OFF THE GRID

Sports Illustrated Makes It Into the Future—Sort Of

Jul 13, 10 | 7:42 AM   byMichael Wolff
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So Time Warner decides, at long last, that its magazine company, and, specifically, its magazine, Sports Illustrated, can’t run a website, and so turns it over to some cable television sports marketers in its Turner Broadcast division to see if they can do it.

This is actually quite big news. First of all, it’s a major political and territorial loss for the magazine group, as well as a nasty brand bitch-slap. But it’s also a potentially transformative development in which it is formally recognized that doing what you do in one medium does not particularly qualify you to keep doing it in another medium.

This is not to say that cable television sports marketers are more gifted (although part of the point is that they do seem to be more gifted at ESPN), but it is to say that Time, Inc., which has been in the Internet business longer and with more devotion than any other print company, has just never been able to get it right. This may be because magazine people are inherently clunky, or bureaucratic, or conceited about the value of their sentences in a medium where nobody reads—at least not in a linear fashion. Whatever the reason, Time Warner’s rather ignominious dismissal of Sports Illustrated’s traditional stewards, and its appointment of people without experience in journalism or print to supervise its electronic identity, has lots of implications for other traditional information brands. In essence: while the brand may have value, that value on a going forward basis need not involve the people who have created it.

The dream in which august information brands migrate to the web and thereby reinvent their mission and, as well, the livelihoods of many people, could happen—except that the people who dreamt the dream might be left behind.

There is another aspect to Time Warner moving the Sports Illustrated website out of the magazine division: It's cherry-picking assets.

Major media companies have always justified their holdings in low-growth print business as a strategy involving great brand values which might some how, some day, in some yet to be imagined form, be released. That has really never happened—until perhaps now.

The Time, Inc. magazines will, almost certainly, be sold—they await only a willing buyer. Quite likely, in Time Warner's mind this will be a sale of the ever-diminishing value of print, while the company holds on to the upside of brands transmogrified into new media and new markets, free of old editors.

The future can be a cold place.

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