No one wants to take responsibility for the layoffs that decimated America’s most iconic sports magazine last month.
Sports Illustrated’s new manager, the digital-media network Maven, attributed the cuts to former owner Meredith, which sold the brand to Maven’s partner Authentic Brands Group earlier this year.
The comments raised alarm bells among current SI staff, who were told exactly the opposite last month.
One Meredith executive, corporate development VP David Johnson, told laid-off Sports Illustrated staffers last month that the blame for the cuts—which reduced the company’s editorial staff by (reportedly half the editorial staff)—was fully the responsibility of Maven.
During a meeting announcing Sports Illustrated’s layoffs in October, Johnson told staff that the company was “quite surprised” that ABG decided to partner with Maven, and blamed the new management company for the cuts.
“They finalized their go-forward plans, and they determined the roles and positions they want in the go forward [plan],” he said, according to a recording obtained and reviewed by The Daily Beast. “And unfortunately the positions you hold are not part of the go-forward plan. So effectively, what we’re saying is, effectively your job positions don’t exist at Maven, so therefore today is your last day at Meredith corporation.”
Asked by staffers to clarify “why our jobs were eliminated while others were kept,” Johnson replied that it was “Maven’s call on that.”
“Did Meredith make any effort to alert ABG to Maven, the ability to fund the employees they’re taking on, the personal history of some of the leadership?” one staffer asked.
“No,” he said.
“Why not?” another staffer asked.
“You have to understand, it’s ABG’s decision, not Meredith’s decision,” Johnson replied.
Reached for comment, a Meredith spokesperson pointed to a statement the company made last month, saying it had no control over Maven’s hiring decisions and the new company had told Meredith which employees it intended to bring over. “As the new licensor of the Sports Illustrated, Maven made the Sports Illustrated personnel decisions that Meredith communicated to the Sports Illustrated employees today,” a Meredith spokesperson said in October.
But for their part, SI’s new overseers are not prepared to take any of the blame.
During an appearance at the Code Media conference on Monday in Los Angeles, Maven’s owners faced multiple tough questions about the company’s handling of layoffs at the iconic sports magazine.
Maven co-founder James Heckman used the opportunity to criticize all of the company’s previous owners, laying blame for the cuts at the feet of both TimeWarner and Meredith.
“We didn’t lay anybody off, just to be clear,” Heckman insisted. “Meredith, I’m just going to be blunt, gave up on the property. They asked us to take the property sooner than we were ready.”
He continued: “When Meredith asked us to take the business, we decided to do it to make sure that the business would survive the uncertainty within Meredith. But to be clear: We didn’t lay off anybody. We were in the middle of job posting, and what we wanted to do was January, but we decided to jump in.”
“Our previous statements speak for themselves. We are focused on running the business,” a spokesperson told The Daily Beast on Wednesday.
But Heckman’s Monday comments came after nearly two months of tension over the direction of the brand between the publication’s new managers and staff of the historic magazine. Several Sports Illustrated employees told The Daily Beast that many rank-and-file employees were not encouraged by the panel, and found management’s answers to some of the questions frustrating and embarrassing.
In particular, staff remain concerned about the proposed sports site network Maven now plans to launch under the Sports Illustrated banner.
The new managers are in the beginning stages of launching a massive contributor network, creating niche pages for various teams and sports in the vein of rival sports site SB Nation, with a heavy emphasis on churning out content for cheap or even free. In many instances, the contributors would not be paid a salary, and instead operate the sites as a kind of network of franchises.
Prior to the layoffs, Sports Illustrated staffers publicly pleaded for its owners to back out of its management agreement with Maven, saying the group’s plans “significantly undermine our journalistic integrity, damage the reputation of this long-standing brand and negatively affect the economic stability of the company.”
Since the takeover, staffers have continued to press Maven on many of its claims about how its proposed new network will work. Staffers have also repeatedly been concerned about a claim Heckman continues to make that a Maven staffer made $900,000 covering North Carolina basketball last year.
Sports Illustrated’s new leadership said they were bothered by the overwhelmingly negative tenor of the coverage of Maven’s takeover.
“There’s one cost: The personal attacks,” Heckman said, recalling a conversation with the company’s biggest investor. “I feel great because I’m taking the heat for something that TimeWarner should’ve done in 1998.”