In one of his first staff meetings as the new CEO of Sports Illustrated, in early October, Ross Levinsohn laid out a bold vision for the iconic sports magazine. SI would continue to publish ambitious journalism, he said, while blanketing the country with an army of “credentialed” journalists covering every major pro and college team.
SI would be hiring soon, Levinsohn said, and he urged the staff to tell their friends to apply. The employees were dumbfounded: Levinsohn’s company, Maven, had just bought the rights to publish SI, and around 40 people, more than a third of the staff, had been laid off in the deal. The employees’ friends had just lost their jobs.
Two months later, the gap between Maven’s bold vision for SI and the grim reality inside the newsroom has only grown, according to interviews with 10 current employees and eight more who recently left the magazine.
Key SI staffers continue to leave. At least two new Maven beat writers already stopped writing for their sites, after embarrassing incidents. And last month, according to a written complaint viewed by The Washington Post, a new video editor dangled a trip to the annual swimsuit-edition photoshoot to a staffer as a reward for good work.
While Maven executives talk grandly about opening offices in Santa Monica and London, New York employees said they haven’t been told where the company’s offices will be next year. A skeleton crew of editors remains unsure about the specifics of next year’s production schedule. Full-time contractors haven’t been told whether they will be retained beyond January.
Inside the newsroom of the one-time gold standard of sports journalism, it all adds up to a sense of rising uncertainty about SI’s future, staffers said, and a long-shot hope that Maven could be replaced as the magazine’s publisher.
“I hope my former colleagues are locating the life jackets on the ship,” said former senior NFL writer Jonathan Jones, who was part of the layoffs and now works for CBS. “I don’t know how you can have confidence in the future.”
Presented last week with the staffers’ concerns, Maven founder and CEO James Heckman pushed back.
“What became obvious to us was that [SI’s] most senior, previous leadership team were collecting outrageous salaries but making no effort to compete; they didn’t have the courage or perhaps authority to make even the most obvious decisions, to pivot the strategy,” he told The Post in an email. “We continue to be shocked about the state of the business, as we peel away layers – and so are moving boldly and decisively in parallel. Of course that makes everyone uncomfortable.”
But at the end of a year of closings and consolidations across print and digital media, what’s happening at the magazine amounts to more than transitional discomfort, staffers said. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity, worried that speaking out would jeopardize their current jobs or hurt their chances of finding new ones.
“If a few more key people leave,” one staffer said, “I’m not sure what’s left of SI.”
Maven to the rescue
SI’s ownership odyssey began in 2018, when longtime owner Time Inc. sold the magazine to the publishing giant Meredith Corporation. Meredith, which specializes in female-driven lifestyle brands, sold SI last spring to Authentic Brands Group, a marketing company that licenses the rights to celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and fashion brands like Juicy Couture.
Meredith was expected to continue publishing SI, but ABG changed course and leased the rights to Maven, a three-year-old media company that publishes Yoga Journal, SKI Magazine and finance personality Jim Cramer’s website The Street. Maven agreed to pay $150 million for a 10-year publishing deal, including $45 million up front.
Like many glossies, SI had struggled to transition from print juggernaut to sustainable digital magazine, hemorrhaging staff in the process. Together, ABG and Maven offered a novel rescue plan: While ABG pursued marketing opportunities for the SI brand – monetizing decades of SI covers and photos, licensing the SI name to kids’ sports camps – Maven would expand SI’s digital reach, with hundreds of “affiliate” websites covering pro and college sports teams.
Like at SB Nation and similar blog networks, the Maven site operators are independent contractors. They start with low base pay and no benefits, though the company officials say they can make more if they drive traffic and ad sales.
“We’ve learned over the last few decades running sports properties that nothing is more important to fans, than breaking news on their favorite team and SI forfeited that entire space,” Heckman wrote. “That alone told us their staff was misallocated and being mismanaged.”
The strategic shift has already paid some dividends, according to SI’s co-editors in chief, Steve Cannella and Ryan Hunt, both veteran editors of the magazine. Monthly page views are up from 17 million to more than 20 million since Maven re-engineered SI’s famously stodgy website, reducing load time and helping SI content appear higher in Google searches, they said in an interview.
The editors also highlighted the recent hiring of Pat Forde, a prominent national college sports writer from Yahoo, and pointed out that many of SI’s best-known writers remain, including Tom Verducci, Chris Ballard and Jon Wertheim.
“Five, seven years ago, SI had the top guy in every single sport up and down. We want to get back to that,” Hunt said. “That was the rationale behind bringing on Pat when we did. In college football, we need the national premium voice. That’s where we want to be.”
They also touted what they described as a multi-million dollar investment Maven has made in the print magazine, including better paper stock and a redesign scheduled for summer. Maven’s new chief revenue officer, Avi Zimak, previously with New York Media, said the 300-some publishers on Maven’s platform draw more than 100 million monthly unique visitors, a large audience he said is attractive to advertisers.
“Add the premium with the local coverage and you improve the digital experience,” Hunt said. “That’s compelling.”
The scoop that wasn’t
So far the optimism at the top has failed to trickle down to the staff, particularly when it comes to the promise of quality on the Maven sites.
An October story on Irish Maven, which covers Notre Dame, was so poorly written that it served as the opening to one eulogy for SI. A high school student answered a Twitter call-out for Cincinnati Bengals writers and started filing stories for no pay; after a local newspaper ran a story about him, he was barred from writing about the team, he told the New York Post.
