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Sports Illustrated: Making The Entire Brand A Much “Brandier” Experience And The Print Magazine A Richer, More “Printier” Component – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Chris Stone, Editorial Director, Sports Illustrated.

October 30, 2017

“A friend of mine recently wondered; he had written a story in 2011, which prophesized that the Kansas City Royals would win the World Series in 2014, which turned out to be true, and is actually one step further ahead than where the Astros stand right now. The Astros haven’t won the World Series yet. And yet my friend was openly wondering on social media recently why more people hadn’t paid attention to that particular prediction, as opposed to the Astros prediction, which actually hasn’t come to full fruition yet. And 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, and if it wasn’t on the cover of a print magazine, it would not be the same discussion.” Chris Stone…(On the Houston Astros cover that SI ran in 2014 and has been a hotbed of discussion recently)…

Sports Illustrated has been the go-to source for everything that is “sports” for over 60 years. The brand’s coverage of all types of sports is a trusted source for enthusiasts who want to get that deeply immersive print experience and those who want to get their scores quick and clean online. From the ink on paper magazine to Si.com, Sports Illustrated always has and still does reflect some of the best journalism in sports.

And with Chris Stone, a 25 year SI vet, who began his career at the magazine as a fact checker and now holds the reins of the entire brand, Sports Illustrated has some new moves on the field for 2018 that will bring a deeper, more premium print experience to its readers and a much larger digital footprint as well.

I spoke to Chris recently and we talked about these new and improved changes that will begin in 2018, starting with a reduction in frequency from a weekly to 26 issues per year, which will allow for some aesthetic changes to the magazine as well, such as an increase of 15 percent in its paper stock. And of course, the continuation of the rich content that SI is known for.

And when it comes to its digital footprint, Chris said new platforms are being explored in order to bring the digital audience a more diverse and varied portal to receive their content, with the goal of giving consumers what they want, when they want it, and how they want it.

As far as their current digital space, he added that SI.com is coming off its best traffic month in the history of the site for September 2017 and according to the September 2017 comScore report, traffic to SI.com (UVs) was up an amazing 62 percent year over year. And October is on track to be an even bigger traffic month for the site. So, it seems SI has found the right playbook for its future and the right man to order up those plays in Chris Stone.

So, without further ado, the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Chris Stone, editorial director, Sports Illustrated.

But first the sound-bites:

On his 25-year journey from Sports Illustrated fact checker to editorial director for the brand: It’s hard to remember what I thought when I was 22-years-old and arrived at Sports Illustrated. I was fairly certain that I wanted to stay a while, whether I anticipated being here 25 years, I’m not sure. But I did want to be around for quite a while, and be able to participate in the evolution of Sports Illustrated in whatever direction it was going.

On how his thought processes switch between all of the different platforms within the brand: The core of what we do, and I anticipate the core of what we’ll always do, will be built around the stories we tell and the journalism that we do. Over my 25 years, the stories and the commitment to those stories, especially the ambitious, longer form stories; the commitment to those things hasn’t changed at all. They’re very much an essential part of our DNA. Now how we get those stories out to our audiences has most certainly changed in a huge way.

On how he feels the brand will evolve with some of the recent changes in frequency and paper upgrades he is making: Much of our reputation over the last 60-plus years has been built on the back of a weekly magazine, so we were creating a premium weekly experience. And once upon a time that seemed like a high-velocity thing. Think about it, once upon a time to create a weekly magazine meant that you were really working fast. 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. In fact, what we have to create in the magazine is an experience that in some ways better replicates what a monthly magazine does.

On whether he feels the industry as a whole, and Sports Illustrated as well, took longer than necessary to realize there needed to be differentiation among its many platforms: I think that’s a fair point. I wish we had done this 10 years ago.

On why he thinks the industry did not implement this type of differentiation 10 years ago: I think that the marketplace was less cluttered and that the foothold magazines had 10 years ago was still pretty strong, with a lot of revenue that was still being thrown off. And when you’re throwing off solid revenue and solid margins, I think a lot of companies, not just within the media industry; it’s hard to recalibrate yourself and anticipate that those margins and revenues might continue to decline. And if you’re still throwing off big profits, I think there’s an inclination not to mess with that.

