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Old Mystic native Chris Stone climbs the ladder at Sports Illustrated

By Vickie Fulkerson

Publication: The Day

Published July 15. 2013 4:00AM   Updated July 15. 2013 6:31PM
Miguel Saavedra/Sports Illustrated
Chris Stone started out as a fact checker at Sports Illustrated and worked his way up to managing editor.
He started at the bottom and is now managing editor

New York - He was just finishing up at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in the spring of 1992 when Old Mystic native Chris Stone noticed a position posted in the student lounge.

It was with Sports Illustrated, an entry-level position as a fact-checker that his mentor at Columbia, Sandy Padwe, tried to dissuade him from taking due to the minimal writing opportunities it would present.

Stone, though, in addition to being the son of a career newspaperman, was a sports fanatic, not only a reader of Sports Illustrated but glued to the Boston Globe sports pages during his undergraduate years at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

"I liked the thought of staying in New York and Sports Illustrated is a recognizable brand," Stone said. "(Padwe) said there would be more professional value in working for a newspaper right away; I wasn't going to break into those (Sports Illustrated) guys and start writing.

"(But) I was intoxicated by the idea of having a job in New York for a well-known brand."

It turned out to be the job opening of a lifetime for Stone, who never left SI and now lives in New York City with his wife, Kim, and their children Sam, 11, and Annabel, 8.

On Oct. 18, 2012, less than a month and a half shy of his 43rd birthday, he was named as just the ninth managing editor in the history of the iconic magazine.

From his office on the 31st floor of the Time-Life Building at 1271 Avenue of the Americas, overlooking the west side of Manhattan, he's responsible for the day-to-day operations of the magazine, which boasts a circulation of more than 3 million.

The historic May 6, 2013, issue, in which the NBA's Jason Collins came out as the first openly gay male athlete to play for a professional team sport in the U.S., was overseen by Stone, who appeared on the CBS program "Face the Nation" to discuss the way the announcement by Collins resonated with readers.

Stone also was in charge on April 15 this year when the finish line of the Boston Marathon was staggered by two bombs, with Sports Illustrated going to press later that day with the April 22 issue headlined, "Boston, In Photos/And Words."

He put Mystic's Matt Harvey, the ace of the New York Mets, on the magazine's cover on May 20, 2013, featuring the catch phrase, "The Dark Knight of Gotham."

And yes, it was Stone who was left to deal with the fallout from an issue published on Oct. 1, 2012, before his tenure as managing editor began, featuring the story of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o playing through the death of his girlfriend, a relationship that was later found to be a hoax.

"That was a cold, hard slap," Stone said of the realization that the magazine, like some other major media outlets, had been duped by the Te'o story. "It wasn't the result of laziness. There were a number of things we took out of the story because we couldn't fact check them. … It was a good lesson for the future."

Stone is a graduate of The Williams School in New London, where he was a three-sport athlete, and the son of Greg and Elizabeth Stone. He has a younger brother, Peter, 42, who is a literary agent for TV writers in Los Angeles.

Greg retired as deputy editorial page editor at The Day, where Chris worked for four summers after he graduated from high school.

"I think I sent an email to Maureen Croteau at UConn (in the journalism department)," Greg Stone said of learning of his son's promotion. "She wrote back and said, 'Why don't you hire a skywriter?' That's what she would do. I was just telling everyone I can think of."

'A smart, bookish guy'

Steve Rushin, a senior SI writer who also is a former fact-checker for the magazine, said in a recent interview he believes it is because of the way Stone worked his way from the bottom all the way up to the corner office that he can relate to all facets of the business, making him an ideal managing editor.

"Chris has fact-checked stories, reported stories, written stories, edited stories, put together individual issues of the magazine and had all the qualifications to put out great issues of SI as a managing editor," said Rushin, who has known Stone for more than 20 years. "But the job also requires someone who can charm advertisers and work with the business side of the magazine and introduce two dozen supermodels at the swimsuit launch party at some club in Manhattan without ever seeming to break a sweat.

