R.I.P, Sports Illustrated

The death of an American institution just another in a long line of media cautionary tales.

I recently wrote about the mess that was The Messenger, and more generally the sad state of affairs in journalism and media.

In the grand scheme of things, The Messenger's life and death were little more than a flash in the pan; it was predicted to be a losing proposition and it turned out to be true. It didn't make it a year.

On the other end of the spectrum, there's the layoff of Sports Illustrated's entire staff and the true end of an American institution. I say "true end" because it's been a shell of its former self for quite some time now. But the news of its further demise was still somehow surprising and painful to hear.

This tweet summed it up so well. It was a prime example of putting high and low in close proximity (not really "low" and not to take away from the models in the swimsuits or the talented photographers capturing their images); literary writing and stories of a length that required some commitment from the reader in the same publication that dedicated one issue a year to scantily clad beauties should work in the marketplace. And it did for a long time.

But, as Buzz Bissinger wrote in Airmail, the internet came along and ruined all of that.

The other culprit is us, once thirsty readers who no longer read and have succumbed to the endless spew of the Internet, where anything over 50 words is considered too long and a waste of time. Sports Illustrated was about elegance. It could be impossibly poignant and impossibly funny. In other words, all the qualities we don’t care about anymore, being just too busy taking selfies and poking fingers into the smartphone.

Notice how he also aims that at us, the forces that either drove or responded to the shift to this type of digital content. And while it has the ring of "old man shouts at clouds," but he's not wrong. Nor is he a rank hypocrite for publishing his piece in a digital-only publication–it is pretty much all that exists anymore.

Which is a shame. Jack Crosbie, who wrote the tweet above, wrote an entire article on the issue for Discourse Blog:

What we’re going to get, then, is a whole lot more blogs like this. The one you’re reading. Discourse Blog. “Great!” you may think. “Independent, compassionate, reader-supported journalism, that also publishes funny stuff about birds!” First off, thank you, we know. We’re great. But the problem is there are many many people under this same model who are not great. Substack, the platform we use which is basically the best business tool we can get to keep ourselves doing this work, also helps run some Nazi and Nazi-adjacent blogs. Some of the largest and most influential “media” brands in the world right now are individual YouTube or TikTok or whatever accounts, run by individual people with their own goals and ethics and interests and basically zero accountability to anyone who actually consumes their content beyond creating content that those people will consume. The end result of all the publications dying is that we get a pure form of anarcho-capitalist media—everyone out for themselves, with the most successful and savvy and cut-throat rising to the top.

Read the whole thing. It's a good article. But incredibly pessimistic (not undeservedly so, just realistically so).

The always wonderful Joe Posnanski wrote of Sports Illustrated's demise as only an insider could, with a fond remembrance of being allowed to join this particular team and the unique pain of leaving it before it died when he saw it was going downhill:

I thought I would be at Sports Illustrated forever. But, then, few of us can forecast the winds of change. I got there just as the glory days were fading. The internet crawled into every space of life. ESPN grew into a goliath. The iPhone came out. And suddenly, mailboxes didn’t seem magical anymore. Nobody took time to wait for the mail. I cried the day I left, not only because it crushed my soul to leave the only job I had ever dreamed about, but because I saw that time was running out on Sports Illustrated. By then, it was hard not to see.

It's not that the layoffs at Sports Illustrated are sadder than those at The Messenger; the industry is a bloodbath right now, and good luck to those in the trenches just trying to dodge the bullets.

But the prestige of the publication, the centrality to magazine publishing and popular culture that it once held in this country, makes it sad to see it go. It just goes to show how vastly things have changed–in media, in popular culture, in America–and I feel confident in saying that not all change is good. Sports Illustrated of old was a thing to behold, and we're all poorer now for its demise.