscriber models work, and I saw (The Athletic’s) subscriber model work in Chicago and Toronto, then expand into Cleveland and Detroit, it became more “I think I could do this.” Whenever that becomes the question, my answer becomes “I better think I can do this.” Because it’s working in other places, it became the equation of “Can I do this?” Can I bring a team with me that will enhance everything? Can we win in San Francisco? All of those answers began to be answered in the affirmative. Then it was a matter of, am I just chicken? I’m not chicken, let’s just do it.

Newspapers are heading in a direction and this is something new, and I love something new. I love the start of things, and this is going to be the start of something.

BASG: After the ESPN layoffs, you tweeted “My profession is sinking.” Obviously that wasn’t 100% of what made you decide to do this, but did that sort of spur you a little bit into making this decision? Some might see this as a risk, since they’ve heard of the Mercury News and The Athletic is new. But in seeing what happened at ESPN, and Fox Sports going all-video, did you think, “OK, this is the time to jump”?

KAWAKAMI: That (tweet) was about my friends losing their jobs. When people as good as Marc Stein and Ed Werder, and Ethan Sherwood Strauss, and I can name many others, Jaymee Sire. I think that was my main feeling at that point.

But yeah, it’s all part of it. The old legacy companies aren’t going to mean as much, because in the digital world it’s a democracy. Because you click, and you’re to the story. If you see it, you click on it, and if it’s worthwhile, you click on it again. The ESPN part of it is certainly a large chunk of this whole development. And I think it has been for The Athletic, because we’ve seen The Athletic end up being the destination for a lot of these guys. Not just at ESPN, a lot of different places.

I just think it’s become kind of the natural understanding that some of these economic models don’t work. The Athletic works. Now, you have to have the right people. You have to do it in the right kind of scope. But it works. I think that’s beginning to, the momentum of that is more than working, it’s blasting off right now. It’s a rocket ship, if you know what’s going on behind the scenes.

San Francisco is a reflection of that. I think they were originally planning to go to San Francisco, but maybe not on this timeframe. But now they know that if they get the right people, because it’s worked in other cities, it could work in San Francisco. I believe great journalism will always be read. I believe great journalism will always be done. We’ve got to find that next platform, and I think this is it. Can’t guarantee that this company is it, or that San Francisco is it, but this is the platform.

The interesting thing for me is just talking about this with some sources. As we’ve gone along on, I’ve talked to a few people, they all get it, because they are disseminating the news differently themselves. The smart ones know where to find stuff, the blogs that make the most sense. The statistical analysis — Fangraphs now is legacy, basically, because it established itself.

Many of the smartest media executives get it. The economic model is not hard. (The old model of) maybe this advertiser gets this, and we do this, and a little bit of that … No, every subscriber pays money. We get that money, we pay it out to the writers. Simple as can be. Not giving out stuff free and hoping that advertising brings it. We’re not having pop-ups. It’s direct. And the interesting thing is, sources see it, and media executives see it, and I’ve had a few newspaper reporters who don’t see it. That’s kind of interesting to me.

I get it, (newspaper reporters) say you’re getting paid, you’ve always gotten paid, people read your stuff. I would say to look a year or two years down the road, and see what its momentum is. But that’s me, I understand people are in different places in their life.

Bob Myers sees this. I had a conversation with Bob about this kind of randomly and he sees this. Don’t want to throw his name out there, but it’s safe to say that he would be fine with that. Sees what the future is. Sees what this is. And some newspaper reporters I’ve talked to, just a few, don’t see it. Think they’re going to be protected forever; this is the way they’ve made a living and they always will. I don’t come to the same conclusion. People on internet sites who’ve made the jump absolutely see this. It’s not like this is a guarantee. It’s not a guarantee. But newspapers are far from a guarantee right now.

If you do this right, and I can tell you, I’ve had enough conversations to know that I believe this is being done almost to perfection in the other places. We’ll try to do the same thing in San Francisco, and I don’t see why we wouldn’t, with the backing that we’re getting from the founders and the momentum that’s piling up for this company.

