Sports staff at the Guardian and Observer have warned bosses that proposed “drastic” cuts to their department will do “immense damage” to the reputation of their coverage.
They joined staff on the Guardian’s Saturday supplements in urging management to use more of the £954m Scott Trust Endowment Fund to get through the Covid-19 crisis instead of making large-scale redundancies.
Proposals to cut 180 jobs, including 70 journalists, include reducing “some aspects” of the Guardian’s sport and lifestyle journalism as it moves to a more digital-first process, and closing the Saturday edition’s Weekend, Review, The Guide, and Travel sections.
A group of sports editors, writers, production staff, contract employees and freelances wrote to Guardian management last week urging them to reconsider the plans so that their “lean and efficient” department, which has already faced cutbacks in recent years, is not further damaged.
In the letter, seen by Press Gazette, they said: “This is a moment to build, not to cut, and we support the argument made by the writers and editors of the Saturday supplements, that given the unprecedented and, everybody hopes, temporary nature of this financial crisis, there is a case for more of the Scott Trust funds to be spent through this difficult period than usual, to support our journalism, and allow time to build reader revenues from it.”
The fund currently totals £954m, down from £1.013bn last year, and is intended to provide sufficient investment income to cover the Guardian’s losses in perpetuity.
As well as dipping further into the fund, the sports team suggested other ways they could generate more revenue, including following in the Telegraph’s footsteps to make more in sponsorships or contributions from the “burgeoning market” of women’s sport.
They also suggested pursuing sponsorships for their 5pm email newsletter The Fiver, charging for some or all episodes of the Football Weekly podcast, and appealing for contributions from loyal readers in sport-specific communities like horse racing and cricket.
“These cuts represent a serious danger to our ability to diversify our coverage into women’s sport,” their missive said.
“They will inevitably limit the time and ability our writers have for investigative journalism and features that have done so much for the reputation and standing of The Guardian.
“They inevitably risk the capacity of our production staff whose hard work keeps the whole operation going. There is a very real risk that the cuts will drive our readers and supporters elsewhere, to other areas of the media that are putting more resources into sports coverage.”
They pointed to rivals like the Mail, Telegraph and Times making sport a “central element” of their operations, and to The Athletic which last year poached four Guardian sports writers.
“We are adamant that these cuts risk doing immense damage to the reputation of the Guardian, to our popularity with readers, and to our ability to provide the quality journalism we are asking them to support,” the journalists added.
“We believe there are many alternative ways to generate revenue, and we want to work with management and the commercial department to implement them.
“We want to build on our hard work and success. These cuts will stop us from doing that. They will devalue the sports coverage the Guardian provides so successfully, and which is very often the entry point for new readers to the Guardian’s news, political and other journalism.”
They said they expect to be “busier than ever” soon with the postponed Tokyo Olympics, European Championships, and Ryder Cup coming next year on top of the year’s previously scheduled events.
These events give them the opportunity to “take a creative, innovative, and positive approach to our work” and build on their supporter base, and come as this year’s Covid-19 cancellations mean savings have already been made.
They also expect to cover financial crises across the sports industry and how it responds to issues likes the Black Lives Matter movement that Guardian Sport has “always cared about, campaigned for, and covered in depth”.
“That work is part of what makes us uniquely appealing to readers, and also to advertisers who want to be associated with our work and our values. We can’t do it if we are cut.”
The journalists said previous cuts had “alienated and annoyed loyal parts of our readership who love the sports we have been forced to neglect”.
They also left many people on the team “feeling over-stretched and under-resourced, particularly in production, and particularly recently, when the restart of Premier League and Championship football led to constant rolling matches that needed to be covered in the difficult current working conditions”.
The sports department’s award wins have included Newspaper of the Year seven times in a row at the Football Supporters’ Association Awards and 20 awards at the Sports Journalists’ Association in the past three years alone.
A Guardian News and Media spokesperson told Press Gazette: “In order to ensure the Guardian is financially sustainable and delivers the journalism that best serves our readers and their interests, we are having to make some difficult decisions.
“This includes proposals to reduce some aspects of sport and lifestyle journalism, and we are also proposing a reorganisation in the ways we produce our journalism so that our editorial processes are truly digital-first.
“Sport is an important part of what the Guardian offers our readers, across all platforms, and that will absolutely continue to be the case.
“We will stay focused on the areas where Guardian Sport is highly distinctive and award-winning: breaking exclusive stories, great sports writing, wit, innovation, and our global sensibility.”