Commentary

Radical Moves At 'Sports Illustrated' Eviscerate A Legendary Magazine

Last week's mass firing at Sports Illustrated was cold, calculated and cruel -- and not unusual for today's news media. This year, covering the publishing industry has felt like working on the obits page, with its mix of grim anticipation over who'll be next to die and the duty to provide some notable facts about the deceased.

Sports Illustrated technically isn't dead, but the reported plan by its new owners to replace the storied publication's full-time staff with low-wage freelancers and unpaid bloggers is akin to killing the title with editorial embalming fluid.

And yet, it's probably the most viable business strategy for a publication coping with an onslaught of digital rivals that provide real-time sports coverage and commentary.

Sports fans can also follow many of their favorite athletes on social media, which give them a more direct connection than one mediated by a reporter.

Sports Illustrated's prior owner, Meredith Corp., had determined that reversing the title's steady decline in readership and advertising was unlikely. It sold the magazine for about $110 million to licensing company Authentic Brands Group, which licensed the rights to publish Sports Illustrated to theMaven Inc. for at least the next 10 years in exchange for royalties and a $45 million upfront payment.

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TheMaven's management initiated the job cuts, triggering an outpouring of sympathy on social media, with several reporters tweeting that Sports Illustrated either provided them with their first experience of reading long-form news or inspired them to become journalists.

Those tweets reminded me that my first reporting "gig" was at my high-school newspaper, which had a huge sports section. Not only did we cover game results and run profiles about coaches and student athletes, but we also reported on heavier issues, such as steroid use and funding for athletic programs.

I also was reminded of memorable Sports Illustrated stories, like a lengthy profile of boxer Muhammad Ali and his former entourage that ran in the April 25, 1988, issue. Sportswriter Gary Smith, who later retired from the magazine, captured vivid details about the close-knit group of people who had worked for Ali when he was at the height of his career.

Ali and Sports Illustrated seemed to have a symbiotic relationship, almost like his connection with contrarian sports broadcaster Howard Cosell. They needed each other to exist. Before NBA star Michael Jordan set a record for the most Sports Illustrated covers, Ali had been the reigning champion, so to speak.

The media landscape has changed since those days, but I hope Sports Illustrated will find a way to nurture quality reporting that people remember years later.

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