Facing protests against its plans to cut staff at Sports Illustrated, Seattle-based media startup Maven defended what it called efforts at “revitalizing and strengthening” the publication.
The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that 40 employees, or 20 percent of the workforce, were being cut from the iconic sports publication and that its new owner, Maven, would hire 200 contract workers to cover sports.
The employees received the news from former owner Meredith, which said Maven had officially taken over Sports Illustrated and made the decision to cut staff, according to the WSJ. Earlier this year, Maven purchased the rights to publish Sports Illustrated from licensing firm Authentic Brands Group, which bought the publication from Meredith.
So who is Maven?
The company launched in 2017 and is led by James Heckman, the Rivals.com founder and former Yahoo executive. Maven describes itself as “a shared digital publishing, advertising and distribution platform.”
Heckman is a media industry veteran. He had helped Rivals.com raise $70 million in venture capital, but the site hit a wall during the dot-com bust and eventually sold to a Tennessee company, which was then sold to Yahoo in 2007 for a reported purchase price of $100 million.
That deal came after Heckman had left to create Scout.com in 2001, a competitive site to Rivals.com that was sold to News Corp in 2005. He then went on to start online advertising startup 5to1.com, selling that company to Yahoo in 2011. After that, he led global media strategy for Yahoo, working closely with ex-Yahoo CEO Ross Levinsohn.
Earlier this year Maven paid $45 million against future royalties for the rights of Sports Illustrated, which includes a revenue-sharing deal that will last at least a decade, according to regulatory filings.
Following this week’s announcement, Sports Illustrated employees, readers and others publicly protested the news.
“TheMaven wants to replace top journalists in the industry with a network of freelancers and bloggers,” employees wrote on Twitter. The staff sent a petition to Meredith and Authentic Brands to intervene on behalf of the publication and “drop” Maven, the WSJ reported.
Sports Illustrated employees are concerned about the future of the historic brand.
— Sports Illustrated United (@SIUnited54) October 3, 2019
After acquiring Sports Illustrated, Maven appointed Levinsohn, who sits on Maven’s board, to oversee the publication as head of Maven Media Brands (MMB). Levinsohn is the former publisher of the Los Angeles Times; he left the newspaper in 2018 following allegations of inappropriate conduct at previous companies.
“Ross Levinsohn’s plan to lay off journalists and replace them with unvetted, unpaid contributors would have irreparably damaged our reputation and our newsroom when he was the publisher of the LA Times. It’s infuriating that he‘s using the same playbook again,” the LA Times Newspaper Guild wrote on Twitter.
The NewsGuild of New York called Maven “clearly unfit” to run the publication.
Sports Illustrated employees told Deadspin that the new management had outlined plans to create far more content with an emphasis on detailed coverage of local teams rather than national sports news.
Some of the best sports journalists in the country were fired today in pursuit of a business model that is a recipe for failure. This is a travesty.
— L.A. Times Guild ? (@latguild) October 3, 2019
Maven responded with a blog post that touted the company’s plan to “add more journalistic firepower and boost investments in technology” at Sports Illustrated. The company said approximately 300 people, a majority of them journalists, will be writing for the publication by January. The company also said it was investing in local sports coverage through agreements with 80 new publishers across the country.
Maven said that the changes were meant to “enhance real-time news cycle coverage, strengthen mobile platform delivery, and increase the development of complementary video content.”
“The big picture story is that by virtually every business measure — subscriptions, online traffic, revenue, etc — SI has been trending down over the last five years,” Greg Witter, a spokesperson for Maven, told GeekWire in an email. “Our aim is embrace the heart and soul of SI — incredible storytelling — and elevate it to compete in today’s world with investment in technology and 200 front-line reporters covering teams on a daily basis.”
Witter also said reports that as much as half the staff would be laid off were “completely erroneous.”
Sports Illustrated editor in chief Christian Stone resigned earlier this week. In his place, executive editor Steve Cannella and SI.com managing editor Ryan Hunt were named as co-editors-in-chief. The New York Post reported that Stone is considering another role within Maven, according to a company memo.
Maven has a coalition of more than 300 brands, including History, Maxim, Yoga Journal, SKI Magazine, and others. It purchased finance media company TheStreet earlier this year. Maven is a publicly-traded company.
Maven’s executive team includes President Josh Jacobs, another ex-Yahoo exec who was the former president at Kik Interactive and Omnicom Media Group; COO Paul Edmondson, a Microsoft vet whose startup HubPages was acquired by Maven; Chief Product Officer Ben Trott, whose startup Say Media was also acquired by Maven; CTO Ben Joldersma, a veteran of Microsoft, aQuantive, Rivals.com, and Scout.com (which Heckman also started); and others.