Mass Layoffs, Chaos At 'Sports Illustrated' Spark Journalists' Rebellion

12 hours ago
Originally published on October 3, 2019 7:32 pm

Updated at 6:30 p.m. ET

The revered 65-year-old Sports Illustrated magazine is in a state of bedlam.

In meetings Thursday afternoon, managers told staff members that about half the newsroom would be laid off, according to two people present at the meetings.

Sports Illustrated was in chaos Thursday amid word of massive layoffs at the 65-year-old magazine.
Mark Lennihan / AP

NPR obtained a petition signed by approximately three-quarters of Sports Illustrated's journalists asking its new owners not to deliver control of the publication to a digital publisher named TheMaven network.

"TheMaven wants to replace top journalists in the industry with a network of Maven freelancers and bloggers, while reducing or eliminating departments that have ensured that the stories we publish and produce meet the highest standards," the petition reads. "These plans significantly undermine our journalistic integrity, damage the reputation of this long-standing brand and negatively [affect] the economic stability of the publication."

The new controlling executives include Ross Levinsohn, the controversial former Los Angeles Times CEO. The plan as described in the journalists' petition appears to echo an earlier strategy by Levinsohn, who was appointed by Maven. As publisher of the Los Angeles Times and an investor in a digital outfit called True/Slant, Levinsohn embraced a strategy he termed "gravitas with scale" — a model that was based in part on unpaid contributors and meant job losses for the traditional newsroom journalists in the Tribune publishing chain.

Levinsohn and his frequent business partner James Heckman, the founder of Maven, were the subject of an earlier investigative report by NPR over their business practices. Levinsohn, Heckman and several associates met with the newsroom Thursday afternoon.

The uncertainty surrounding the magazine's status had caused chaos for the newsroom over the previous 24 hours. Meetings that had been scheduled for midday Thursday were called off minutes before they were due to begin. On recordings heard by NPR, the magazine's editors apologized for the uncertainty.

"We're pushing to find out as much information as we can," Steve Cannella, promoted just this week to be co-editor in chief, said in brief remarks to the newsroom, according to audio tapes reviewed by NPR and verified by two people present. "We know exactly how hard this is for you guys. We know the strain this is on the entire newsroom. We know that lives are at stake."

"That's all we can say right now. We're really, really sorry. And you have as much information as we do," Cannella says, on the recording. "The anger, I understand it. I'd also be angry. We just ask for a little bit of patience as we try to find out what's going on."

Until the meeting with Maven executives, the question of who controls the magazine had not been clear, as it has been subject to a series of major transactions in a short period of time: Meredith Corp. bought SI last year along with other Time Inc. titles and then sold the magazine in late May 2019 to a brand and marketing firm called Authentic Brands Group. Meredith, a major magazine publisher, was set to operate Sports Illustrated for two years. Several weeks later, in June, Authentic Brands struck a licensing deal cutting Meredith's involvement short and giving Maven the right to operate the publication for up to 100 years. But that deal was only finalized on Thursday.

Meredith confirmed to NPR that Authentic Brands finished the transfer of editorial control of Sports Illustrated to Maven from Meredith, its formal owner. According to Meredith, the layoffs it announced were conducted at Maven's behest.

"As the new licensor of ... Sports Illustrated, Maven made the Sports Illustrated personnel decisions that Meredith communicated to the SI employees today," Meredith said in a statement. "Going forward, the remaining SI employees will work at the direction and at the pleasure of Maven."

NPR is seeking comment from Authentic Brands and Maven.

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And now to a totally different world - a much more soothing world.


KELLY: The world of Bob Ross.


BOB ROSS: We don't make mistakes, as you know. All we do is have happy accidents in our world.

KELLY: Ross rose to public media fame in the 1980s and '90s with his TV show "The Joy Of Painting," where he became known for his big, bushy hair and his vivid landscapes.


ROSS: Maybe there lives a happy little evergreen tree right there.

KELLY: When Ross died in 1995, he left behind thousands of paintings, but they rarely go on display. So when a solo exhibition of his work opened last month, there was huge demand from fans across the country, including NPR's own Kat Lonsdorf.


KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: The soothing sound of a paintbrush on canvas was a signature of Bob Ross. Watch any episode, and you'll be lulled by it. And occasionally, it fills the space of a show at the Franklin Park Arts Center in Purcellville, Va., too, where fans have come to learn to paint in his style, surrounded by his work.

SANDRA HILL: You know, and just think tree. Don't just go tap, tap, tap any old place. Remember, trees have depth in them.

LONSDORF: At the front of the class is Sandra Hill.

HILL: I am a certified Ross instructor.

LONSDORF: Yep, a certified Ross instructor, or CRI. There are over 3,000 CRIs in the country, and this is what they do - teach the wet-on-wet oil painting style of Bob Ross.

HILL: I've taught hundreds and hundreds of people how to do Bob Ross.

LONSDORF: Hill became a CRI over 20 years ago after she retired from her government job. And she thought she was just taking a painting class.

HILL: And that's all I thought it was. We were painting.

LONSDORF: But it turned out to be a certification course.

HILL: And I went, oh. And then they give you this certificate.

LONSDORF: You became a certified Bob Ross instructor by accident.

HILL: Yes (laughter).

