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Region has enduring ties to Sports Illustrated's editorial leadership

Despite recent upheaval in Sports Illustrated’s ranks, southeastern Connecticut retains a connection to the venerable magazine’s top editorial post.

Chris Stone, the Old Mystic native who had been SI’s editor in chief since 2016, left in October, his departure coming amid massive layoffs and speculation about SI’s future. Two men were named to succeed him as co-editors in chief, Stephen Cannella, of Stonington, and Ryan Hunt.

Stone grew up a little more than a mile from Cannella’s Pequot Trail home, where Cannella has lived with his wife, Emily, and their three sons since the early 2000s.

The geographic link isn’t all they share.

Both joined SI more than two decades ago, soon after college graduations, Stone from Columbia’s graduate journalism program in 1992 and Cannella from Boston College in 1995. Both started as fact-checkers.

Their fathers were newspapermen who went on to teach. And both love sports — and Sports Illustrated.

Stone, 50, who attended The Williams School and then Tufts and whose father, Greg, retired some years ago as The Day’s deputy editorial page editor, noted in an interview that his 27 years at SI spanned more than 40 percent of the 65-year-old magazine’s existence. His last day was Oct. 7.

Four days earlier, dozens of employees were shown the door. Accounts of the purge described chaos that involved canceled meetings and the staff’s circulation of a petition calling for the new ownership to rescind a licensing agreement with The Maven, the Seattle-based company that's now running things.

Word that The Maven intended to publish the magazine less frequently and replace staff writers with freelancers and contracted help caused alarm inside and outside the business.

Stone said 40 to 50 editorial employees — about a third of the total — were let go. He dispelled reports that he might yet have a role with the new management.

“The Maven made a large investment in the operation of Sports Illustrated and was entitled to decide who was going to lead Sports Illustrated into the future,” he said. “That person wasn’t going to be me.”

He said his own future will be somewhere in sports and sports media, adding, “some of the possibilities are first and second cousins to what I did, and others are more distant cousins to what I did.”

Stone said he’s comfortable living in New York City, his home for the past 28 years. He and his wife, Kim, have an 18-year-old son and a 15-year-old daughter.

Shifting to monthly publication

Cannella, 46, who became SI’s executive editor three years ago, said some of the coverage of the recent upheaval at the magazine was not entirely accurate.

“Sports Illustrated gets a lot of scrutiny because it’s such a beloved brand,” he said. “The audience is extremely loyal and feels a deep connection to SI and its future. … What got lost in the coverage is that SI is still just as dedicated to quality writing and quality photography as it ever was. That commitment has not changed at all.”

He said the magazine will shift to monthly publication. Its last biweekly edition, on newsstands now, features Sportsperson of the Year Megan Rapinoe, the professional soccer player who led the U.S. women’s team to a World Cup championship.

“It’ll be a better physical product, printed on better stock,” Cannella said. “We know what people want in a print magazine. They don’t want the stats they can get on their phones. We want to give them something they can luxuriate in.”

Under Maven, SI also will upgrade its digital presence, Cannella said, in part by enhancing “local” coverage.

“The goal is to have an SI-quality reporter with every major professional and major college team,” he said. “We’re serving the general sports fan, the NFL fan, the NBA fan, but at heart, you’re a fan of your local team, your alma mater. ... There’s this narrative that we’re replacing what we’ve done, but that’s not the case. It’s additive; we’re not replacing anything.”

The new, team-specific writers SI is hiring should be thought of as “local licensees” rather than as freelancers or contracted employees, Cannella said.

Cannella, who grew up in New Britain, regularly commutes to New York and SI’s offices via train. His two oldest sons, Will, 17, a senior, and John, 15, a sophomore, played for Stonington High School’s state championship soccer team in the fall. His youngest son, 12-year-old Nick, attends Stonington Middle School.

Stories can be 'experienced' in a variety of ways 

Stone reflected on his SI tenure and the digital age’s impact on publishing. SI.com, the magazine’s website, launched in 1996. Meredith Corp. acquired Time Inc., including SI, in 2018, and sold SI to Authentic Brands Group, a licensing company, earlier this year. ABG then reached the deal with The Maven.

Stone said he learned that a magazine needn’t be strictly a print product, that sports stories can be “experienced” in a variety of ways. In 2018, for example, SI TV released “14 Back,” a 90-minute documentary about the 1978 pennant race between the Yankees and the Red Sox, which included a certain Bucky Dent home run. After the online release of the film, SI featured the subject in the magazine.

“There’s still a wealth of talent at Sports Illustrated and a commitment to what made it what it is,” Stone said. “Having Steve (Cannella) and Ryan (Hunt) at the top of the leadership is an affirmation of that.”

He said he’s confident that SI will continue to do stories that many others lack the inclination or resources to pursue. Name another publication, he said, that’s dealt as extensively as SI with the intersection of sports and the #MeToo movement’s impact on society. He cited SI’s 2017 coverage of allegations of workplace sexual misconduct by Jerry Richardson, then the owner of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.

SI posted a story on a Sunday afternoon, Stone recalled. By 8 that night, the team had been put up for sale.

“Chris is a giant in the history of Sports Illustrated, and I say that not just because he’s a friend,” Cannella said of Stone. “He’s a fantastic editor. He did a fantastic job of keeping SI what it is and setting us up for the future. We’re going to be building on a lot of the foundation he laid.”

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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