How Sports Illustrated Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Digital

Way back in the olden days of 2009, Time Inc.’s venerable sporting magazine Sports Illustrated released a video demoing a hypothetical version of the magazine on a tablet computer:

The demo was impressive, especially considering the Apple iPad would not be unveiled for another half a year. Unfortunately, not everyone was impressed. After Apple unveiled the iPad, Steve Jobs came to Time Inc.’s New York offices and met with the editors of some of their biggest magazines. He was asked what he thought of SI’s demo.

“I think it is really, really stupid,” Jobs said. That stung Terry McDonnell, the editor of SI and the Time Inc. sports group.

“I was sad, and we were all kind of stunned,” McDonnell said. “It was not stupid, in fact it anticipated everything he was doing.”

Speaking at the Mashable Media Summit in New York on Friday, McDonnell explained how he and his team transformed an iconic print brand into a brand across all platforms. The tablet demo, which was not far off from what the company released for the iPad, is a textbook example of how even at old media companies, there are opportunities to think outside the box.

McDonnell recounted that after he was tasked with transforming the magazine, including bringing together print and digital, he shared with employees a quote from Machiavelli, which read in part: “For he who innovates will have for enemies all those who are well off under the old order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under new.”

McDonnell asked his employees to take that quote to heart as they sought to reshape the magazine. The old order was very much in charge at the time, as McDonnell recalled what the website was like.

“The website was in Atlanta then, it was treated like red-headed step-cousins,” he said. “Whoever annoyed the manager in meetings was assigned to the website.”

He ended up moving the site back to New York, and integrated editorial between the magazine and site. The result brought about drastic changes, that he says have helped SI remain competitive in today’s multi-platform environment.

“Ultimately it led to an integration across Sports Illustrated that changed many many jobs,” he recalled. “None of us do what we did 15 years ago, there is no one whose job has not changed, and some have changed completely.”

That isn’t to say that the transition was entirely smooth. The first few multimedia efforts were far from perfect, but the fact that they were early adopters gave them an upper hand, McDonnell says.

“I think we were very lucky to be in the first group,” he said. “At the very beginning when we were making those mistakes, it was all so new that there was much forgiveness.”

He presented a slide showing a bulky Swiss Army knife, with every sort of contraption thrown into it.
“We were so tripped out on how cool it would be to add this, and when you get that swiss army knife it is really cool, but you are ever going to use that saw?” he quipped. “We had too many saws. You need to be very hard on yourselves about what you are going to put on there.”

The end result is the SI of today, with a print magazine, website, tablet editions and apps featuring glossy photos, videos and, of course, swimsuits.