Sports Illustrated is now reduced to a biweekly publication

Longtime Sports Illustrated subscribers were in for a surprise as they thumbed through the Dec. 25 issue — not so much a Christmas treat; unfortunately, more like a lump of coal. In 2018, an inconspicuous Editors' Letter announced, the magazine will publish only every other week (plus of course the Swimsuit Issue).

Editor Chris Stone's letter tiptoed to the big reveal:

"Sports Illustrated has been a weekly staple for more than 63 years, delivering the best sports journalism with near metronomic regularity. That will continue to be the case, but beginning next month the metronome clicks a little less often."

Don't despair, Stone told readers in his letter and me in a subsequent interview. Those fewer issues will have more of the long-form stories that SI sees as its strength, and more photos better displayed on higher quality paper.

And yes, the new model also aims for the return of the thud factor. "Optics do matter," Stone told me. "If an issue feels light" as SI and its sister weekly Time have lately, that gives off an insubstantial vibe to both readers and potential advertisers.

The first of what Stone calls the "new model" issues will hit mailboxes Friday with a late close to provide coverage of the NCAA football National Championship. Two weeks later, the focus will be on a dual preview of the Super Bowl and Winter Olympics.

As a reader, I especially value the magazine's well-written, fresh-angle takes on the big events on the yearly sports calendar.  Stone said that his writers are talented enough to make those work even 10 days after the fact. I am skeptical, but we will see with the Masters, first of the major golf championships, for instance, which ends on a Sunday before a week when the print edition is not published.

"Hundreds of thousands (of 2.75 million subscribers) would prefer to stick with the weekly cadence," Stone conceded, "but we think the better choice is a magazine that is heftier. The next issue, for instance, will have three more long stories than the same issue a year ago."

Of course, there is the alternative of the SI.com digital site, for those who want their sports coverage fresh and timely the other 13 days of the bi-weekly cycle. After some halts and starts, the site is having a good year, Stone said, with traffic running up 50 percent year-to-year.

Here too SI's place in a now crowded field is circumscribed. Between ESPN and league-controlled sites like MLB.com, game highlights are not an option. "For us that would be prohibitively expensive," Stone said. Nor is there much hourly breaking news or any up-to-the-moment scores on the SI.com site, which tends more to what newspaper journalists would call second-day analysis and commentary. In digital as in print, Stone said, "we need to rely on our storytelling abilities."

Not that the magazine has bailed on enterprise breaking news, Stone continued.  It broke the story three weeks ago of sexual harassment charges against Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who has since agreed to put the team up for sale. And back in the summer of 2014, LeBron James chose SI as the venue to announce that he was returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The reduced frequency was revealed last fall in Time Inc. earnings calls and a Wall Street Journal story. And the magazine eased into the new schedule, going down to 39 issues in 2017.  SI has primed the pump for long-form with a series of readable true crime sports-related stories since mid-2016.

Don't look for a switchover to dropping print entirely. "We are thoroughly identified as a publishing house," Stone said. "That's a positive but also a millstone (for developing digital). What's the analog to a Sports Illustrated cover? That's part of what has defined us." (Stone is an SI lifer, having started as a news clerk in June 1992).

The Sports Illustrated reinvention plays out as parent Time Inc. is being sold to Meredith and some break-up of its properties is in progress.  Sunset Magazine was sold at the end of November and Essence last week. Sale of Golf magazine, part of Stone's domain is imminent, a Time spokesperson said. (He also oversees SI for Kids and all digital and video sites)

The bigger question is whether once Meredith completes the acquisition, perhaps as soon as the end of this month, will it choose to keep or instead spin off Sports Illustrated, Time and Fortune?

My bet is on the latter.  Meredith is in the lifestyle rather than the hard news business. It will smoothly absorb titles like Southern Living and hold on to People, the big moneymaker in the Time Inc. stable with a female-leaning readership like Meredith flagship Better Homes and Gardens.

Besides SI, Time and Fortune are all, pardon the overused expression, iconic titles. Together or separately, they will attract buyers looking for visibility and prestige. After all, majority control of Rolling Stone, still a famous brand though broken-down as a business, went to Penske Publishing last month in a transaction valued at a reported $100 million.

Time and Fortune are doing their own version of nipping and tucking as the long process of shopping Time Inc. nears completion. Time plans to reduce its rate base from 3 million to 2 million this year. Fortune, which published 15 times in 2017, will return to its roots as a true monthly. I have also noted that Alan Murray, despite being elevated to chief content officer at Time Inc. in June 2016, continues to write an excellent daily newsletter for Fortune and jets around the world to host the magazine's lucrative events business.

Stone declined to speculate on where Sports Illustrated will end up, but did say there are no contingency scenarios. Plan A is the only plan. "We are building for a future whether we remain in Meredith or could have a new owner."

I am the proverbial loyal Sports Illustrated subscriber — since I was 7, and that's a long time ago. So I am all for SI taking good care of itself as it approaches senior citizen status and also very much hope that the brutal economics now hitting magazines as harshly as newspapers won't change the old boy beyond recognition.

Clarification:  The original version of this story did not make clear that SI for Kids, unlike Golf, is not being sold in advance of the Meredith transaction.

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