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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Jayne: Downfall of SI signals a shift

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: January 27, 2024, 6:02am

You can thank my grandmother. Or you can blame her, depending upon your opinion of my writing.

For my 10th birthday, you see, Grams got me a subscription to Sports Illustrated. And for the next couple of decades, the magazine that altered America’s sports and publishing cultures basically taught me how to write.

And why not? Despite a name that highlighted the visual aspect of journalism, Sports Illustrated was home to some of the best writing in the English language. Not just the best sportswriting, but the best short-form storytelling in any genre.

To the general public, the covers were the magazine’s defining feature, with spectacular color action staring at readers from the newsstand or the mailbox. But like a pineapple, the eye-catching exterior was merely a front for the sweetness within.

So, I started out wanting to be Dan Jenkins and grew into wanting to be Sally Jenkins. Although turning into Mark Kram or Frank Deford or Gary Smith would have been OK, too.

All of which undoubtedly makes me sound old. Because, as anybody in the newspaper business can tell you, these are difficult times for print media. And when the apparent demise of Sports Illustrated popped up in the news last week, it triggered a lament for lost journalism and a wave of nostalgia-fueled disappointment.

The magazine’s owners announced that they are laying off most of the staff, leading to a sullen death watch for a publication that dates back to 1954. The magazine’s union says it will fight the decision, and there is certain to be much arguing in the language of legalese, but the announcement was one of those things that signals a generational shift that you know has taken place but are not ready to admit.

Kind of like when CDs supplanted vinyl. See? Told you that I’m old.

Of course, Sports Illustrated hasn’t been Sports Illustrated for quite some time. After decades of weekly publication, it went biweekly in 2018 and monthly in 2020. Like many a news magazine, it long ago was superseded by the immediacy of the digital age and online competition.

And like many a forum for good writing, it fell victim to a short-attention-span society. Few people take time these days to explore the nuances and complexities of a public figure. Not when we can be outraged or engaged or misinformed in just 280 characters.

Personally, I think we are worse off for that. But that is a discussion for another time.

For now, the point is that for sports fans of a certain age, Sports Illustrated was a touchstone.

Many of the covers are embedded in the memory. There was the Miracle on Ice cover of 1980, celebrating the U.S. Olympic hockey victory over the previously invincible Soviet Union, wisely presented without a headline because no words could be adequate. There was a shirtless Brandi Chastain in 1999, celebrating the U.S. Women’s National Team’s World Cup championship, with a headline reading, “Yes!” There were dozens of covers featuring Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali, the two most socially significant athletes of my lifetime.

And, of course, there was the annual swimsuit issue, inevitably generating several weeks of letters that were nearly as entertaining as the soft sex presented by the issue itself. No word yet on whether the swimsuit issue has ever resulted in the selling of a single swimsuit, but it certainly has generated attention for the magazine.

In a way, that represents the dichotomy that has hastened the apparent demise of the magazine.

Digesting images is quick and easy and requires little thought. Responding to a tweet is pointless and mindless. But digging into a 4,000-word profile written by a masterful storyteller requires a little work. The payoff, however, can be enormous.

That is the lasting lesson from the glory days of Sports Illustrated. Because whether or not the magazine taught me to write well, I learned that well-crafted words can have a profound impact.