Why Sports Illustrated Highlights Classic Photos More Than Articles
Credit: screenshot
December 11, 2013

In 2009, Sports Illustrated special projects producer Andy Gray created the Twitter handle @si_vault  to draw attention to the wealth of stories available in the magazine’s online archive — currently more than 150,000.

At lunchtime, Gray tweeted a link to one of SI’s classic articles. One day, it’d be a 1984 profile of Darryl Strawberry. The next, it was a 1973 piece on Roberto Clemente.

No matter what story he chose, it didn’t garner the enthusiastic response that he wanted.

So Gray turned to SI’s photo collection and started tweeting out old pictures.

“It was like Christmas. People loved it; one photo got more feedback than 10 stories I posted. I don’t know what it says about us as a society, but that’s not really my problem,” he said. “My problem is to figure out a way to make the Vault content resonate with the present day audience, and I found photos were the best way to do that.”

Sometimes Gray will go through stacks of physical photographs in the magazine’s archive room; other times, he’ll look at old negatives or peruse SI’s photo database, which he said stores about 10 million images.

“It’s super exciting,” he said. “You go in there and find some picture that you know everyone’s going to absolutely love and you know no one else has seen it.”

He has made galleries of athletes in their kitchens and in their bathrooms, sleeping and smoking, after determining that viewers like seeing athletes depicted as normal people. A recent gallery titled “SI’s 100 Funniest Photos” received 12 million views in less than a week. He said he would like to do something more with the SI Vault, ideally setting off the stories with photos and graphics to make them more readable.

“There’s these places like Longform.org and other sites that have started to become popular over last six to nine months, so that trend [of not reading longform] might be changing a little bit,” he said. “But the average person doesn’t know Longform.org exists. I think you and I do, but people like John in Topeka, Kan., have no idea, and he’d rather just look at a bunch of photos than dive in and read a book or a 4,000-word profile in a magazine.”