That’s the dichotomy that’s striking to me. Newspaper reporters don’t see it, and everybody else does. Maybe that’s why newspapers are where they are. I don’t know. Steve, you know the stuff I’ve done. You know all the different platforms I’ve tried to get to. And I feel it, I get the direct reaction from stuff. And it’s the online/podcast/Twitter universe, that’s where I get the most reaction, the most readership. That’s where things are moving. More and faster and harder, and more influential every day. This is just an opening of that, a new opening.

It will not be the same amount of readership. That’s beyond a doubt. But it will be the readership that wants to read, that is driven to read. They are used to paying for subscriptions – Spotify, whatever. The generation that won’t read me is the generation that’s going away anyway — I hate to be that blunt – in a subscription model.

The readers that are most important, the readers that will stay with us, the readers that will be with us into the future are the ones that are used to this anyway. Or are growing more used to that commitment. If you want to read us, and you want to read good stuff and hopefully we’re providing it, it’s gonna cost you six bucks a month or four bucks a month to start. If we’re worth that to you, I hope we would be, I don’t think a lot of people are going to blink at that.

Photo credit: Daniel Terdiman/Fast Company

BASG: What is your role going to be?

KAWAKAMI: My title is going to be Editor in Chief, I guess we could throw lead columnist in there. Basically leading the San Francisco Bay operation. That’s kind of their model. In Chicago, Jon Greenberg. In Toronto, James Mirtle. In Cleveland, Jason Lloyd. In Detroit, Craig Custance has that role.

It’s a little different. I’m the first (general) columnist. I’m covering everything in the Bay Area. That’s a little different model than some of the others. And we’re going to see how that is. I think it’s a great difference, because maybe I’m known for my Warriors columns, but I think I’m pretty well known for my 49ers columns, too, and we’re going to do (a 49ers column) August 1st. A Raiders column probably August 3rd. A different twist to it, but I’m also going to be overseeing it so I will have administration duties.

We’re going to be pretty lean. The idea is four writers. Off the bat, it might not four. And a bunch of very good freelancers. And we will have them deployed everywhere. We’re going to come out swinging August 1st. It’s going to be something that people are going to want to buy. They’re going to see it. I will have columns, I promise you that, on everything I used to write.

BASG: Podcast plans? Video? We know that Fox Sports made the not-so-popular decision to go all-video recently, but is this a multi-pronged thing or do you really want to hammer out the writing part first?

KAWAKAMI: I think the writing is definitely the focus. You’re going to see from people that we bring in that the writing is what this is all about. It’s driving the conversation, it’s reported, analytical, ahead of the curve hopefully. Opinion and great reporting. If I’m involved, I’m doing my podcast. Period. That’s a done deal. Hey, we’re a digital site. We can go into many platforms. They do podcasts throughout The Athletic cities, and with the people we’re bringing on, it’d be silly not to. I don’t know if I’ll do one or two or three of them a week, but I am doing a podcast.

We will have a video element. At this point, I couldn’t tell you what that is. But we will absolutely have a video element. It’s not going to be to the detriment of the writing, however. The writing comes first. Because that’s the one where we’re seeing some newspapers and video sites retreat from. And I believe and I know that there’s an incredible hunger for it and I absolutely know there is in the Bay Area.

BASG: How do you see your coverage style changing, if at all?

KAWAKAMI: I will never change, in my head. My CEO has emphasized to me, we want you doing what you do. And it would be kind of silly to stop doing what I do, in my opinion. That’s why they hired me. Again, I might have some administrative duties, maybe, that limit what I write. I write so much anyway, I don’t know that people are going to see a difference.

I’m going to be highly motivated to be exactly what I used to be, what I am. On point, at everything that matters, and hopefully a little bit ahead of the curve on each issue. Will I be at 49ers training camp? Yes. Giants? Yes. This is all-important to me. It’s important that I keep writing. By going to stuff, I’m able to write about more stuff. I have a broader picture about things. I can’t stop that because I’m going to want to continue to have those relationships. That’s the kind of reach, into every organization, hopefully I have that kind of reach. I think I might have more now because I’m going to be determined to get to everything.

