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Industry’s best has lost its soul

From SI to AI, magazine of your youth might not be what you remember


Ask any sportswriter what influenced them to get into the business, and the No. 1 commonality might be Sports Illustrated. Everyone grew up in their own era, but the giants of the genre stretched across generations: Dan Jenkins or Frank Deford, Leigh Montville or William Nack, Rick Reilly or Gary Smith, Steve Rushin or S.L. Price, on and on.

The guest appearances from Plimpton, Vonnegut, Updike, Faulkner, Steinbeck or Kerouac were telling of the magazine’s stature, but the real stars were the senior writers, over the years. I used to talk about the magazine with my wonderful colleague Michael Farber, the longtime SI hockey writer. I can still quote you lines from stories I read 30 years ago. Sports Illustrated was the real stuff. Often, it was art.

But as the internet eats the world we will lose valuable things, and Sports Illustrated feels like it is poised at that precipice. The website Futurism noticed some sketchy author profiles and articles somewhere on the SI site: Drew Ortiz wrote outdoor gear reviews until he was replaced wholesale by Sora Tanaka, who reviewed fitness and nutrition products. They had AI headshots, available for purchase. Their pieces were apparently AI-generated, though that was thinly disputed by the company that produced them.

Futurism asked Sports Illustrated’s parent company, The Arena Group, for comment. The pages vanished without any further comment. The Arena Group has a habit of trying AI content, and have talked about it to the Wall Street Journal. A reporter at The Verge reported a connection to the same company that produced laughably poor potentially AI content for the Gannett newspaper chain.

The SI union put out a statement demanding transparency and basic journalistic standards. They wrote, “If true, these practices violate everything we believe about journalism. We deplore being associated with something so disrespectful to readers.”

That’s it, all right. SI was sold by

Time Inc. in 2018 to a brand management company called Authentic Brands Group, which also owns the rights to the images of Muhammad Ali and Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley and Shaquille O’Neal, and a collection of other discarded brands, from Barneys New York to DC Shoes. The company said they would leverage the brand in ways that would stay close to the magazine’s DNA and heritage. They licensed SI to a company called theMaven, which is now The Arena Group.

The rest has gone about as you’d expect. There have been deep layoffs. The publishing schedule was cut from weekly to twice-monthly in 2018, and it’s 12 issues a year now. They partnered with some bloggers. There are still great, great journalists at Sports Illustrated, and they are grinding away and producing wonderful work, despite any despair they may feel. Most journalists work that way, if you want to know the truth.

Look, it’s an accepted fact that the internet is becoming actively harmful to the idea of a shared reality. The incentive systems are all wrong. So legacy publications wind up in the hands of blood-from-astone hedge funds or cultural vandals, and the result is a budding chain of Sports Illustrated-branded resorts, or restaurants, or an SI casino in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Tellingly, they sold NFTs at some point, too. The hard work of the journalists who built and carried the magazine is being ground like millet into the sort of marketing plans that get brainstormed in the Hard Rock Cafe in Times Square, or similar, as the parent company cuts journalists.

So whether this was AI or just dime-store chum it carries a heaviness, a bleakness, and not just because it’s Sports Illustrated. Yes, the writing is what inspired generations of journalists. And in journalism these days, hey, whatever it takes to keep the lights on.

But what this news reminds us is the guys running SI are lazy, careless goons who are the keepers of something that matters, and don’t care. The AI revolution may yet become as promising or apocalyptic as its various proponents conceive, but for now its output is mostly soulless and ugly and almost actively antihuman. Not just writing: AI songs, AI art, AI chat: It’s soulless stuff, but worse, it’s a reflection of us via the internet, and the next thing you know your AI chatbot needs anti-racism training. AI is being monetized in the same desperate sweaty way that crypto was, or NFTs: It views human labour and human aspirations to art as obstacles to a profit margin.

It’s grotesque. And most of what AI produces publicly feels a lot like giving up. And the rapacious morons who own Sports Illustrated, who are trying to leverage its history of quality writing and reporting in order to sell resorts and casinos and restaurants, aren’t even smart enough to realize that churning out lazy maybe-AI review chum is not only antithetical to journalism but actively damaging to the brand they’re trying to hawk.

It’s bigger than that, though, because that ethos is also infecting the internet and the idea of verifiable information. AI is even being incorporated into search engines, not just in text but in photos. The idea of what we can trust is changing faster than we can keep up, and most of the institutions that best lashed us to a shared mast are struggling, dying or dead.

So the real bleakness is in where this is going. We’re burning into a future where honest journalism is a thing of the past, and nobody will know who to trust, and Sports Illustrated is just one small example of what we’re losing. There is still a market for real journalism, for reality, for art. But the baggage of legacy media is weighing it down as the internet eats it, and propagandists attack from the other side.

So bless the good people at Sports Illustrated: They’re trying to save the place, and we should all try to save the real stuff. We’ll just have to remember what it is.

Legacy publications wind up in the hands of blood-froma-stone hedge funds or cultural vandals, and the result is a budding chain of Sports Illustrated branded resorts, or restaurants, or an SI casino in Ann Arbor, Mich.





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