At 11:56 p.m. on Sunday night, staffers at Sports Illustrated/Maven received an email titled “A Message from SI Leadership.” The email was an attempt to do some damage control in the wake of a story Deadspin published on Friday, which detailed how SI’s new owners plan to turn the prestigious magazine into a content mill. The email obliquely refers to our story as “some highly inaccurate reporting” before going on to essentially confirm everything we reported.
After a few paragraphs of fluffing up the staff with words like “empower” and “future-proof” and “storytelling” and “unlimited thirst,” the email tries to encourage everyone by promising that change is always difficult but that “the status quo must change.” As we reported on Friday, the method that TheMaven intends to implement—creating a network of hundreds of team sites staffed by underpaid contractors—was, in fact, the status quo in this industry about five years ago. It failed. (If you want to read the entirety of this 2,000-word email, I have pasted it in the comments below.)
New SI executives Ross Levinsohn and James Heckman have still not provided answers to a list of specific questions that we sent to them on Friday and again this morning.
For now, let’s go through some excerpts of the midnight email. One section intends to provide clarity on who will be staffing SI’s new network of team sites:
WON’T THE LOCAL REPORTERS BE BLOGGERS AND FREELANCERS?
No. The partners operating the team-specific destinations are experienced, credentialed journalists. Local journalism hasn’t existed at SI in years, so these are brand new roles.
Later, though, the email clarifies: “These entrepreneurs are independent, third-party businesses that are provided access to Maven’s digital platform to post their content.” Any freelancer can become an LLC by paying a fee. As we reported Friday, Maven is requiring these individuals to register as third-party businesses. This means they will be employees of their own businesses and not of Sports Illustrated, which makes them contractors or, in more colloquial language, freelancers. TheMaven has not responded to questions about why they are using this strategy, but most likely it will save them from being legally liable for what these sites publish.
When we spoke with many former and current employees of Sports Illustrated last week, their problem with this strategy wasn’t just that more people without salaries would be producing stories. Sports Illustrated has always employed freelancers in addition to staff writers. Their fear was also that these stories would not be held to the same ethical, quality, and factual standards that SI is known for. The email tries to allay those fears in sections like this:
In addition, Maven will help extend Sports Illustrated’s reach into local journalism by building a coalition of journalists to cover pro teams and major college programs with skill, tenacity and timeliness to match the best beat reporters anywhere in the industry. This is in addition to—not instead of—the journalism SI has always produced from a national perspective. It cannot be said enough: These are professional, credentialed, on-the-ground-journalists, not stay-at-home bloggers, and we’ve highlighted several in the FAQ below.
But when you look at the kinds of blogs being published on the Maven sites and promoted by Sports Illustrated, it becomes hard to argue that they are of a similar quality to what Sports Illustrated has done in the past. On Saturday night, the main Sports Illustrated twitter account linked to a blog from the Maven vertical, Irish Maven, about the Notre Dame-Bowling Green game. Here is the original lede of that blog. It has since been edited:
Every sportswriter you read and admire has written a hundred paragraphs that are just as illegible as the one above. If you are on a tight deadline, or very exhausted, or pushing through an idea you haven’t quite figured out, it is very, very normal to end up with a lede paragraph like this. But a properly constructed publication, a news organization, has failsafes in place to make sure that writing like this does not get to readers. Even as a freelancer, your piece goes through an editor and a copy editor. There is someone whose job it is to check your story before it goes to the public, and that person is paid a salary. This is done not just to protect the reputation of the writer and publication, but to ensure that readers are being given a quality product.
A few hours after people began to critique the Notre Dame blog on Twitter, Sports Illustrated had deleted their tweet linking to it without explanation.
The last section of the email addresses the editorial workflow of these team sites:
WHO WILL EDIT THE TEAM SITES? WILL THE WORK THERE BE HELD TO SI’S STANDARD?
The short answer to the two questions asked here are “no one” and “no.”
Typing into a CMS, proof-reading, and hitting publish is not the same thing as journalism. But a business model that rewards traffic only, that pushes individuals to churn out blogs without receiving any institutional support or oversight in order to sell them against advertising revenue, demands this kind of work. There is no option for quality when you must work quickly, for little pay, and without an editor or rigorous fact-checking department.
The men who run Sports Illustrated highlight in their email that they are proud of their “stellar core of senior writers and contributors” and go on to name 13 SI staffers who survived last week’s layoffs. These people and other full-time workers will (for as long as they remain at SI) go on producing the same high-quality work they always have. But while they do that, TheMaven will be hard at work pushing out shallow, unedited stories under the Sports Illustrated umbrella, thus tarnishing the prestige that name used to carry.
That’s how all of this is supposed to work, though. Levinsohn and Heckman are just reading from the same playbook that VC investors and other corporate dorks have used for decades. The idea is to scale and dilute, quickly and forcefully enough that money can be made before the consumers of the product have a chance to realize that they are eating shit with a fancy label on it.