On how his past decisions as managing editor will impact the brand and his decisions today as editorial director: The goal when I became the managing editor in 2012, in context with my boss, Paul Fichtenbaum and Matt, was to create a more seamless organization, more of a single ecosystem, in which all of the great content that we produced to some degree would be platform agnostic. It’s funny, I was thinking about when I got here in 1992, and all of these great stories would come in a week ahead of time, these great college football stories that were written overnight Saturday and come in on Sunday morning. The same with the NFL Sunday night into Monday morning. And in 1992, imagine if we had the capacity to be able to deliver those stories to our readers immediately?

On the biggest challenge he thinks the brand will face moving forward into 2018 and how he plans to overcome it: The biggest challenge remains economic. There are more good storytelling and journalistic entities out there now than there has ever been, competing for a finite amount of revenue. And that will always remain. And that will remain our biggest challenge going into the new year. Now, the way to combat that and overcome it is to really fortify those new platforms that we’re creating. The digital platforms and the video platforms that enable us to take the best of what we do and reach people the way they want to be reached. And to reach them as quickly as possible.

On some who have compared the recent changes to be implemented at Sports Illustrated to what ESPN does and whether he thinks that’s a fair comparison: No, I think that would be an unfair comparison. I would argue that the fact that there are similar methods that we might be adopting from some of our competitors such as ESPN, it’s not just ESPN that’s adopting that model, it’s all of our competitors out there to some degree that are trying to find a model that happily optimizes the things that they do best. And many of the things that we do best will remain what we do in the magazine.

On whether he’s enjoying his position as editorial director of the SI brand, or he feels as though he has the whole wide world of sports upon his shoulders: No, I don’t feel like I have any particular burden on me, other than the same burden that’s always existed. You don’t stay at a company for 25 years unless you really love what you’re doing. And I’ve been here for 25 years for a reason, and that’s because I love what we’re doing and I love the possibilities that exist. I love the heritage that we have and I love how that heritage enables us to build something bigger and really exciting for our future.

On anything else he’d like to add: Obviously, the future of Sports Illustrated is not going to be built on the back of the magazine, and certainly not the magazine alone. But I’ll tell you a little story that is reflective of why the magazine is a very powerful part of our future in whatever form it takes. A friend of mine recently wondered; he had written a story in 2011, which prophesized that the Kansas City Royals would win the World Series in 2015, which turned out to be true, and is actually one step further ahead than where the Astros stand right now. The Astros haven’t won the World Series yet. And yet my friend was openly wondering on social media recently why more hadn’t paid attention to that particular prediction, as opposed to the Astros prediction, which actually hasn’t come to full fruition yet. And 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.

On what he would have tattooed upon his brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about him: I’ll borrow something from my old boss and mentor, Mark Mulvoy – sometimes right, sometimes wrong; never in doubt.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at his home: Often cooking, while watching a live sporting event.

On what keeps him up at night: Sports Illustrated keeps me up at night.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Chris Stone, editorial director, Sports Illustrated.

Samir Husni: First, congratulations; this is your 25th year at Sports Illustrated.

Chris Stone: It is and thank you.

Samir Husni: You started as a fact checker for Sports Illustrated, and now you’re in charge of the entire brand, not only the magazine, but everything that makes up the Sports Illustrated brand. Can you describe that journey from fact checker to editorial director?

Chris Stone: It’s hard to remember what I thought when I was 22-years-old and arrived at Sports Illustrated. I was fairly certain that I wanted to stay a while, whether I anticipated being here 25 years, I’m not sure. But I did want to be around for quite a while, and be able to participate in the evolution of Sports Illustrated in whatever direction it was going.

I knew from the start that this wasn’t just a job, but it was something that felt very much like an extension of my adolescence. I was doing the same thing that I had been doing pretty much every day since I was seven years old, when I became a sports fan. I was paying attention to sports and I was contemplating what it meant; why we cared about it so much. Why I cared about it so much. So, being here 25 years later, I feel very lucky, and if I could have mapped it out this way, there are worse scenarios that could have unfolded.

Samir Husni: Today, you’ve almost assumed every editorial position conceivable at the brand, at the magazine. You were the managing editor and now you’re the editorial director; how do you shuffle between the changes you’re implementing at the printed magazine; the video facet of the brand and the app? How does your thought processes switch between all of these different platforms within the brand?

Chris Stone: The core of what we do, and I anticipate the core of what we’ll always do, will be built around the stories we tell and the journalism that we do. Over my 25 years, the stories and the commitment to those stories, especially the ambitious, longer form stories; the commitment to those things hasn’t changed at all. They’re very much an essential part of our DNA. Now how we get those stories out to our audiences has most certainly changed in a huge way.

