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Maven Media Bosses Stumble Explaining Their Plans for Sports Illustrated

Ross Levinsohn’s reintroduction into the spotlight of the media world was off to a rocky start.

Appearing at Recode’s Code Media conference Monday afternoon alongside his business partner James Heckman, Levinsohn was given a chance to address the elephant in the room right out of the gate, with journalist Peter Kafka bringing up allegations of sexual misconduct in his very first question.

“Do you think any of those accusations are fair, and if so, is there anything you can do to make amends?” Kafka asked. Levinsohn, who was removed from a publisher position at the Los Angeles Times after NPR detailed those allegations in early 2018, could have used this opportunity for a nuanced response. Instead, he decided, right then and there, in front of an audience, at the end of 2019, to shoot the proverbial elephant.

“I don’t think you have all the facts, okay?” he snapped, and proceeded to implicitly blame his former colleagues at the newspaper for spreading false rumors about him because they didn’t like his work as a “change agent,” as he called himself. “Nothing was proven to be true,” Levinsohn said, referring to an independent investigation conducted on behalf of Tribune Media. “I don’t think it was fair,” he concluded.

It didn’t get better from there.

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Heckman and Levinsohn were invited to Code Media to shed some light on their take-over of Sports Illustrated, which they recently began operating under license after past owner Meredith ditched the prestigious publication this summer. In that context, Kafka said that he had spoken to current employees at Sports Illustrated, who were worried about some of those past allegations. “Is there anything you can do to assuage their fears?” he asked, providing the duo with another lifeline.

“I don’t know who you’ve been talking to. It doesn’t matter. I’m not hearing that directly from employees,” Levinsohn responded.

Talking about their Sports Illustrated deal, Heckman called the publication a “distressed asset.” He proceeded to tell the audience a remarkable episode about the day his company, Maven Media, took over the Sports Illustrated brand, a step that also involved the layoff of dozens of staffers.

Heckman recalled, “Sat there in the office the day we took over, our biggest investor calls: ‘Heckman, how are you doing?’ I said, ‘I feel great because I’m taking the heat for something that Time Warner should have done in 1998.”

Kafka interjected, “You’re talking about the day you laid of staff,” to which Heckman replied,“Yeah, Meredith did. We just bought the brand, but yeah.”

Maven Media’s plans for Sports Illustrated include transforming the sports publication into a federated network of franchisee bloggers and digital journalists who operate their own subcontracting companies. Heckman claimed that one of these writers made $900,000 covering North Carolina basketball last year, but Levinsohn later clarified that this person wasn’t actually currently working for Sports Illustrated.

Heckman went on to compare the model to similar structures at other sports publishing networks, including Yahoo Sports and the Vox-owned SBNation. “This is a whole ecosystem that I don’t think you understand,” he snapped in response to repeat questions about the duties and revenue streams of participating journalists.

In the near future, Maven is looking to bring the same model to news, with Heckman saying that he had already signed up 30 writers for a news franchise network. Asked whether he’d want to buy a news brand like The Hill to kickstart those efforts, he responded: “We’re looking.”

Chances are, those words are going to make some political journalists pretty nervous.

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