“Brandier” and “Printier” – the Evolution of Sports Illustrated

A lot has changed in the world of sports journalism, notes Sports Illustrated’s Editorial Director Chris Stone in an interview with Samir “Mr. Magazine” Husni.

“When I got here in 1992, Sports Illustrated to some degree represented a virtual monopoly on national and global sports coverage, and we had a certain competitive advantage that has been eroded by digital changes, because there’s more great storytelling journalism than there has ever been before because of access to the platforms to tell those stories in journalism,” he explains. “So, we have to accept that we’re now competing in a very cluttered marketplace.”

Standing out amidst the clutter, for Stone, means extended journalistic coverage (“brandier”) and a new more premium feel (“printier”). It also means moving from a weekly to a bi-weekly printing schedule, to allow for the more in-depth reporting that’s a natural fit for print.

“And on top of that, again, as I mentioned, this is a product, and paper is an essential piece of that product. So, we want to create something that feels more like a premium product in a literal sense. And so, we’re increasing our paper stock by 15 percent. In a year, if we’re having this conversation, I think we’re going to be marveling at what a different product the magazine is, as opposed to what it is now,” he explains.

Meanwhile, we are all still marveling at their 2014 cover that predicted the Astros would win the 2017 World Series. Boom.

And those old print copies from back in 2014? What a collector’s item they are now – in print. Stone recounts that a friend of his wrote (online) back in 2011 that the KC Royals would win in 2015. They did – but there’s not a lot of talk about that prediction.

Why not? Stone explains, “…the reason is very simple; one of the biggest reasons is that the Astros prediction was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. And we are talking about it to the extent we have recently because that prediction was on the cover of a print magazine.”

That physicality of print is something that SI treasures, and will honor, even as the industry around it changes dramatically. As Stone explains, it used to be creating a weekly magazine felt like working at the speed of light.

“Think about it, once upon a time to create a weekly magazine meant that you were really working fast,” he says. “That was a high-velocity product. But in 2017, there’s nobody who is going to suggest that a magazine is a high-velocity product.”

“If you were building a magazine in 2017 from scratch and you said we want to build a weekly magazine because it’s moving at the speed that all of our consumers are, people would laugh at you,” he continues.

This, for Stone, is one of the most dramatic changes he’s seen in the industry in the 25 years he’s been with SI. And it’s influencing the brand’s decision to create scale up the number of editorial pages in the magazine while scaling back to a bi-weekly printing schedule.

This, he believes, will help them create something of even more lasting value, while they continue to use the digital platform for the “up-to-the-minute” demands of sports fans.

“In fact, what we have to create in the magazine is an experience that in some ways better replicates what a monthly magazine does,” Stone explains. “In other words, when the magazine arrives in your hands, the stories that you’ll read in that magazine have to resonate a week later; two weeks later. We can’t just anticipate that every consumer of our magazine, every reader, is going to pick the magazine up from their mailbox on a Thursday or Friday and immediately start reading it. It might lie around for a week or even two weeks, but when that reader does ultimately pick up the magazine it still has to feel fresh.”

Will print continue to be a real and vital part of the sports journalism scene? Just ask the Astros – or the Royals.