An interview with Chris Stone, Sports Illustrated’s Managing Editor

As a class project, I was assigned to learn about the magazine industry and all its facets (editorial, advertising, creative) by profiling one national magazine. A subscriber since 2004, I picked SI. Here’s the first part of my three-part series from interviews with the people who create one the world’s best sports magazines — and why those same people want you stop thinking about it as just a magazine.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Here’s Chris Stone:

On the challenges and goals of his job as Managing Editor…

… I spend a lot of my time figuring out how we’re going to convert our legacy, our tradition and what’s made us SI for 60 years on to new platforms. In some ways, the larger of my two jobs is making sure that we’re reaching people in the way (we have) for a long time because we have a lot more competition now than when I first got here in 1992. I’m not talking about just converting stories that ran in the magazine on to a website. That’s easy. There’s nothing to that. It’s creating the experience of Sports Illustrated, which traditionally was a weekly experience, into a daily experience, an hourly experience, into a real-time experience. If you’re engaging with Sports Illustrated, whether through SI.com or iPad or mobile or PC, we just want people to feel like they’re getting Sports Illustrated-level content whenever they want it, which means throughout the week rather than once-per-week appointment viewing.

On balancing the tradition of SI’s print issue with the need for constant content and quality…

We were a weekly magazine because once upon a time that was the most efficient way to disseminate our stories, our journalism, our content. But now that we have the ability to give it to people all the time, why wouldn’t we? We don’t want it to feel like, ‘OK. There’s this magazine that’s one thing and then here’s all our other, non-magazine content.’ We don’t want people to be so caught up in delivery systems. We don’t want people to make those distinctions anymore. And I understand why they still would … But you want people to feel like the quality, the experience, what they’ve been used to on a weekly basis for 61 years that now they’re getting it much more frequently than that in 2015. That’s what we’re trying to create across the entire franchise. You don’t have to wait for it to come to you every Wednesday or Thursday, but when it does come to you every Wednesday or Thursday, we still want it to feel special. But we want to fill in all those days in between with Tom Verducci and Peter King and Seth Davis and Grant Wahl.

On what Sports Illustrated does best…

Tell stories. Tell stories that nobody else tells.

On making decisions with web traffic potential in mind…

Unlike print, and TV to a fair degree, you can measure reader and engagement so precisely that now it’s essential to our business. Traffic is the first thing that’s discussed when they’re selling the website to generate revenue against it. You could walk by any office here at any point in the day and there’s a good chance you’ll see someone at least passively monitoring traffic patterns. When we make investments going forward, we’re thinking: ‘What kind of audience does this generate for us?’ Just because of the ability to access precise data and at the insistence of our advertisers, for one, to know that data, it’s something that we closely monitor.

On the iPad edition…

It’s beautiful. I love it. I just wish we had more scale with that. I don’t know that people use the iPad for once-per-week appointment viewing. Honestly I think the iPad was more designed to replace and compete with television than it was to compete with, or create, new forms of publishing. The New York Times and The New Yorker are doing a great job with it (as well). It’s a great mobile experience. It just hasn’t gotten to the scale we thought it’d be at when we first designed the app.

On bringing SI’s best writers to its readers more often…

We once had no choice. We could only give you (our best writers) once per week. So we gave it to you once per week and we became accustomed to that. But now we don’t have to do that anymore. We can give them to you hundreds of days per year and several times per day. Take two of our most-well known writers, Tom Verducci and Peter King. Especially Peter. When they’re producing, they’re producing far more words — and images; they do a lot of video, both of them — they’re producing far more content digitally in the course of the year than they are in the magazine. The reason they’re (on SI.com) is because we can give you Tom Verducci and Peter King more than once per week. We can give you them every day at certain points in the year. If you had a choice between Tom Verducci once per week and Tom Verducci every day — especially now that we’re in October — which would you choose?

On the possibility of Sports Illustrated going online-only…

We don’t know if that’s going to be in 10 years or 20 years or 50 years, but we do know it’s going to happen. (Online is) how people consume it. It’s a blind man question. As long as a large audience still wants the magazine, we’re going to publish the magazine. But we’re going to be very aggressive in converting the print product into a digital product because we know that day is going to happen. … We’re already operating under this (online-only) thought. We try to give people the SI experience every day (online) … But it’s going to be the same stories and the same quality. As long as that holds true, this won’t be something that we dread.

