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

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

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.

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 earlierinvestigative 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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.