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The staff of Sports Illustrated, its newsroom ‘gutted,’ is planning to unionize

An issue of Sports Illustrated is displayed on a newsstand. The magazine's staff is planning to unionize. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

The staff of Sports Illustrated plans to unionize, it told management Monday, saying it wants a greater say in the future of the iconic magazine and raising concerns about the magazine’s direction under its new operator, Maven.

Of the 80 or so staffers eligible for the bargaining unit, more than 90 percent signed a petition supporting the union drive, according to organizers. Their quest to join the NewsGuild of New York comes at a time of turmoil for the magazine, according to staffers, who say Maven’s leadership is jeopardizing SI’s future.

“Decisions made by new management over the last few months have put SI’s reputation and long-term health at risk,” the staffers told management in a letter outlining their concerns.

Maven, a Seattle-based media and technology company, took over editorial operations of SI in October after buying the rights to publish the magazine from its new owners. Around 40 SI staffers were laid off during the transition, and many of the remaining staffers have been raising concerns about SI’s direction in the months since.

Last month, The Washington Post detailed a series of incidents that troubled SI staffers. They included the launch of team-specific websites with little editorial oversight and a human-resources complaint that accused an executive of dangling a trip to a swimsuit-edition photo shoot as a reward for good work.

Sports Illustrated’s new owners say they’re saving the magazine. Staffers say it’s in chaos.

“The October layoffs at Maven’s direction gutted our newsroom,” the staffers wrote to management. “Two dozen employees who lost their jobs were women or people of color, leaving us less representative of the world we cover. Moreover, Maven’s directive to launch a network of team reporters on SI’s platforms without sufficient vetting or editorial oversight has already resulted in errors that severely undermine our credibility.”

Maven CEO James Heckman and the magazine’s editors did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment about the union push. Heckman has denied that the October layoffs were Maven’s decision, and the magazine has said it is investigating the HR complaint. When presented with his staff’s concerns last month, Heckman told The Post in an email: “We continue to be shocked about the state of the business, as we peel away layers — and so are moving boldly and decisively in parallel. Of course that makes everyone uncomfortable.”

Sports Illustrated, founded in 1954 by Henry Luce and for decades the gold standard of sports journalism, has struggled to stay relevant in a rapidly evolving media landscape. Meredith Corporation purchased the magazine from longtime owner Time Inc. in 2017 and spent the next two years trying to sell it. Authentic Brands Group, a marketing and brand development company, purchased SI last spring, then sold the publishing rights to Maven.

Maven’s plan includes launching hundreds of SI-branded websites covering pro and college teams around the country. The sites, staffed by independent contractors, do not have the same editorial guardrails as national SI content. Multiple high school students have been found to be writing for Maven sites. Another writer erroneously reported that Southern California’s football coach would be fired, only to be refuted by a senior SI writer. Over the weekend, the University of North Carolina Maven writer stepped down after another sports journalist revealed the Maven writer had sent her harassing messages.

In their letter, the staffers requested a pay-equity study, an increased focus on minority hiring, clarity for workers on extended temporary contracts and clear protocols for handling harassment.

“We are unionizing to make sure SI is a safe, inclusive place to work, where all employees are treated fairly and can continue to do our jobs at a high level,” senior writer Jenny Vrentas, who was involved in the organizing effort, said in an interview.

The NewsGuild of New York represents journalists at the New York Times, the New Yorker, BuzzFeed and other publications. It already represents around 15 SI writers, who work mostly for the print magazine. The current push at SI would expand the bargaining unit to include most editorial staffers, including digital and video journalists.

Organizers said despite their concerns about its new leadership, the union effort is not strictly a response to Maven.

“Unions are a stabilizing force at all kinds of companies," said Jack Dickey, an editor and writer at SI who was also involved in organizing. “Even if the change in ownership has played some role in motivating people, we would have done this anyway.”

The staff presented its intent to unionize to Ryan Hunt and Steve Cannella, the top editors at the magazine. Management can voluntarily recognize the union and begin collectively bargaining, or it can refuse and force the staff to file for an election with the National Labor Relations Board.

“I hope management understands that the vast majority of the staff wants this," Dickey said, "and that our best chance at a collaborative, strong future involves voluntary recognition.”

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