Earlier this month, a writer for Trojan Maven landed what seemed like an SI-worthy scoop, reporting that Southern California football coach Clay Helton would be fired. But his story was promptly refuted by Forde, his new colleague. Forde was right: Helton kept his job. The Trojan Maven writer no longer writes for the site.
Hunt and Cannella said those writers joined Maven’s network before it took over SI, and that protocols have since changed: They now approve all new site operators. But they acknowledged that posts are still published without being reviewed by SI editors. And there still appears to be at least one high school writer in Maven’s network.
Efforts to find slightly more experienced writers have brought their own clumsiness. According to two people with knowledge of the outreach, Maven has asked the spokespeople in college athletic departments – the institutions SI is supposed to be covering – to recommend potential hires. According to one journalist, who covers Oklahoma football for a local newspaper, a Maven recruiter didn’t seem to know what state he worked in.
Inside the SI offices, morale is deteriorating, staffers said. A number of video journalists were recently moved to the headquarters of The Street, staffers said, only to discover that there weren’t enough computers – and that most of them didn’t have video-editing software. The magazine editing staff – story editors, designers and photo editors – is down to around 10, about a third of what it was in 2014, when the magazine was weekly, according to two staffers who did a masthead tally. The entire copy editing staff, eliminated in the October layoffs, worked their last days this month.
And experienced journalists keep leaving, including college football writer Andy Staples, NBA writer Rob Mahoney, editors Matt Dollinger and Eric Single, and NFL writer Robert Klemko. (Klemko now works for the Washington Post.)
“SI was a dream job for me, but the environment became toxic,” said Bailey Carlin, a former social media producer who left SI in October, after the layoffs. “It was somber, depressing and hostile. People just started openly looking for other jobs.”
The turmoil has SI staffers doing what journalists do during periods of uncertainty: digging. They’ve read about the conflict at Scout, Heckman’s previous sports website, where a group of investors sued him for misleading them about the company’s finances and misusing company funds. The case was settled. Heckman said the lawsuit was the work of a hostile board.
SI staffers have also pored over financial filings and news reports that raise red flags about Maven’s finances. Those include a 2018 SEC filing that said “the company does not have sufficient resources to fully fund its business operations through June 30, 2020.”
The company has raised money since then, and Heckman said forthcoming SEC filings would reassure staffers. But for now, those staffers said, there’s enough concern about the company’s financial footing that they’ve discussed among themselves whether they will be reimbursed for out-of-pocket expenses. (Company credit cards are coming soon, Cannella said, adding that he’s seen no reason to doubt Maven’s finances. “There was more penny pinching under previous owners,” he said.)
The flagging morale has been made worse, staffers said, by at least one accusation of inappropriate behavior. According to a human-resources complaint obtained by the Washington Post, a new editor in charge of video, hired by Maven this fall, offered a producer trip to a swimsuit-issue photo shoot, as a reward for good work. The producer could “enjoy the scenes” at the shoot, the editor said, according to the complaint.
The incident was especially troubling given what SI staffers describe as a long-standing separation between the lucrative swimsuit edition and the rest of the magazine. Levinsohn’s track record only made it worse, staffers said. He’s been a defendant in two sexual harassment lawsuits, NPR revealed last year, accused of fostering a crude frat-boy culture during his time at the search engine Alta Vista and NewsCorp. Both cases were settled. Tronc, Levinsohn’s employer at the time the settlements were unearthed by NPR, cleared him of wrongdoing.
Hunt, the SI editor, said the swimsuit-shoot incident is under investigation.
“We are completely committed to making sure this is a safe and comfortable place for all of our employees,” he said. “Around swimsuit or anything else.”
‘We’ve put them on notice’
Oddly, the situation has some Sports Illustrated staffers wondering whether enough embarrassment might cause owner ABG to consider revoking Maven’s license to publish SI. Without a healthy Sports Illustrated, the thinking goes, ABG might struggle to monetize the SI brand. ABG executives have had conversations with SI staffers about their concerns, multiple sources said.
“How can you leverage the brand of SI when it’s the laughingstock of the industry?” asked one staffer.
In an interview this week, ABG chief executive Jamie Salter said he “absolutely can” revoke Maven’s publishing license if the SI brand is being damaged. But so far the company has met its contractual obligations, he said. Maven paid upfront for three years of the license, Salter said, and hasn’t stopped putting out a magazine. It’s doing a “great job,” he said.
“I love Ross, and James isn’t a people person, but neither was Steve Jobs. He’s a savant, you know?” Salter said. Of the HR complaint, Salter said, “It’s a stupid comment but is an HR complaint a breach of contract? No.”
ABG can only pull Maven’s publishing license if the contract is breached, both companies agreed. Still, ABG is watching Maven closely, Salter said.
“We’ve put them on notice on things that aren’t proper and said, ‘You need to fix them,'” he said. Asked about SI staffers’ concerns about permanent damage to the brand, he said: “We will not let it get there. We’re not scared to take s— back. … If they screw it up, we’ll put it in the hands of a serious executive.”
Salter later called back to emphasize that Maven is in compliance with its ABG contract. He went on to say that SI is getting ready to launch a sportsbook bar and grill and a betting website next year that will partner with a gambling operator. The company has three big Super Bowl parties already planned, he said.
“We have to become a lifestyle brand,” Salter said, adding: “Whether I like James Heckman doesn’t matter to the story, which is digitizing the business. And good things are happening.”