I might travel less. This might be part of that, but I think newspapers were going to be traveling a little less anyway.

We’re not messing around. These guys are not messing around. The people that we’ve brought in are ready. Layers of extreme credibility. And what I do best is I write columns. And, maybe bring together a team that is just going to be the best team in the Bay Area. We’re going to see. I’m not going to say for sure, but that’s the goal and the goal is to do it from day one.

BASG: Since it’s a new media company and hasn’t flooded the world with advertising or tried any gimmicks to go viral, many people just don’t know a lot about how The Athletic was started, who’s backing it, or the company’s plans for the future. What can you share about The Athletic as it prepares to step up its competition with ESPN, Fox Sports, Bleacher Report, and all the rest?

KAWAKAMI: I don’t want to speak for my founders. There’s only two of them. Alex Mather, who is the CEO, and Adam Hansmann. Two really sharp guys. Obviously come from the tech world. They’re the ones to speak about their goals, speak about how they’re going to move forward, long-term. What I can say is I’ve been convinced of everything that they’ve sold me about where this is headed, what the commitment is, and that the funding is there. The funding is there. They’ve had waves of investment rounds and I think they’re very happy with that. They’re very happy with what’s gone on in Chicago, Toronto, Cleveland, and Detroit.

From San Francisco’s point of view — San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose — when we were talking in April, I was wondering if they’d have the commitment. Not to me, but for the entire staff. Something a little bit like Harbaugh, “Am I going to have enough money to hire Fangio?” We talked through that. It was kind of a back and forth. They understood it, totally. It was just a matter of what was going to be there.

I would not be coming on board unless I knew my version of Vic Fangio was coming too. It was very important to me. They understood that, they appreciated it and we figured it out. At this point now, which makes me feel very comfortable, is that everybody I’m talking to, to come on board full-time, I can tell them, “I think you should take this offer.” They might not, but I can tell them comfortably, “I think you should take this offer.”

It might not be for them, but for me it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This, the beginning of this, is not coming our way again. Now, a year into this, maybe we’re hiring more writers and it’s great for them, too. The August 1st launch, 2017, is not coming again.

Where this is headed, I can’t totally predict. I believe it’s going to be great. I believe it’s going to be great almost from day one. Alex and Adam are so clear about this. They’ve researched this so well. They were predicting things to me in November 2016 that happened February 2017, like clockwork, in the industry. And they’ve predicted other things to me that I believe fully will happen in the next few months or years.

They want to make this about the substance. They’re not selling the flash and advertisements and we’re not going after viral videos. We’re going after high quality stuff, when people look at it, they go “whoa.” My biggest sales point to a lot of people is: just sign up for it. Read what’s going on. Read a Mirtle column in Toronto about the Maple Leafs. Jason Lloyd about the Cavaliers. That’s the level that we’re going to deliver in San Francisco. And there’s never a question about the quality from that point on, the commitment, and what this company values.

That’s easy for me now to translate to prospective writers. Writers can understand. It’s a big step to go to subscription, but I’ve been in these meetings. Not just the Bay Area News Group. Subscription in every newspaper is where this is headed. At some level, whether it’s a metered “read five stories and the sixth one you got to pay,” or whether it’s straight up subscription. But this is happening.

Can you assemble a group of writers and a daily product that people want to pay 20 cents a day for it? I think we can do that, and I think it’s inevitable that everyone is going this way. This is about a la carte. People just ordering stuff a la carte and not ordering the whole system. Newspapers give you the whole system. You get the arts and entertainment, you get the business, you get the metro. It’s been great. It’s been an incredible industry for way more than 100 years. In digital land, that doesn’t work as well. As we’re seeing in cable systems, it’s hurting the construct of the entire cable system. We’re seeing that with newspapers.

