Editing career was accidental for ESPN The Magazine editor
By Haley Whisennand
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
When Chad Millman was named editor-in-chief of ESPN The Magazine last June, it was a promotion he hadn’t expected.
Millman, 40, had known since high school that he wanted to be a sports writer. But becoming an editor was purely an accident.
After Millman graduated from Indiana University in 1993, he worked for Sports Illustrated for five years before ESPN wooed him away for an editing job just as the magazine was starting up. By last June, when the magazine’s top job opened up, he was a senior deputy editor and had written seven books.
Millman, who lives in Montclair, N.J., with his wife and two sons, talked about his career and the challenges he faces in a phone interview.
Q: How did you get into journalism in the first place?
A: When I was in high school, I was a big fan of Sports Illustrated and I was a huge sports fan. I read every issue cover to cover and I read as many sports books as I could and just decided, you know what, I like to write. I like sports, so I want to go be a sports writer. So I knew in high school that it was what I wanted to do. Then I went to college. I went to Indiana University. They have a good journalism program there and I got involved in that and just never found anything else that I was dying to do. I didn’t look very hard.
Q: How did you end up as an editor?
A: Completely by accident. I got a job at Sports Illustrated when I got out of college. I was working there and then ESPN The Magazine was starting. This was 1998. I had an interview with one of the editors who was starting it and told him, “You know what, I really like being a writer. I want to continue to be a writer.” He’s like, “Look, I think you should try being an editor.” I’m like, “I don’t really want to.” He goes, “You know what, when you’re editor, you still get to do a lot of writing. We’ll let you write stories and stuff. But that’s what we need right now is editors, not writers. So I’d love it if you gave it a shot.”
So I tried it and I liked it a lot, but I continued to write. I wrote a bunch of books and I still have a column that I do for the website. So I continued to kind of keep my toe in the writing world and I just sort of kept progressing professionally on both tracks…
Q: Do you prefer one job over the other? Or do you think they’re just so different that you can’t really choose?
A: They’re so different you can’t really choose. There’s a lot of things I like about writing that I don’t ever want to give up, which is why I continued to do it, like the column online. Then there’s a lot of stuff about editing that I would miss if I was writing only. Part of it is, the stuff I like about editing is that you get to be a lot more in control of your own fate than you are as a writer. So that’s always a nicer feeling.
Q: How did you feel after you were chosen to become the next editor-in-chief ?
A: I was a little bit surprised, to be honest. It was not on my radar, I wasn’t thinking about it. It had been announced a few weeks earlier that the magazine, which was located in New York at the time, was going to be moving to Bristol, Conn. Bristol is about two hours from New York. I lived in the suburbs of New York, so it was still two hours for me. Because I wrote so much for the magazine and for the website and did a lot of television, when the magazine was moving, I didn’t have to go with the magazine. I could have stayed where I was and just written full-time. So I wasn’t really thinking about moving or being the editor. So when they mentioned it to me, I was a little bit surprised.
Q: What are your day-to-day responsibilities?
A: Every day is so different. Day-to-day, my job is to get the magazine out the door and make it as good as possible and try to make the lives of the people who work here as happy as possible and make sure that they are happy to be working on the magazine and proud of the product that they are putting out.
How I do that on a day-to-day basis is constantly different because we come out every two weeks. So the Thursday I have in two weeks will be similar to the Thursday I had this week. But it won’t be similar to the Thursday I have next week because you build up some momentum over the course of the two-week cycle to where you have a lot of things going on and a lot of meetings and a lot of planning and a lot of forward thinking and a lot of strategizing over the next two weeks, two months, 18 months that you’re doing as a course of business at ESPN. Then there’s also the day-to-day of getting the magazine out and the closer we get to deadlines, the more my job becomes about the day-to-day of getting the magazine out.
Q: What are some of the major changes you’ve seen in the journalism field recently?
A: You can’t really have this conversation without mentioning what social media does to journalism and how it’s changing what we do and how we report and what we report on and what constitutes a story and what athletes are sharing with us versus what they’re sharing on Twitter.
I think the biggest change is the impact that Facebook and Twitter are having on the way we distribute information.
Q: Do you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing?
A: I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think there’s advantages to it. I think there are ways to use it “smartly,” both as a platform and as a source. You just need to be flexible enough to adapt to it and understand how driving particular conversations forces you to rethink what you can do, particularly with a magazine. We’ve been battling this for 13 years and the Internet has become much more relevant and immediate. What do magazines do that the Internet can’t offer? So we’re constantly thinking about how to play against technology in order to tell good stories that will be relevant to people between the time we close and the time it gets to people’s mailboxes.
Q: ESPN is such a large company. Are you just in charge of the magazine? You’re not like an editor for the online content or anything?
A: No, there’s a separate organization. The magazine is within the print and digital unit. There is a lot of cooperation and story sharing and meetings between the two groups, but my domain is the magazine. There’s an editor-in-chief that runs ESPN.com.
Q: OK. What’s your favorite project that you’ve been a part of so far? (Millman hesitates) Or do you have one?
A: I do. We put out an issue called the analytics issue a few weeks ago that, I think, was the best issue we’ve done.
We do an issue called One Day, One Game, which we started last fall, in which we dedicate the entire issue to a 360-degree examination of what happens to put on a sporting event from the owner’s box to what’s happening on the field or the court to what’s happening in the stands. I think that’s the project I get the most into and have the most fun with.
Q: As an editor, what’s the most difficult decision you’ve ever had to make?
A: It’s always a personnel decision. It’s not a decision about killing a story or changing a line or choosing a picture. It’s always about do you want to hire this person? Do you need to change this person’s life in other material ways? Do you need to discipline someone? Those are always the most difficult decisions to make.
Q: And is that the most challenging part of your job?
A: No. The most challenging part of my job is existing within the ESPN matrix.
Q: How so?
A: It’s just a very big place. It’s a very complicated place. You want your stories to have as much of an impact as possible and finding the ways in which that can happen and the paths you have to take to discover that are difficult.
Q: Is there a decision or a mistake that you’ve made that really stuck with you?
A: There’s probably so many. There are some personnel decisions that I made that I wish I could take back. I can’t really talk about those…. That’s a tough question. I’ve been saved from making really, really big mistakes. Not that I haven’t wanted to.
This is a silly one. Every issue we do is a theme issue. So the issue we have on stands now is called the Choke Issue. There was a period of about a week where I was worried that putting a team on the cover of the Choke Issue was going to be insensitive and nasty and I didn’t want to do it. So for a period of about three days, I wanted to change the name from the Choke Issue to the Clutch Issue. As we’re sitting in there, it’s like two days before the issue’s closing, and we need to make some final decisions on what the issue’s going to look like and I say I want to call it this. Finally like three people on the staff said that was a horrible decision. And they were right and we changed the name of the issue and it all worked out fine.
It’s a pretty collaborative process here. I’m pretty open about telling people the decisions that I’m making and if people don’t like it, they tell me pretty quickly and, if they have sound reasoning, then I can see that it’s a bad idea and we usually don’t go down that route.
Q: Do you think it’s important, as an editor, to be open about your decisions?
A: Yes. You have to be. These are very collaborative, very public products that we’re putting out. We need to share what we’re thinking so a) we’re not insensitive to people – my perspective is different than somebody else’s and b) just because it encourages people being involved. The more engaged they are, the more invested they’ll be in the product and the more interested they’ll be in making sure it’s great.
Q: What’s your favorite part about working for ESPN?
A: It’s sports. It’s the stories we get to tell are so great and the access we get because we’re ESPN is pretty fantastic. There’s an abundance of opportunity to tell some pretty fantastic stories.