So, if you start with the foundation of great stories and great journalism, and continue doing that, you’ve accomplished one important part of our mission going forward. The harder part, and perhaps maybe even the most essential part, is how are we going to get these great stories and this great journalism in front of as many people as possible?

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. So, we have to accept that we’re now competing in a very cluttered marketplace.

The two things we have to do is continue to tell the best stories and do the best journalism, and to find and build those platforms that help us reach those audiences, because I’m certain that the audience is out there as much as they have evolved over the years, and they still have an appetite for the best, most differentiated content there is. Now, it’s our mandate to find a way to get this to those people.

Samir Husni: One of the things that I read you’re doing as you’re changing the existing platforms and introducing new ones, is decreasing the frequency of Sports Illustrated to 26 times per year, but adding more editorial pages and using better paper for print. How do you feel the brand is evolving with that mix of print and digital in a very cluttered sports marketplace today?

Chris Stone: Much of our reputation over the last 60-plus years has been built on the back of a weekly magazine, so we were creating a premium weekly experience. And once upon a time that seemed like a high-velocity thing. Think about it, once upon a time to create a weekly magazine meant that you were really working fast. 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. In fact, what we have to create in the magazine is an experience that in some ways better replicates what a monthly magazine does. 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.

And the other reason for the frequency change is that the magazine is a product; it is a physical product. And with the changing marketplace, the ability to create a weekly magazine that felt thick, in the way that we remembered Sports Illustrated, was becoming increasingly difficult. So now we have the opportunity to actually create a more premium product on a biweekly basis. It’s not just going to be a single issue of Sports Illustrated; in 2018, it will be 64 to 68 edit pages. Right now it ranges between 48 and 52. So, that’s a pretty substantial change right there.

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.

Samir Husni: Do you think the industry as a whole, and Sports Illustrated too, took longer than it needed to reach that point of realization that in the midst of all this clutter in the marketplace it had to differentiate between the different platforms: print, digital, and everything else that’s being done?

Chris Stone: I think that’s a fair point. I wish we had done this 10 years ago.

Samir Husni: Why do you think the industry did not?

Chris Stone: I think that the marketplace was less cluttered and that the foothold magazines had 10 years ago was still pretty strong, with a lot of revenue that was still being thrown off. And when you’re throwing off solid revenue and solid margins, I think a lot of companies, not just within the media industry; it’s hard to recalibrate yourself and anticipate that those margins and revenues might continue to decline. And if you’re still throwing off big profits, I think there’s an inclination not to mess with that.

Samir Husni: When you became managing editor in 2012, five years ago, before you became editorial director, you seemed to start two tracks; you were investing in the content of the print magazine, having great editorial moments, whether it was the Jason Collins story or the LeBron James piece, and you also invested in the brand’s digital footprint with Matt Bean, who was your managing editor for SI.com, with the MMQB and the SI Edge. You also built the video production unit, which was the first at Time Inc. So, you had all of these things in the making; how did that impact your current decision to go 26 times a year with the print magazine and the other changes that will happen?

Chris Stone: The goal when I became the managing editor in 2012, in context with my boss, Paul Fichtenbaum and Matt, was to create a more seamless organization, more of a single ecosystem, in which all of the great content that we produced to some degree would be platform agnostic.

You referenced Jason Collins and LeBron, but remember those two pieces lived first digitally, and they probably resonated most deeply as digital stories. What we really wanted to do was recognize that we have this extraordinary trove of content that we produce on a daily basis. So, how do we get that in front of as many people as possible?

And obviously, some of that could work in the magazine, but the fact that digital is every day, digital is every hour and every minute; when stories started to come in, we began to evaluate them as to how they could work best for our audience. Are we holding this story to create a better magazine at the expense of what is the best reader experience? If we have a piece of news like LeBron James or Jason Collins, people should be able to access that as quickly as possible.

It’s funny, I was thinking about when I got here in 1992, and all of these great stories would come in a week ahead of time, these great college football stories that were written overnight Saturday and come in on Sunday morning. The same with the NFL Sunday night into Monday morning.

And in 1992, imagine if we had the capacity to be able to deliver those stories to our readers immediately? In other words, on Sunday for college football; on Monday for pro football, rather than requiring them to wait an extra three or four days. Wouldn’t we sign up for that? And so, digital has afforded us that opportunity. Video affords us the ability to tell those great stories we do in documentary format.