On staying in print…

For now, there remains a considerable demand for the Sports Illustrated, paid print product so you’d be silly to just say, ‘Let’s just go all digital now.’ Think about it. If Deadspin knew that it could push out a paid print product — and I’m just using Deadspin as an example of a digital news franchise — if they could push out a paid print product that generated them millions in incremental revenue then of course they would do it. But they’re starting from a digital place. We’re starting from a place where we have this print product that’s existed for a long time and there’s a demand for it and the infrastructure is in place to create it. So we’re going to keep doing it. But if you’re asking me from a business standpoint, we’re just following a very aggressive 21st-Century media model, but we’re also trying to maximize efficiency of that model. I hate to sound like a CFO, but you know what I’m saying.

On focusing on quality rather than delivery…

That’s what we work toward here because we have more quality stories, photos and journalism than we know what to do with. That would never fit into a weekly magazine. We’re taking advantages of the platforms and opportunities to tell our stories on a more regular basis. It’s not an attempt to become younger or hipper or become demo-obsessed, you know? I think quality is demo-agnostic. I look at something like (ESPN’s documentary series) “30 for 30.” It’s a history story. It’s something that happened 15, 20, 30 years ago, but my 14-year-old son loves watching them. If you ask him what he thought of history, he’d probably say, “Ew,” but that’s a classic example of something that works across demos. You’re not just trying to reach 18- to 34-year-olds. You’re going to hit everybody with quality. And that’s what we want to do.

On preparing for, and transitioning into, the future…

You’ve done something one way for a long time and done it really, really well. You don’t just abandon it, but you find that right balance of, ‘OK, even as we’ve accepted the future of Sports Illustrated isn’t going to be built on the back of print, but print is still immensely valuable to a lot of people, so how do we develop a modern Sports Illustrated without compromising on what’s made us who we are?’ … We still have three million subscribers. When I got to Sports Illustrated in 1992, we had 3.2 (million). I like to hold things. I still have subscriptions to multiple magazines, but … it’s a decidedly different era of media. (Your generation) expects, and is accustomed to, things a different way. (So we) find room between new franchises that don’t necessarily work so well in the pages of the magazine. The way we can leverage video, like Extra Mustard, which is popular online. That’s hard to convert to a print platform. We’re creating verticals digitally, with Monday Morning Quarterback most notably and now Campus Rush. We do Planet Fútbol, which is soccer and global. You can’t get Sports Illustrated abroad so you have to work hard to find it. There’s opportunities to expand ourselves and stretch ourselves out. And that’s how I spend my time now, not thinking of Sports Illustrated as a weekly, but as a daily, hourly, up-to-the-minute experience.

On how SI broke LeBron James’ return to Cleveland

We have a great NBA writer (Lee Jenkins) who was determined to tell the story of this decision in a new way. He believed that when he came to me in April 2014 that it was first a possibility that we could get LeBron to do “The Decision” a second time around in Sports Illustrated. I was skeptical. In part because I didn’t think (LeBron would) want to revisit anything with the word “Decision” associated with it because of the backlash at his announcement in 2010 in Miami. Number two is like, he made that announcement on television, which is still the most powerful medium out there, in front of a national audience. Here he was going to tell the story, well, through our magazine or through our website. Those are both considerable forces, but at the same time they’re not television. But it was more thinking that he just didn’t want to go through this process again. He was criticized for it and we kept at him. When (Jenkins) told me, it was July 5 I want to say, and he said, “I think this thing is going to happen.” And he’d arranged it with LeBron’s camp that, “You get to tell your story.” There was all this speculation in the media, but nobody knew. There were a lot of anonymous sources citing reasons why he would or wouldn’t make a certain decision. But the one thing nobody had, aside from where he was going, was why he would go to Cleveland or why he would not. That afforded us to get the most comprehensive story possible. That was built on a relationship. That was built on the fact that Lee is a great, great reporter who has trust because he tells it straight and he doesn’t burn them. He knows when to criticize. Most people that work with him feel like they’re being treated fairly and I think that’s the way LeBron felt. And obviously our relationship with LeBron goes way back to 2000 and 2002 when we first put him on our cover. It’s something that means something to him. It’s an organization he trusts, so we got the story. And it felt amazing. Of course it feels amazing. You have something everybody else wants. There aren’t too many of those stories out there, so when you get one, you don’t forget any time soon. The other thing you realize is that, after a few days, everyone’s already moved on. They’re on to the next thing. You only get to soak it up for a little while.

On ESPN…

I pay attention to everything (ESPN does). Very close attention. We have to. We’re competing for the same stories. I don’t watch as much (ESPN) as I used to, but I get (ESPN the Mag) so I’ll try to read every one, to some degree … because one thing that Sports Illustrated gave up a long time ago is that we don’t have a monopoly on all the good stories out there. And that goes beyond ESPN and even traditional media. Even the very best stories are told in new media on something like a Deadspin or a Vox or SB Nation or individual blogs. There’s more good sports writing and there’s more good sports storytelling than there’s ever been. Then again, because of the volume, there’s also more bad sports writing than there has ever been. I think that not every one of our stories is great, but I think our ratio is pretty strong. But like I said, we don’t have a monopoly. I see stories in other places all the time and I say, “Boy, I really wish we had that story.”