Sports is a standalone for a lot of people. A lot of people are going to sports singularly, or maybe sports and something else. But we’re going a la carte with sports here. We’re going to do what people I think are driven to in large part, and we’re going to do it well.

BASG: The appetite for content is almost insatiable, yet several media companies aren’t showing the same enthusiasm when it comes to spending on quality reporting and analysis. Many outlets pay writers very little — nothing at all in some cases — or go the aggregation route. What’s your stance on aggregators summarizing stories broken by you and other writers on The Athletic, since it’s a subscription-based product?

KAWAKAMI: We don’t know for sure how that’s going to work right now. That’s been raised to me as a question from writers I’ve talked to. I believe in a digital world, however, that the readers we want to get to are going to want to get it from us. And not somebody who gets a subscription and copies and pastes and throws it up on their site. We will police that, too. Believe me. They have not had this issue in a major way in the other cities.

I believe on Warriors and 49ers it might be something that we’re going to have to monitor very carefully. But I also believe, because there’s going to be (a decrease in) the larger percentage of readership, because it’s going to be people paying for it and choosing to pay for it, I think we’re just going to have the higher value readership who just want it from us anyway. Who want it from us first. I’m going to tweet it out, and they’re going to want to be able to click on that tweet. They’re not going to want to wait until, we all know the sites where they’re at.

Hey, nothing against those sites. They put out a lot of things, maybe the Mercury News lost clicks, whatever. I understand what they’re doing, but they can’t be stealing money from us. We will be on top of that, if it’s up to me. I have not had that conversation with my bosses. I have raised concerns some writers have had, and they have said if we differentiate what we do, we’ll get the right amount of people coming to us. And I believe that, too.

I don’t want to spotlight anything or anyone, but I’m not a big fan of aggregation. I’m not a fan of what that’s done to newspapers. Because we’ve seen newspapers try to copy that. I think the worst thing a newspaper can do is copy somebody who’s trying to rip you off in the first place. And I’ve seen it, I’ve seen it happen. It’s a bad bet for newspapers. I’ve been told some of these aggregation sites make a lot of money, but man, in this world where digital advertising is not great, and I see people looking for other ways. I don’t know that that’s the be-all/end-all.

The people that are going to join me, I think are going to produce stuff that people want to see originally. I think we’re going to do just fine.

On one specific team for sure, we’re going to need to monitor this. But I just feel like if we get X number of subscribers, those are the people that won’t care that it’s being aggregated somewhere else, that somebody can copy and paste it. They want to see it from us. They want to see it in the way that we produced it, and they’re going to want it first. And not via somebody’s echo chamber. That’s my belief.

But it’s an important point to raise. I know we’re going to have to police this in some ways, probably. But I also want to believe that most of this is going to be done in good faith. And I say that to the people that aggregate this. Hopefully they read this (interview). I hope it’s being done in good faith. And if they’re in good faith, I’ll be in good faith, too.

BASG: Bay Area News Group has lost several established voices over the last decade or so – Ann Killion, Monte Poole and others, and now Mark Purdy is retiring and you and I believe Marcus are leaving.

KAWAKAMI: No comment on that last one.

BASG: OK. What was the reaction when you told your bosses that you were leaving?

KAWAKAMI: We’ve kind of been through this a little bit with The Athletic. Their initial reaction to it, back in April, was “We don’t know what that is. If that’s what you want to do, geez, that’s crazy.” But they knew that this was an open conversation that I was having. I was very clear about that. And it was in the crush of the Warriors playoffs, so some of that was the urgency. It was tough for all of these things to come together.

But then they researched The Athletic. I don’t want to speak for them, but the smartest people at the Merc began looking at The Athletic and going, “Wow, this is serious. Wow, there’s an opportunity here.” They wanted me to stay, I believe, because they certainly made that known to me. But I think they understood. As the Merc goes through its own mechanisms to try to generate more money, subscription is the way that everyone is going to. Has to.

