Perhaps the saddest moment in sports journalism came just weeks ago, on Oct. 30, when ESPN killed Grantland, its boutique sports-and-pop-culture site created to satiate megastar Bill Simmons (Sandomir, 2015). But, it was the not the most unforeseen plug-pull because, simply, Grantland wasn’t profitable because it employed around 50 people and brought in only $6 million in yearly revenue (Travis, 2015). Plus, personality conflicts between Simmons and ESPN management (Miller, 2015).
Still, Grantland’s shuttering is indicative of the upheaval of sports journalism — and journalism in general — at this moment. Money, right now, isn’t in the industry, Stone said, mostly because nearly all journalistic outlets are on an antiquated revenue model which relies heavily on advertising dollars, which rely heavily on page views (Van Meter, 2015). With social media (mostly Twitter), the democratization of the writing on the Internet (anyone can create MyHotTakes.com; I did in high school) and the new 24/7/365 news cycle, those page views spread out over the multitudes of landing sites offering news and opinion. The decrease in page views makes a site less valuable, which means the company earns less on ad sales, which makes the company less profitable, leading to downsizing then reduced production because of a smaller staff then a reduction in credibility because it can’t cover as much.
These major journalism issues (revenue generation, online vs. print, readers, staffs) may be doomsday scenarios but the fact remains: It’s nearly impossible to get whimsical readers to one site consistently (Mitchell, 2015). So how do magazines like Sports Illustrated, which formerly relied on circulation numbers, get people to realize it’s not just a magazine? “We don’t want people to be so caught up in delivery systems,” Stone said (Stone, 2015). “I understand why they would, but … it’s my job now to get people not thinking of Sports Illustrated as a weekly, but as a daily, hourly, up-to-the-minute experience through our Web site.” Stone focuses on bringing his readers, essentially, what they want. It doesn’t sound like a complicated task, but it is.
While adapting to the web, there’s a consumer base of three million subscribers (down from 3.2 million in 2009, he said, which isn’t bad, considering a recession was sandwiched in there) for which to account and provide stellar content. He does this by featuring his reader’s favorite writers online more, bringing the media ever-hungry “goat,” as S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications dean emeritus David Rubin puts it. That goat is always there, perpetually wanting new news and angles and stories. So Stone makes additional content available online for magazine subscribers, creates video and launches focused verticals to target specific readers. (SI just launched “Campus Rush,” a section of its Web site devoted to college sports.) He said a lot of what he does isn’t defined and involves constant thought — if it were easy he wouldn’t have a job. But he said they are issues I should consider. The job of sports journalists is to solve these problems, the largest of his right now being how to balance magazine production with online proficiency.
“You don’t just abandon (print),” Stone said. “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 … how do we develop a modern Sports Illustrated without compromising on what’s made us who we are?’”
Stone said that last part softly, at almost a whisper. He wasn’t asking me to answer.