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Mass Layoffs, Chaos At 'Sports Illustrated' Spark Journalists' Rebellion

Oct 3, 2019
Originally published on October 3, 2019 7:32 pm

Updated at 6:30 p.m. ET

The revered 65-year-old Sports Illustrated magazine is in a state of bedlam.

In meetings Thursday afternoon, managers told staff members that about half the newsroom would be laid off, according to two people present at the meetings.

Sports Illustrated was in chaos Thursday amid word of massive layoffs at the 65-year-old magazine.
Mark Lennihan / AP

NPR obtained a petition signed by approximately three-quarters of Sports Illustrated's journalists asking its new owners not to deliver control of the publication to a digital publisher named TheMaven network.

"TheMaven wants to replace top journalists in the industry with a network of Maven freelancers and bloggers, while reducing or eliminating departments that have ensured that the stories we publish and produce meet the highest standards," the petition reads. "These plans significantly undermine our journalistic integrity, damage the reputation of this long-standing brand and negatively [affect] the economic stability of the publication."

The new controlling executives include Ross Levinsohn, the controversial former Los Angeles Times CEO. The plan as described in the journalists' petition appears to echo an earlier strategy by Levinsohn, who was appointed by Maven. As publisher of the Los Angeles Times and an investor in a digital outfit called True/Slant, Levinsohn embraced a strategy he termed "gravitas with scale" — a model that was based in part on unpaid contributors and meant job losses for the traditional newsroom journalists in the Tribune publishing chain.

Levinsohn and his frequent business partner James Heckman, the founder of Maven, were the subject of an earlier investigative report by NPR over their business practices. Levinsohn, Heckman and several associates met with the newsroom Thursday afternoon.

The uncertainty surrounding the magazine's status had caused chaos for the newsroom over the previous 24 hours. Meetings that had been scheduled for midday Thursday were called off minutes before they were due to begin. On recordings heard by NPR, the magazine's editors apologized for the uncertainty.

"We're pushing to find out as much information as we can," Steve Cannella, promoted just this week to be co-editor in chief, said in brief remarks to the newsroom, according to audio tapes reviewed by NPR and verified by two people present. "We know exactly how hard this is for you guys. We know the strain this is on the entire newsroom. We know that lives are at stake."

"That's all we can say right now. We're really, really sorry. And you have as much information as we do," Cannella says, on the recording. "The anger, I understand it. I'd also be angry. We just ask for a little bit of patience as we try to find out what's going on."

Until the meeting with Maven executives, the question of who controls the magazine had not been clear, as it has been subject to a series of major transactions in a short period of time: Meredith Corp. bought SI last year along with other Time Inc. titles and then sold the magazine in late May 2019 to a brand and marketing firm called Authentic Brands Group. Meredith, a major magazine publisher, was set to operate Sports Illustrated for two years. Several weeks later, in June, Authentic Brands struck a licensing deal cutting Meredith's involvement short and giving Maven the right to operate the publication for up to 100 years. But that deal was only finalized on Thursday.

Meredith confirmed to NPR that Authentic Brands finished the transfer of editorial control of Sports Illustrated to Maven from Meredith, its formal owner. According to Meredith, the layoffs it announced were conducted at Maven's behest.

"As the new licensor of ... Sports Illustrated, Maven made the Sports Illustrated personnel decisions that Meredith communicated to the SI employees today," Meredith said in a statement. "Going forward, the remaining SI employees will work at the direction and at the pleasure of Maven."

NPR is seeking comment from Authentic Brands and Maven.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

At Sports Illustrated today, the newsroom is in chaos. The iconic magazine is under new management, and today executives informed about half the staff that they are being laid off. NPR's David Folkenflik is following this. He's at our New York bureau.

Hey there, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: What is happening at Sports Illustrated today? What's going on?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it's kind of bedlam. A bunch of folks got notes last night, saying - half of them basically saying, come to one meeting at noon, and another half saying, come at 12:30. The noon folks were those apparently being told they were going to be laid off. The 12:30 - those that would remain - those meetings were scuttled. Staff got wind of plans of what was going to happen, and they were upset about it.

This is - you know, let's be clear. The publishing business, magazine business has been tough. Sports Illustrated's been shuttled a lot in the last - call it year and a half. It had been owned, of course - one of the main Time Inc. titles, along with Time and People and others, sold to Meredith Corporation last year. Meredith sold it to a group called Authentic Brands Group, which is seeking to leverage the brand of Sports Illustrated - things like the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. And then they retained the right to let Meredith run it for a couple of years, and then shortly after, they said we're going to let it be run by this digital outfit called Maven.

KELLY: Now, this trouble had been brewing well before today. I gathered the - most of the newsroom had already come together, signed a petition to the owners of Sports Illustrated to block the new management from taking over. I mean, what spurred this whole rebellion?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, to be honest, a lot of concern had been growing, in part because of reports that NPR had done and others had done about the business practices of the folks at Maven, which were - had basically licensed in a deal from Authentic Brands Group to operate Sports Illustrated for 10 years and have options to operate it for the next century. And their business practices involved basically precursors for what Forbes became and a plan that was then scuttled at the Los Angeles Times by Ross Levinsohn, who's now the CEO of Sports Illustrated Media...

KELLY: Yeah.

FOLKENFLIK: ...To effectively get rid of much of the staff and replace them with a group of contributors, part-timers, contractors, bloggers who might write for free or even, in some cases, pay for the right to publish under the auspices of the title of Sports Illustrated. So today, that frustration came to a boil. They signed a petition and say that they got more than three-quarters of the staff to join.

KELLY: And tell me a little bit more about these new execs who are taking over and running Sports Illustrated. You mentioned Ross Levinsohn.

FOLKENFLIK: So Ross Levinsohn was, for a time, the CEO of The Los Angeles Times. He was forced out after our reporting, in part about his behavior as an executive decades earlier, but also, our reporting raised questions about his business practices - as I said, about the question of whether you can maintain the integrity of a title like The Los Angeles Times and replace so many journalists, as he intended, with this shadow network - the shadow newsroom, as its critics called it - of bloggers, of contributors, of part-timers and freelancers. And that's the concern that Sports Illustrated as well - his longtime business associate James Heckman is the founder of TheMaven with Levinsohn, and he is essentially overseeing the group that's controlling the magazine now.

KELLY: So for readers who love Sports Illustrated, I'll just ask this on behalf of my sons.

FOLKENFLIK: Sure.

KELLY: What is next? What does this mean for the magazine?

FOLKENFLIK: And I was among the many people who was introduced, in some ways, to long-form journalism by reading Sports Illustrated. I think that, you know, what I've - in talking to staffers today, they say, expect a greatly diminished ambition, greatly diminished sense of narrative. And the question is, can you trust what you read under the imprint, under the imprimatur of Sports Illustrated if you don't really know who's behind those bylines? I think that's a question that those who are running Sports Illustrated are going to have to answer if they seek to maintain the credibility of what's already a troubling time for magazine journalism.

KELLY: That is our media correspondent David Folkenflik reporting there from New York.

Thank you, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.