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