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Crueler and Dumber by the Day: On ‘Sports Illustrated’ and a Dark Media Landscape

The legendary sports publication laid off approximately 40 percent of its staff today. It won’t be the last time something like this happens.

Ringer illustration

In my Sports Illustrated–reading prime, the magazine specialized in single-word coverlines. I keep a few examples on my desk. There was “WOW!” and “SWEEP!” and “BRAVO!” If SI made a cover for Thursday’s carnage, you could imagine a photo of its writers and their media allies staring grimly at the camera. The coverline would be: “CRAP.” The EIC can decide whether it would be gauche to use an exclamation point.

SI was primed to have a bad day. In 2017, Meredith bought SI’s parent company, Time Inc. This spring, Meredith sold SI to the Authentic Brands Group, a company that manages the images of “brands” like Muhammad Ali and Marilyn Monroe. A few weeks later, a company called Maven, which was run by a guy who created a college recruiting network and a guy who worked at Tronc, took over SI’s publishing. You don’t need to know anything about media to guess that if anything good came of these transactions, it would be by accident.

On Wednesday afternoon, Ryan Hunt and Steve Cannella—SI veterans who ought to know the difference between a good ending and bloodletting—sent a sunny memo to staffers. Yes, editor Chris Stone had stepped down. But Hunt and Canella promised the new masters would “double down on the best of what SI has always been known for.”

They left a few things out. By Wednesday night, The Wall Street Journal’s Benjamin Mullin and Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg were reporting that more than 20 percent of SI’s staff would be laid off. The staffers would be replaced by 200 contractors, effectively turning SI into what former staffer Andy Staples called “some kind of zombie Scout.com.”

When a media overlord ruins someone’s life, he (stet the pronoun) usually does it in ham-handed fashion. Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky reported that SI staffers received invites to one of two “transition” meetings on Thursday. The staffers figured out that one group was going to be told they still had jobs and the second was going to start sending “Reaching out…” emails to friendly editors.

Those meetings were canceled. Later that afternoon, the meetings were reinstated, and somewhere from 35 to 40 percent of the staff was laid off, including writers like Andrew Sharp, Paul “Uni Watch” Lukas, and Joan Niesen. Also, staffers found a poster indicating Maven was throwing some kind of party that night.

On days like this, media types, myself included, want to do what we can to help. But there’s little to do. Every solution seems inadequate.

Subscribe to SI! Too late. The bad guys are in charge. Sending them money accidentally validates their rapacious ways.

Write a blog post! That can be cathartic. But as we’ve seen with the overlords of G/O Media, the people who do this stuff do it precisely because they don’t have a sense of shame. ABG’s chief executive told The Washington Post today that the status of SI is “awesome.”

Hire the writers! Studs like Staples and Tim Layden left ahead of the purge. A bunch of laid-off SI staffers will get work. But even if The Athletic meets its loftiest expansion goals, there aren’t that many media jobs available. You can’t hire everybody.

On Thursday afternoon, a collection of anonymous staffers tried just about the only move they had left. In an unsigned tweet, they called on Meredith and ABG to rescue SI from Maven. Of course, that would mean returning SI to a parent company that didn’t want it and a branding company that thinks it can slap the magazine’s name on medical clinics.

In the meantime, #SaveSI started trending on Twitter. Think about that. Magazines now resemble beloved but little-watched network shows from the aughts, with hashtag campaigns that yell at corporate oligarchs.

I have little to offer other than a few ideas. You shouldn’t see today’s awfulness as a single event—“the day SI died.” You should see it as the latest in a series of awful events. SI laid off a lot of people in 2015, 2016, and 2017. Spare a thought for the people who lost their jobs back then. They weren’t treated any fairer than the writers who got the sack today.

You can also skip the obligatory paragraph about SI’s glory years. Guess what. Frank Deford and Dan Jenkins got paid, richly. Their spirits (wearing an ascot and a duffer’s cap, respectively) weren’t defiled today. The only people who were defiled are the ones who work at SI now. Well, worked.

So what now? There’s not much. Just a bunch of us gamely shaking our fists at a media landscape that gets crueler, dumber, and less “awesome” by the day. On second thought, tell the EIC we need the exclamation point. And see if we can sneak a swear word past the schmucks who run the magazine. The only coverline that works today is: “FUCK!”