"Chris does all of those very different jobs remarkably well. He's a smart, bookish, literary guy who nevertheless looks like he just fell off a surfboard. That's a pretty good combination to be when you're editing Sports Illustrated."

Stone was a fact-checker at Sports Illustrated for the first three years of his career, a job that didn't have the benefit of use of email or the Internet. There were a lot of phone calls to collegiate sports information directors to confirm spellings of names.

Rushin won a coin flip one night with co-worker Roger Rubin, who then had to call Penn State football coach Joe Paterno at 2 a.m. as the magazine was headed for deadline to ask the color of Paterno's car. Paterno promptly hung up.

"It was like a fraternity hazing," Rushin said. "I had a full head of hair when I joined SI as a fact-checker and two years later, when I started writing stories, I had 50 percent less hair. So it was stressful, but if you could survive, you came out stronger for it. Chris not only survived, but he never seemed to share the anxiety so many of us did."

Since then, Stone was an NHL and college football reporter and part of the founding team of SI on Campus. He was senior editor for baseball when SI broke the news of Alex Rodriguez's positive tests for steroids. Stone became an assistant managing editor in 2009 and was one of several candidates to replace outgoing managing editor Terry McDonell.

In that time, since 1992, Sports Illustrated has become less of a news reporting agency; that task falls to SI.com. Because of an endless loop of material on television and the Internet, the weekly magazine has to work harder to entertain its readers.

"When I was young, it was an act of discovery," Stone said. "I didn't know anything about the Minnesota Vikings; you relied on something like Sports Illustrated. Now you can look it up any time you want. Now you can't necessarily do an issue about, 'The Pirates are hot.' By the time you get the magazine, they might not be hot anymore."

Former talk show host Larry King is a lifelong reader of Sports Illustrated and told Stone recently that he often gives the magazine to his teenage son to read.

"He'll say, 'You have to read this story.' And his son will say, 'I already know that,'" Stone said. "Our goal is to take somebody who thinks they know everything and they read it and say, 'Maybe I didn't know.'

"We're not going to stop running stories on LeBron (James), Tim Duncan, Matt Harvey, just because people think they know everything. You can be topical without writing about what just happened. I do feel confident every week we're telling stories in new ways."

A different view of swimsuit issue

Could it be, with Sports Illustrated's recent history of compelling storytelling, the magazine is the best it's ever been?

"I do think the magazine is as good as it's ever been," Rushin said. "Rick Telander told me when he started at SI in the '70s, people were saying the magazine was better in the '60s. But guess what: Guys like Telander, Roy Blount, Frank Deford, Alex Wolff, Franz Lidz and Jack McCallum - all of whom wrote for SI 30 years ago - still write for the magazine. And they're surrounded by a group of hugely talented young writers who I love to read every bit as much as the writers I loved to read when I was in college 25 years ago."

Stone, who was born in Seoul, South Korea, when his father was a U.S. Army clerk - drafted into the military from his job at The Day in 1968 - said he remembers the first time he saw a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition arrive at his house.

"It scared the living (daylights) out of me," Stone said. "It was lying there on the dining room table. I felt guilty, like, 'Mom's going to punish me for this.'"

In February, he sent Rushin to Antarctica for the swimsuit edition, which included photo shoots from all seven continents.

Stone calls the Collins story "the most amazing thing I'll ever be associated with."

"It was worthy of celebration," Stone said of the news, which was released on SI.com on Monday ahead of the magazine's publication, generating more unique Web hits than any other story on the site's history. "It was divisive, but it was fulfilling. Franz (Lidz, to whom Collins told his story) said, 'I'm just organizing his thoughts.' It was a proud moment. We let Jason Collins be the story. We tried to stay out of the way.

"I love sports," Stone said. "I love watching it, I play fantasy, it takes up a lot of my life. It's enjoyable. I'm enjoying myself. There's people who think sports and the real world don't cross, but they do engage every day. Not everything in our lives has to be about it, but sports and the real world do, in fact, cross a lot."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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