Sports Illustrated Lets Remaining Photographers Go

(news & commentary)

bythom silogo

Sports Illustrated (SI) magazine on Thursday laid off their remaining six staff photographers. If you’d like to read an official version of the story, check out the news on NPPA’s site (disclosure: I’m a member of NPPA). 

I’m sure some will make more of this than is actually warranted, as Sports Illustrated will continue to have photographs in it, and I think it likely that these great pros will continue to contribute to the magazine. But…

Here’s my problem with this kind of downsizing: exactly what business is Sports Illustrated in? If it’s “publish the best stories and images in sports,” then what they’ve just done is make themselves more vulnerable to competition. Why? Because now they’re basically in a daily bidding war for best images. True, there aren’t a lot of outlets for sports images, and sports images are extremely temporal, but if I were to start a sports publication I now would be on equal footing with SI. 

I’ve watched publication after publication grapple with this issue, and other media types, too. It’s the quality of the content that they actual sell (to readers/viewers). If that isn’t the timeliest, most relevant, with the highest quality, then those eyeballs go elsewhere. What keeps most content providers in business and profitable is not the circulation revenue—though there are exceptions, including products I’ve run in the past—it’s that you can then sell access to those quality readers/viewers to advertisers. 

When you remove known quality contributors from your locked in and permanent staff, advertisers all start to wonder what that will do to quality of readers/viewers down the road. SI just started a lot of folk in the ad business wondering what’s going to happen to quality.

That’s not to say that there isn’t opportunity here, though. Sports Illustrated is now free to use those dollars that had locked in key staff to pay for “best content available.” Somehow it never seems to work out that way in practice, though. Upper management tends to see cost cuts, not change in content, as the key return. Indeed, I’d be very surprised if this move wasn’t done partly for cost cutting. Someone upstairs probably said something akin to “we’ll keep the same amount of money for images that we paid them in salary, but we’ll take back the overhead costs (office space, benefits, etc.).” 

It doesn’t help that SI’s Web site is a bit of a mess, or that many of the images they’re using online are already from services such as Getty Images. Covering “all sports” isn’t exactly easy, after all, and there’s no way that SI could possibly have staff photographers everywhere they need to cover. Still, one wonders about the Big Events (Olympics, Super Bowl, Final Four, etc.). Before, the SI staff photographers had the luxury of doing long planning for these things (e.g. Bill Frakes great slit-scan track-and-field work at the Olympics). Now, I’m not so sure. Those same photographers have to make a day-to-day living that pays their health care, retirement plans, and more, so short of SI paying them huge amounts to cover those Big Events, I’m guessing that they’ll get less prep and less distinguishing content, simply because there won’t be anyone paying for the planning time.

SI’s started a race to the bottom. Those never end well. 

Anyone want to start a sports image publication that bids for the best now? The time is ripe. 

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