Mr. Fix-It for
Us's Terry McDonell hires on as managing editor
By Carl Bialik
If it ain't broke, don't fix it, was long the mantra of Sports Illustrated. The question until a few weeks ago was, Is SI broken?
The question today is, Never mind whether SI is broken, how will it be fixed?
With longtime editor Bill Colson out, the powers at Time Inc. are expected to announced that Terry McDonell, editor in chief of Wenner Media's Us Weekly, will become the sports weekly's new managing editor.
McDonell, a longtime Mr. Fix-It for Jann Wenner, will come in with the mandate of sprucing up the magazine under the direction of John Huey, Time Inc.'s editorial director since last July.
Readers can expect the makeover to be substantial, given the dramatic makeover Huey himself performed on Fortune before rising to editorial director.
Along the hallways of Time Inc., Huey is well-regarded as an innovative editor whose southern ways barely disguise his impatience with those who resist his direction.
According to SI insiders, it was Huey's incessant meddling that drove Colson to resign abruptly a few weeks ago.
For years, SI had operated as a very separate fiefdom in the Time Inc. chain of being, where its success as the nation's dominant sports publication insulated it from both control and criticism.
Colson was every inch the old-style SI editor, having risen through the ranks over some 24 years on the magazine. Colson will leave after the winter Olympics.
Just what needs to be fixed at SI is open to question.
But it would seem a sure bet that the magazine that emerges from the McDonell-Huey makeover will be younger and hipper in look and feel and more in line with other Time Inc. titles, such as People and Time itself.
It will also likely be sassier, with shorter articles.
Arguing against change certainly is SI's rather substantial position in the market, with its three-million-plus subscribers, healthy profits and continued dominance of the sports-magazine niche, as well as the three National Magazine Awards won during Colson's six-year tenure.
However, a number of Time Inc. executives are worried about the magazine's aging subscribers.
ESPN The Magazine, launched less than four years ago, has seen its circulation shoot up to 1.5 million by adopting a hipper tone than Sports Illustrated. ESPN crossed into profitability in its third year, and continues to make money (Walt Disney Co., ESPN's parent company, does not release profit numbers).
And SI, while still profitable, may be less so.
SI's profits were in line with People's in the late '80s, but now People makes three times as much, according to one recently published report.
John Skipper, general manager of ESPN The Magazine, damns SI with his praise. "I grew up with the magazine; it used to be my favorite magazine," Skipper says. "They have terrific writers, great stories. It's great for a 46-year-old like me.
"Most 26-year-olds find ESPN the Magazine to be more provocative, more in line with their expectations."
There's the rub for SI; its average reader's age is 37, while ESPN's is 31. Skipper says the average age of SI's readers has increased each year over the last decade.
The magazines' differences help explain the age disparity. Where SI will run an eight-page story in a sophisticated narrative style, ESPN will run two pages of text surrounded by space-age design elements and charts. SI publishes weekly and carries in-depth analysis of games and teams, while ESPN publishes every other week and profiles athletes as celebrities.
Skipper also thinks that SI, with its investigative features and occasionally moralistic tone, sometimes comes off as anti-sports. "ESPN The Magazine reads like it's written by a bunch of guys who love sports," Skipper says. "Much of Sports Illustrated reads like a bunch of guys who think athletes make too much money, the game isn't as pure as it was, there's too much sports on TV, and so on."
This dichotomy should not be overstated, however. ESPN occasionally runs features, and many former SI writers now write for the cable-network's magazine.
SI, meanwhile, has shown a willingness to change in recent years, including adding a sports-TV section called The View, and, most prominently, revamping its front-of-the-book Scorecard section. The redesign, spearheaded by editor Albert Kim, formerly of Time Inc.'s Entertainment Weekly, added sass to the section's tone.
One addition to Scorecard was a weekly sports-gossip column called "The Beat," a true sports-entertainment crossover.
In fact, the changes even under Colson's watch were enough to alienate long-time writer Leigh Montville, who left the magazine last year. "[Time Inc. executives] keep trying to make the magazine younger, zippier, more like People," Montville says. "I'm sure Colson's departure is only going to exacerbate that."
Current and former SI editorial staffers mostly revile The Beat and some of the other changes, but they also point to Scorecard's redesign as proof that SI can adjust nimbly without an overhaul by an outsider to the magazine.