Obviously, this resonates with audiences, especially younger audiences, when you look at the success of something like 30 for 30 and that’s what we want to do with our video going forward. We want to recognize that one enduring trait of Sports Illustrated; that there is always going to be great stories and there’s always going to be great journalism. But if we’re not maximizing those stories in journalism by putting them on the best platform, then we’re doing a disservice not just to our readers, but to ourselves.

Samir Husni: What do you think will be the biggest challenge that you’ll have to face as the brand moves into 2018 and how will you overcome it?

Chris Stone: The biggest challenge remains economic. There are more good storytelling and journalistic entities out there now than there has ever been, competing for a finite amount of revenue. And that will always remain. And that will remain our biggest challenge going into the new year. Now, the way to combat that and overcome it is to really fortify those new platforms that we’re creating. The digital platforms and the video platforms that enable us to take the best of what we do and reach people the way they want to be reached. And to reach them as quickly as possible.

Samir Husni: One of your critics suggested that Sports Illustrated was taking a page from ESPN with the changes; would that be a fair comparison?

Chris Stone: No, I think that would be an unfair comparison. I would argue that the fact that there are similar methods that we might be adopting from some of our competitors such as ESPN, it’s not just ESPN that’s adopting that model, it’s all of our competitors out there to some degree that are trying to find a model that happily optimizes the things that they do best. And many of the things that we do best will remain what we do in the magazine.

We have the opportunity, as we’ve already discussed, to create the most premium magazine experience than an SI reader has had in a long time, in at least a decade. At the same time, we have the opportunity to tell the stories in new ways, and just because the platforms are similar to the platforms that competitors are leveraging, the big differentiating piece is, what is it that we are putting on those platforms? What are the stories that we’re telling; what is the journalism that we’re putting on those platforms? That’s what will represent the competitive advantage for Sports Illustrated and what will differentiate us from what our competitors are doing. It’s in the premium natures of that experience.

Samir Husni: Are you enjoying your work today as an editorial director much more than, say, five or 10 years ago? Or do you feel as though you have the whole wide world of sports on your shoulders now?

Chris Stone: No, I don’t feel like I have any particular burden on me, other than the same burden that’s always existed. You don’t stay at a company for 25 years unless you really love what you’re doing. And I’ve been here for 25 years for a reason, and that’s because I love what we’re doing and I love the possibilities that exist. I love the heritage that we have and I love how that heritage enables us to build something bigger and really exciting for our future.

Samir Husni: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Chris Stone: Well, you’re Mr. Magazine™, right? That’s what they call you, correct?

Samir Husni: (Laughs) That’s my trademark, yes.

Chris Stone: I bring that up because I want to make one more point about the magazine and the power of the magazine. Obviously, the future of Sports Illustrated is not going to be built on the back of the magazine, and certainly not the magazine alone. But I’ll tell you a little story that is reflective of why the magazine is a very powerful part of our future in whatever form it takes. Are you familiar with the cover of the Houston Astros that we did three years ago?

Samir Husni: Yes, I am.

Chris Stone: Obviously, recently that has been a big discussion point that we received a lot of attention for. And I can tell you that a friend of mine recently wondered; he had written a story in 2011, which prophesized that the Kansas City Royals would win the World Series in 2015, which turned out to be true, and is actually one step further ahead than where the Astros stand right now. The Astros haven’t won the World Series yet.

And yet my friend was openly wondering on social media recently why more people hadn’t paid attention to that particular prediction, as opposed to the Astros prediction, which actually hasn’t come to full fruition yet. And 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, and if it wasn’t on the cover of a print magazine, it would not be the same discussion. I think we have to recognize that there are parts of the magazine that are always going to be appealing to a broad audience as long as you can continue to deliver topnotch content within that magazine.

I think it’s been a revelation how many people have wanted to talk about that particular prediction. I guarantee you that very few, if any, people would want to talk about that particular story prediction if it had not been on the cover of a magazine. The magazine still represents a point of differentiation, and by extension, a competitive advantage. So, why wouldn’t we feed that competitive advantage, especially when our bosses are giving us the opportunity to create the best print product that we can from a product standpoint in a very long time.

Samir Husni: If you could have one thing tattooed upon your brain that no one would ever forget about you, what would it be?

Chris Stone: I’ll borrow something from my old boss and mentor, Mark Mulvoy – sometimes right, sometimes wrong; never in doubt.

Samir Husni: If I showed up unexpectedly at your home one evening after work, what would I find you doing? Having a glass of wine; reading a magazine; cooking; watching TV; or something else?

Chris Stone: Often cooking, while watching a live sporting event.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Chris Stone: Sports Illustrated keeps me up at night.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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