Well, this is the cleanest method. You look at any readership survey, any list of the top most read stories, stories that have readers on for the longest amount of time, it’s sports. Sports, analytical opinion, news-driven, all those things. If you pull that out, it might make people understand why somebody like the Athletic will come after me, and they understand that I’m going to listen to it, and eventually I’m going to go. I think there was some general understanding that I was going to go eventually, whether it was The Athletic or something like The Athletic.

It was a good conversation with (Executive Sports Editor for Bay Area News Group) Bud Geracie. There certainly wasn’t, at this point, any way I was coming back. There was no back and forth. And all I did was generally thank him for 17 great years, 17 years that led me to this. For 17 years that they let me do a lot of things that they weren’t sure about. If I’m not allowed to do those things, I’m not where I’m at.

He just expressed that they appreciated what I did, they appreciated the places I helped take them. Maybe at some point they knew that this was not always where I was going to be. I’ve felt that for more than five years. This is not where my career’s going to end, because of just the pressures in this industry. It was going to be somewhere else.

And I had enough nibbles to open my ears to a lot of things. Stayed at the Merc for as long as I felt was best, where the platform was good and the readership was there. But when the time was going to be right, I was going to go. It wasn’t going to be a matter of back and forth, exchange offers, let’s try to make it … No. And I think the Mercury News respected that. I respected their position that they were going to be happy for me and wish me well at the next place, and that’s what happened.

BASG: As someone who’s going to head a brand new regional site here, but has also lived and worked in other large media markets, what do you think about the media in the Bay Area as a whole? Newspapers, digital, radio, TV, you’ve been a part of all of it. Is our local media tough? Soft? Is there any area where you’d like The Athletic to stand out as being different from everyone else in the region?

KAWAKAMI: I don’t think it’s tough, but I don’t think it’s soft either. I think it’s more in the middle. Obviously I’m on the tougher side on a lot of issues and I’m comfortable there. I think the Bay Area, maybe, could be more aggressive in certain spots. It’s hard for me to quantify exactly what that means.

Maybe the questions could be more pointed at times. I’m not saying anything specifically about anybody, any specific thing, but at times. There’s been times where my questions stand out, I’ll put it that way, and get people angrier than anything and I think they’re fair questions. Or else I wouldn’t have asked them.

But I think The Athletic, we’re going to be fair, 100% fair. We’re going to be thoughtful, we’re going to be analytical. But we’re going to be asking the tough questions. I believe maybe that’s the one thing you can circle what I do as a little bit differentiated from most people in this area.

One of the main things I’m going to emphasize to everybody that is at The Athletic in San Francisco, is let’s ask the toughest questions, let’s ask the best questions. If we get great answers, let’s celebrate the great answers. Let’s not take the stock answer, not take the blow-off answer, not take the basic answer. Doesn’t mean we’re challenging everybody, just means we’re asking the best questions.

I think anybody who knows me knows I would want that, I would encourage that, and I would love that. That’s what I want to read, people want to read. Not out of context, not cheap shots, not unfair. Once they knew I was leaving (I was asked), “Are you going to still write about the 49ers the way you do? Are you still going to ask questions the way you do?” It tells me at least from this select group of responses that they understand the importance of what I’ve asked and what I’ve written about the 49ers, and Jed York and Trent Baalke specifically.

Some people thought I hated Harbaugh. I did not, in fact, hate Harbaugh. We got along just great. It was to stay up on what was happening with this franchise, to ask him about what was going on and his response to it, the leaks and etc. The person who appreciated that more than anybody was Jim Harbaugh himself.

I think people get that about me. Will everybody that we bring on be just like me? Hell no, I wouldn’t want that. That would be terrible. I would want everybody to seek out the most important questions. And whether it makes somebody uncomfortable or not, that’s OK. Because the best questions often make the best sources uncomfortable. And sometimes they have the greatest answers possible. And you can’t get that answer unless you ask a good question. That’s what I would hope, and I believe, that The Athletic in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose delivers maybe more than anyone else in the Bay Area. I think it will be a great service for readers in the Bay Area if we do that.

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