At Sports Illustrated's weekly editorial meeting on Thursday, top editor Terry McDonell had some news for the 30 or so staffers assembled. Job cuts were over, he said. (There were 16 departures and three layoffs in all.) And then he said something outwardly innocuous that people at the magazine have been puzzling over ever since: He declared that SI.com editor Paul Fichtenbaum would now be responsible for the long-overdue integration of the print and web staffs.
Now, this is a common enough announcement at a magazine. Everyone wants coordination between the print people and the web people. But SI staffers didn't perceive it as anything ordinary. McDonell was oddly cagey. Different sources glossed his remarks differently, but the ultimate implication was that he would be dialing back his responsibilities, maybe as a prelude to ... well, what, exactly? Was he leaving? Was he rolling out a succession plan? Did this mean Fichtenbaum would be running the whole show? One source who was in the meeting thought so; another wasn't so sure.
We checked in with McDonell who assured us that his announcement was merely stating what's been obvious for a few months now.
"I'm the editor of the Sports Illustrated Sports Group," he told me. "That's what I am."
From what we were able to gather, McDonell will indeed be working less with the weekly magazine. He'll oversee the entire SI family—which includes SI Kids and Golf Magazine—a role that's technically been in his job description for some time, but one he only now seems to be fully inhabiting. It also seems to leave Fichtenbaum with a lot more power and a direct line to formally succeed McDonell whenever he steps down.
McDonell, previously the editor of Esquire and Men's Journal, has been running Sports Illustrated for 10 years, a long run for an editor at Time Inc. In that time the magazine's fortunes have dropped, even relative to the company's other titles, a Time Inc. source tells us. SI used to be the company's second biggest earner—behind only People—but now it finds itself somewhere in the middle of the pack at Time Inc., detached from the sports culture at large in ways that would've been unthinkable a decade ago.
It's possible that McDonell, who is still popular among corporate executives, is angling for a new job, but where might he go? Not long ago, there was talk that he might move upstairs. It's no secret that he once had his eye on Time Inc.'s editor-in-chief job, but the company recently renewed the contract of the current EIC, John Huey.
McDonell also mulled taking over Newsweek two years ago. Sidney Harman, the Newsweek owner who ultimately merged the magazine with Tina Brown's The Daily Beast, couldn't pay him enough, so the talks fizzled out.
Just two months ago, McDonell, in his late 60s, was inducted into the Magazine Editors' Hall of Fame. In his induction speech, he sounded like someone with a lot left in the tank:
I think being an editor right now is the most interesting time to be an editor because of all the possibilities that are coming.
Change is going to be very, very good especially when the challenge is basically: Change or go home. My response to that is: No fear. Bring it. There is just so much interesting stuff to do.
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