LONSDORF: That - sorry, that just seems like the most Bob Ross thing ever - that you had a happy little accident by becoming a Bob Ross instructor.

HILL: Exactly. Exactly (laughter).

LONSDORF: The students at today's class all have palettes set out with Ross's signature colors - titanium white, alizarin crimson, midnight black.

HILL: And we're going to pounce into the phthalo blue.

LONSDORF: A few women in the back even have on big, bushy Bob Ross-style wigs. And 24 of his signature landscapes line the walls, practically whispering encouragement to the budding artists.


LONSDORF: This class doesn't happen here every day, though. Usually, the show is open to visitors, and there have been a lot.

ELIZABETH BRACEY: Just in this month, we'll welcome about 15,000.

LONSDORF: Elizabeth Bracey is the director here. She worked with the nearby Bob Ross Inc., which owns most of his paintings, to put the show together.

BRACEY: We knew it was going to be popular, but not like this. It's gone viral, as they say.

LONSDORF: You might be surprised by that. There are a lot of people who think Ross's work is tacky. I am not one of them. In person, his paintings have incredible depth and detail. The exhibit is a wonderland of colorful sunsets, forests tucked into snowy mountains and waves crashing against rocky cliffs.

BRACEY: So this one's called "Splendor Of Autumn," another water scene with birch trees in the front - just some beautiful fall foliage.

LONSDORF: And hung next to each painting is a quote from Ross - something he said during that episode.

BRACEY: And the quote says, if painting does nothing else for you...


ROSS: And if it does nothing else for you, it should make you happy.

BRACEY: ...It should make you happy.


ROSS: It should make you happy.

LONSDORF: See; his draw wasn't just his painting. It was the way he talked to viewers.


ROSS: Maybe this cloud has a little friend. Maybe this little friend's named Clyde. He lives right up here.

LONSDORF: Bob Ross was weird and captivating. And Bracey says this exhibit has seen a kind of unexpected pilgrimage of fans. Some get emotional.

BRACEY: We have plenty of people that just walk in, and they just - they need a moment. They just need to collect themselves.

LONSDORF: The ones who make it here are just a fraction of the legions of followers Ross has these days. He's on Netflix and YouTube and Twitch. There are Bob Ross bobbleheads and board games and underwear and coffee mugs. But why? What is it about Bob Ross that has made him so everlasting?

JERRY SALTZ: Artists like Ross - great artists - are never dead to us.

LONSDORF: That's Jerry Saltz, senior art critic at New York Magazine. Saltz says Ross is so much more than the swag and the catchphrases.

SALTZ: People think that he's just kitsch and cute and a little Buddha and fun, happy little accidents. And they see unserious. But let me tell you what's serious - Bob Ross breaks down painting into its component parts.

LONSDORF: Ross kept it simple. There's no irony, no gimmicks. It was just a 26-minute video, with one landscape from start to finish, a blank canvas transformed before your eyes.

SALTZ: And then he adds a beautiful bit at the end - you can do this, too.


ROSS: And I know you can do this. So certainly, if I know it, you know it, too.

SALTZ: And that is one of the most powerful messages of later modern art.

LONSDORF: It's that message that everyone could do what he was doing that really made Bob Ross. He didn't want you to buy his paintings. He wanted you to make your own. And he was entrancing enough to convince you that you could.

SALTZ: Once you set eyes on that guy, you're kind of locked in for 25 minutes. It's you alone in your dorky studio, in your apartment, wearing an old shirt and just working. And that's the cult of you. That's the cult of me. It's the cult of us.

LONSDORF: Yeah, I love that. I mean, the cult of Bob Ross is the cult of the everyday person.

SALTZ: Yeah. You have to banish self-doubt. And at the end of the session, it's done. And he's basically saying, and then we'll do another happy little accident tomorrow.

LONSDORF: Bob Ross told you that as long as you tried, it would be right, no matter what. And that spirit was alive and well at the painting class in rural Virginia.

HILL: Good. Perfect. Perfect. Susan did it absolutely perfectly.

LONSDORF: Susan Rossi flew all the way here from Texas. Four years ago, she would've never thought she'd end up here.

SUSAN ROSSI: I was a human resource director. That's all I did. I never got involved in artwork.

LONSDORF: But she had a stroke. She lost function of half of her body. She had to quit her job. She felt really limited until she found Bob Ross.

ROSSI: It brought something out of me that I didn't know was in there. And you think, wow, no limits. You can move clouds. You can change mountains (laughter) - no limits. That's - I guess that's what you learn from Bob Ross.

LONSDORF: I've been thinking a lot about something Ross said on an episode he taped in 1992. His wife had just died from cancer, and he's painting a scene with a lake resting between two majestic mountains. He loads his brush up with midnight black and starts to dab it all across the bottom of the mountain.


ROSS: Tell you what - we just take that old dark color that we had.

LONSDORF: Don't worry, he says; we're just putting this here for contrast.


ROSS: Got to have dark, got to have opposites - dark and light, light and dark continually in painting. If you have light on light, you have nothing. If you have dark on dark, you basically have nothing. There we are. You know, it's like in life if - got to have a little sadness once in a while so you know when the good times come.

LONSDORF: Maybe the magic of Bob Ross is just that simple. He reminds us that the dark is there for a reason and helps us find the light when we need it.

Kat Lonsdorf, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.