Q&A: Sports Illustrated Editor Chris Stone on Scoops, Social and the Swimsuit Issue

Brand's famous midwinter issue hits newsstands this week

Stone fully supports SI Swimsuit’s emphasis on body positivity over the past couple of years. Laura Barisonzi
Headshot of Emma Bazilian

Chris Stone
Current gig Editor in chief of the Sports Illustrated Group (Sports Illustrated, Golf and SI Kids)
Previous gig SI managing editor
Twitter: @SI_ChrisStone
Age 47

Adweek: You joined Sports Illustrated in 1992 as a fact checker. Obviously a lot about the magazine business has changed a lot since then, but would you say are the biggest challenges you’re facing right now?
Chris Stone: When I got here, we were a magazine only. It was pre-digital. From a publishing standpoint, we had a virtual monopoly on national sports coverage. Now, we’re in a competitive field in which there are a lot of great sources for sports content and sports stories. There are a lot of people who do what we do very well, and there’s the additional challenge that a lot of those competitors offering that content for free. That’s naturally going to push us harder to find new ways to demonstrate our competitive advantage.

As managing editor, you landed major scoops like LeBron James’ announcement that he was returning to Cleveland. How do you get athletes to choose SI over outlets like TV or social media to share their stories?
The LeBron thing felt like a small miracle. I was surprised that he even wanted to go to any media outlet beyond his own website. We use the word “legacy” very rarely these days—including within Time Inc.—because we feel that it conveys something that’s old and tired and past its prime, but in this case, legacy was a competitive advantage. I mean, we built up trust with people like LeBron James over 60 years. People still trust Sports Illustrated to tell their stories in an independent way and a in way that’s a lot more satisfying than other outlets. It’s something that we would be crazy not to leverage.

Tell me about the recent decision to reduce the magazine’s print frequency.
In 2017, we effectively have the same number of pages to work with as we did in 2016, but once a month, we will create a special double issue that will be thematic and will go deeper. So rather than sporadically providing that throughout the course of the year, we can provide them regularly.  Our latest research finds that subscribers, on average, spend 73 minutes with each issue, but that’s going down a little bit because there are so many choices out there. I think we can change the rhythm of the magazine schedule without compromising the magazine—in fact, we can make it an even more powerful experience.

What other editorial changes are you bringing to the brand?
We’re really shifting the balance of our content. I think we do longform extraordinarily well, but at the same time, people are consuming our content in a lot of different forms, and we’re really making a push into the original social content space. Done well, it’s every bit as meaningful as a four to six page magazine story—and some would argue more meaningful because we can produce it on a more regular basis. Another important thing is that, for example, when we have an [exclusive] story, people come and see it and they take it to other places to converse about it and engage with it. It’s not just Sports Illustrated that wants to own the story—it’s Time Inc. that wants to own it. So it’s important to control the story, so that people don’t think it was a Bleacher Report story, for example. We’ve done a much better job of that in the last several months.

Ashley Graham covered the 2016 Swimsuit Issue.

The SI Swimsuit Issue hits newsstands this week. Over the past couple of years, the franchise has put an increasing emphasis on body positivity. Is that something readers will see more of?
That’s an initiative and a message that our Swimsuit editor M.J. Day has embraced wholeheartedly and has our full support. I think there had been a very narrow idea of what a Swimsuit model was, and it was both unfair and unflattering. The direction [Day] is taking Swimsuit in is reflective of the way we look at these questions as a broader culture, and it’s absolutely going to continue. In fact, we’re doubling down on the message this year.

It’s pretty fascinating how Swimsuit still holds so much cultural capital after all these years. How has the brand maintained that?
You couldn’t invent the Swimsuit Issue from scratch in 2017 and expect it to grow. It’s become something unmistakable and singular in the industry over the last five-plus decades. What’s enabled the Swimsuit franchise to grow is that it’s not just confined to a magazine anymore, or just putting a bunch of pictures up online. In the last year, we’ve had a big emphasis on live events and creating new content experiences for people. It’s not just a bunch of swimsuit models showing up at a locale and parading across a stage; we integrate it into a larger cultural experience, whether it’s food or music, which is what we’re doing with the city of Houston this year. The other thing we’re doing is making Swimsuit a 365 day a year experience, not just something that exists in the middle of February. These women are influencers and they’re doing a lot more than just modeling. We can build an entire year’s worth of stories around them.

A lot of those models—as well as the athletes you cover—have done a phenomenal job of using platforms like Instagram to grow their celebrity. Does it ever feel like you have to compete with the content they’re putting out there?
Actually, it works to our advantage a lot. With respect to Swimsuit models, even when they’re independently curating their social media accounts, they’re presenting themselves as Sports Illustrated models and making that relationship very clear. With athletes, as much as they can control their own message and often do it in highly entertaining ways—take, for example, the Instagram account of [NBA player] Joel Embiid, which is phenomenal—at the same time, I think they want somebody to independently tell their story. Joel Embiid will continue to be a social media superstar, but I also think Joel Embiid wants the stamp of Sports Illustrated as well. We know he does.

This story first appeared in the February 13, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@adweekemma emma.bazilian@adweek.com Emma Bazilian is Adweek's features editor.