Around noon today, SportsIllustrated.com broke its biggest scoop to date: In a first-person essay, as told to SI senior writer Lee Jenkins, Miami Heat star LeBron James announced that he would be returning to his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, next season. The story took a considerably more understated approach than the now-infamous ESPN special that James used to reveal his decision to leave Cleveland for Miami four years ago. (James even touches on the backlash, albeit indirectly, in his SI essay, telling Jenkins, “If I had to do it all over again, I’d obviously do things differently… I’m not having a press conference or a party.”)
We spoke to Sports Illustrated managing editor Chris Stone about the story behind the scoop, how they kept the big news from leaking, and what it means for the SI brand.
Tell me how this story came together. Was Sports Illustrated approached by LeBron’s camp or vice versa?
It was an idea that Lee had been kicking around since the spring. He knew he wanted to do some sort of original story about the next step in LeBron’s career after the [NBA] Finals. I think he had floated the idea to LeBron and to LeBron’s inner circle, and last Saturday, they gave the first indication that they were open to the possibility. It really only became a reality for us yesterday, after Lee had spoken to LeBron in Las Vegas. It was a very low-maintenance process for a very sensitive, high-impact story. All along, our objective was to invest in the explanation behind the story, and we were willing to sacrifice the possibility of breaking the story because we thought that LeBron’s words and his reasons were much more valuable than being first, so the fact that we happened to get both, we feel like we hit the lottery.
How did you manage to keep the news under wraps?
From the start, Lee was very insistent that we not talk much about it. He didn’t even tell me the identity of the team that LeBron had chosen. I only learned about it this morning when he turned in the story. The only thing I wanted to know from the start were are there any conditions, and he established that there were no conditions for this story. The fewer people that knew about the story, the fewer people could be disappointed if it all went sideways.
How will you cover this in the magazine?
Lee is doing a story for next week, a third-person story. There are plenty more layers.
Why break the story on SI.com as opposed to in the magazine?
We would have had to hold the story until next Wednesday [when the print magazine comes out], and LeBron had to make up his mind. He couldn’t hold up the free agency process for any longer on behalf of Sports Illustrated. Our biggest stories of the last several years—this story, the Jason Collins story last year—they went up on the Web when they were ready to go up on the Web.
What does it mean to you that LeBron decided to come to Sports Illustrated with his announcement rather than do it on TV like he did four years ago?
We feel great about it because—at least this is what we’ll tell ourselves—they trusted us to tell the story the right way and in the most meaningful way. We weren’t going to turn this into a circus.
How is it doing traffic-wise?
It’s blown every measurement gauge. But it's only been up for four hours now.
In terms of importance, would you say that this is the biggest story you’ve ever broken on the site?
Considering the context of the appetite for this story that’s existed this week, and the tension and the urgency around it, yeah, I think that’s a fair assessment.
What’s the impact for the SI brand?
Reaffirmation and maybe a fresh dose of belief in the power of Sports Illustrated. It’s always going to benefit any media entity to have a story of this magnitude. We’re proud.