Q/A with Sports Illustrated editors: Clearing air about vision for magazine, SI.com

Last year, Chris Stone was sitting at a Starbucks in Manhattan. At the table behind him, there were two ESPN sales people.

Obviously, they had no idea that the managing editor for Sports Illustrated was within earshot.

“They were discussing strategy for a meeting,” Stone said. “I remember one of them was hammering home this point. He said, ‘You have to let them know, ‘ESPN is about what is going to happen next. Sports Illustrated is about what already happened.'”

Stone said with more than a bit of disgust. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘They’re still rolling out this lazy trope?'”

Yes, they are, and it isn’t just those sales people. Last month, in an interview with me, ESPN editor Chad Millman said virtually the same thing.

“We have two different approaches,” Millman said. “They often cover what just happened. We cover what’s going to happen.”

Stone said he didn’t want to engage in a debate with Millman, who served a stint at Sports Illustrated. But Stone did say, “I don’t buy that for a second.”

Indeed, there is an evolution taking place at Sports Illustrated. It was underscored in how they rolled out their recent scoop on the Jason Collins story.

The magazine told the story with an impressive cover package that featured Collins’ first-person piece and S.L. Price weighing in with an analysis of the social significance.

The rollout, though, occurred at SI.com on Monday morning of that week before the magazine had even hit the presses.

Tearing down the walls between the magazine and digital is the mission for Paul Fichtenbaum, who took over as the editor of the Time Inc. Sports Group last fall, and Stone, who was named the magazine’s managing editor.

During a lunch last week in Manhattan, Fichtenbaum and Stone talked about the Collins story and how it relates to the vision for the entire SI enterprise.

When did you first learn about the possibility that you might have the Collins story?

Stone: It came to us on Easter morning. Franz Lidz called and said, ‘Would you be interested in a story about an active athlete coming out.’ Ah, yeah.

Franz (and executive editor Jon Wertheim) flew out to California on Wednesday April 24 still not knowing the identity of the player. There still was a chance he could back out.

But the negotiations were very smooth. There were no conditions. They never even asked to see the cover. Franz came up with the idea of running Jason’s story in first person. It was his story, not our story.

After the interview, Jon called and said, ‘I can’t think of a more perfect individual to do this.’ I knew we had a story that exceeded all of my highest expectations.

Sports Illustrated has broken many stories through the years. However, this one was bigger than most. What did it mean to SI?

Fichtenbaum: It’s really important and reaffirming to the brand. We’ve been an iconic brand for almost 60 years. We’re a trusted outlet. It means a lot to us that Jason trusted us to present his story in a responsible and meaningful way.

Why did you decide to break the story on SI.com as opposed to waiting until the magazine came out?

Fichtenbaum: We knew it was a very important story. How do we use our best resources to tell it? We knew it was a story we had to get out right away.

One of my favorite parts of the whole rollout was (on that Monday morning). How were we going to present this story on the website? When I got over there, I saw Chris and (executive editor) Jon Wertheim already were talking to the producer. It was sort of a eureka moment for me. I was proud to see how the best of both worlds put their heads together to present this story in the right way.

What is happening on the digital front with SI?

Fichtenbaum: It’s an identity we’re forging. How do we create one work force where the best of the magazine and the best of the website work together for one goal?

A couple years ago, there was a no-hitter, or something like that. In a span of three days, we had five different pieces about that one game. We weren’t an integrated unit. Editors were assigning stories to different people without knowing what other people were doing.

That doesn’t happen now. We’re tearing down the walls to make sure everyone is in line. We do things in unison. The website is a magazine and the magazine is a website.

The biggest change is that your writers no longer write once a week for the magazine. Now they are reporting regularly on SI.com. How is that working out?

Stone: If Ohio State plays Michigan on a Saturday, and our writer turns in his story, why should the reader have to wait five days to read that story?

For all these writers, it’s in their metabolism to do this. They’re not learning a new skill. They are reacquainting themselves with an old skill. There’s incredible value in this for us.

We don’t think of someone as he’s a website guy or a magazine guy anymore. Those distinctions are going to diminish over time and we’re better off for it.

Fichtenbaum: We know from our research, readers want our takes from our writers. It goes back to the trust factor. It’s all about access and knowledge. Our writers have it and our readers want it.

It’s pretty good if Tom Verducci is writing off a no-hitter or a special event, or if Lee Jenkins is writing off (an NBA playoff game). If you read that coming in on the train, you come away saying, ‘I found out what I needed to know.’

What about the magazine?

Stone: What we’re doing is we’re taking those live stories which once appeared in the magazine and by putting them on-line, they have that distinctive SI stamp. We’re turning the magazine into something else. With the exception of a few very big events (Super Bowl, Master, etc.), we’ve gotten away from that type of coverage completely. We’re giving you a differentiated longform experience.

We want every story to be different than anything else you’ve read on the subject. It used to be the end of the magazine was always a bonus space. I’m a big believer in running multiple bonus pieces. I want the front of the book to be about strong commentary and point of view. It moves a little quicker.

I want the back half of the book to be about narrative storytelling. We want every story to be special. We’re not going to get them all right, but we’re going to try.

Fichtenbaum: That’s the critical thought. At the heart of what SI always has done is emotional storytelling. We need to take that idea and run it through everything we do.










One thought on “Q/A with Sports Illustrated editors: Clearing air about vision for magazine, SI.com

  1. Interesting. I always thought a strength of SI was that it was about what had already happened, but they told you things you hadn’t already heard about. They were the reporters watching the last player get on the bus, or the plane. They were the ones still there after the dailies had met their deadline. They could write about a game 7 win in different way than the others. If they are losing that they are losing a lot …

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