On which recent stories he wishes Sports Illustrated had…

An ESPN story recently was the Fainaru brothers on Chris Borland. That was a great story. Sometimes you see a story and you say, (“I wish we had that”) — and it happens a lot more now than it used to. There are so many good writers out there who are taking advantage of the opportunities and are leveraging all these platforms.

On his unsolicited, written apology to SI readers about the Manti Te’o hoax…

Now we’re going back. Listen, we got the story wrong. Whether or not there were other people who got it wrong—I don’t really care. I care about us and who we’re reaching. You can’t say: Well, everybody else made this mistake and that makes me feel good. It was a cover story. We got duped like everybody else and I felt that we needed to own that fact. Would it have felt worse if we were the only ones who were duped? Sure. But the point is … we couldn’t view it in the context of how many other people made the mistake. When readers come to SI, they expect that they can believe (the stories). But this is a story that we got wrong, and it’s OK. It’s not something we gnashed our teeth over for a long time afterward. But when something like this happens, you apologize and move on. I don’t think I overly apologized there. Readers pay money to read Sports Illustrated. To get readers to pay for any content these days is a big deal. They put their trust us and it was a small violation of trust. I don’t want to overstate it. You acknowledge it, apologize and move on. I haven’t thought of Te’o a whole helluva lot since then.

On creating Sports Illustrated’s voice….

You want to give the reader a lot of different voices. If you’re looking for a common denominator, you want to be smart and thoughtful, but there’s a danger where every writer starts to sound the same. If you isolated their voices, you’d say, “Oh, this is really good,” but when there’s five of the same people who write the exact same way, then I think it detracts from the magazine or Web site. You want balance in the magazine. … You don’t want to sound like you’re in an echo chamber.

On hiring writers…

(Our) last hire was Greg Bishop. He’s a Syracuse guy too. What I like about Greg — and he’s a very good writer who’s still finding his voice — is that he always looks in interesting corners for stories. Almost every story he turns in, I’m surprised by something in that story. I don’t come away from a story saying, “Yeah, this is well-written, but I felt like I knew all this.” With Greg, he’s really good at probing those corners where most people don’t look. And Lee Jenkins, among all writers, I think is the very best at that. But that’s what I’m looking for: People who’re going to tell me something that I don’t already know and tell it in a way that I hadn’t really thought about. Reporting itself is the most important skill. You’ll find your voice as a writer, but what gives great stories their shape and their depth is their reporting.

On curiosity…

Read Tom Verducci’s story that he did about Pete Rose this summer. Just there’s a curiosity that Tom had. He stretched himself on that story. He didn’t say, “Oh, I have access and I’m going to sit in the car with Pete Rose and he’s going to say some interesting things.” Really, when he went to those small towns between Vegas and southern California, there was a real curiosity that he tied into the story in a very natural way. You can’t teach (curiosity). Scott Price, his byline is S.L. Price, but he has that same curiosity about people. It’s not just enough to get the person. It’s important to mine something fresh from these people.

On what he wanted to change when he became the ninth Managing Editor in SI’s history in 2009…

I didn’t want people to think of the magazine as the varsity and the .com as the JV. There was a notion that all of the best stories, and all of the best talent, would funnel into the magazine alone. We’re going to create a great magazine, and I never questioned our ability to do that, but I believe that if a story works right away that we should put it up online because it’s topical. And because, why hold it any longer? We should put it up. We should be, to some degree, platform-agnostic. I think (when I took over) we were still thinking that what we judged or labeled as the best stories that magazine gets first dibs on them.  We should just be creating great stories consistently, weekly, and those will just fill the magazine every week. And we do fill the magazine easily every week. But it goes back to taking some of your biggest personalities—your faces of the franchise—like Peter King, Verducci and Grant Wahl and saying, “We want these people in front of our consumers as frequently as possible.” And it’s been reflected. Verducci produces 15 to 20 gold stories for us each year in the magazine and that’s great, but he also produces dozens of other great stories online throughout the rest of the year. And that’s the way it should be. Those guys are the model for what we all want Sports Illustrated to look like.

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and the sound Kanye makes in his songs, which he thinks is spelled “HAAH.” He’s not a fan of grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at sam.fortier@yahoo.com. 

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One thought on “An interview with Chris Stone, Sports Illustrated’s Managing Editor

  1. Pingback: An interview with Danny Lee, Sports Illustrated’s New York Executive Advertising Sales Director | Purely For Sport

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