"I think it's a really good magazine; I think the writing is crisp and the editors are smart people," a source at SI says. "The worst thing you could do is come in, and in the name of cool, turn it into something that it's not."
An SI staffer says, "I have no problem with tweaking things, but I don't think an overhaul is necessary."
But an overhaul is just what, according to some, Time Inc. editorial director John Huey intends to do; Huey could not be reached for comment for this article. Huey had turned around Fortune and Money with major changes before being named to his new position last July. As editorial director, he has set his sights on SI.
Colson officially left the magazine where he had worked for 24 years to spend more weekend time with his wife and kids. But unofficially it is clear that his decision was partly prompted by Huey's increasingly prominent role within the magazine.
Colson chafed under budget cuts and, more seriously, kills of stories by Huey. "Huey, in an email to Colson late on Sunday night, killed a Steve Rushin column," the SI staffer says. "The message was, there's nothing you can do. I'm killing it. He came in very heavy-handedly, saying [Time Inc. editor-in-chief] Norman Pearlstine is with me on this." (Pearlstine has said it was he who killed the story.)
Huey also annoyed some at the magazine by convening focus groups of subscribers and nonsubscribers. From the results of the focus groups, Huey concluded SI needed a new, livelier direction, according to one report.
"I don't have a problem with focus groups, I just have a problem with putting everything into paying attention to those," an SI staffer says. "They've gone to the extreme of paying more attention to what one 17-year-old kid says, as opposed to people who have been in the business for years."
Late last year, Huey dined with four West Coast writers. According to an SI staffer with knowledge of the conversation, "Huey came in and was ripping Colson, and was encouraging [the writers] to do the same, to give him ammunition."
The writing was on the wall soon after, according to the SI staffer. "Apparently there was a meeting last month among top people in the magazine in which Huey did all the talking, and Colson did not say a word," the staffer says. "And at that point people were like, he's gone.
"Still, I was kind of surprised that it would all transpire so quickly."
Indeed, while there were clearly problems between Colson and Huey, it seems no one expected Colson to leave when he did. Probably no one expected the departure less than the company's executives, who had no successor to announce at the time of Colson's announcement on Jan. 14 and who still would not confirm McDonell's appointment on Monday.
That begs the question of just what is in store for the magazine. Is Huey really looking to revamp the venerable SI and turn it into an ESPN clone, or is he looking to make other changes? One guess is that Huey is concerned that SI has been focusing too much on the major sports in recent years and that he intends to broaden its focus.
The appointment of McDonell, if true, suggests big changes are in store. He has one foot planted firmly in the sports world, another in the entertainment world; while McDonell has edited at Outside and Sports Afield, he has also worked at Esquire and Rolling Stone.
To the extent that the relaunch of Us Weekly, undertaken two years ago, has been a success, it is largely due to McDonell's pragmatism in trying out a variety of editorial angles and discarding the ones that don't work.
Such a fluid approach may be just the thing for a semi-ossified magazine like SI.
Still, the thought of an outsider being tapped for the job has had old-school SI-ers like Montville worried. "I'm thinking some guy 35 years or younger will come in and give it more of a hip-hop feel, jump it to a different demographic," he says.
Skipper thinks choosing a non-sports guy would be a mistake. "You openly have to love sports" to edit SI, he says.
Jay Lovinger, an ESPN.com consultant and a former editor at SI, also thinks an outsider like McDonell would face a formidable challenge.
"It's an extremely difficult magazine to run," he says. "There is a long, embedded culture. For somebody to come in from outside and not only run the thing but try to make changes, that's a pretty forbidding situation."
Still, Lovinger cautiously recommended a course for the new editor.
"To me the way to go would be both to modernize it by being more hip, and also going back to what made it such a wonderful magazine before: longer, well-written pieces," Lovinger says.
"It's a matter of balance, not a matter of completely revamping the thing."
"I think everybody's apprehensive to see where they're going," the SI staffer says. "There's a chance whoever they bring in could bring some good ideas, be great to work with, and create a really positive experience. I'm holding out that hope."
February 5, 2002 © 2002 Media Life
-Carl Bialik is a New York writer and a regular contributor to Media Life.