Rejuvenated at ESPN, Clinkscales Explains Why He’s Bullish Again on Magazines
“Al Sharpton was still wearing sweatsuits.”
That’s how long ago Keith Clinkscales, ESPN The Magazine’s senior vice president, content development, arrived in New York.
Clinkscales, speaking at the 2007 Folio: Show’s luncheon keynote Tuesday, said his career in the magazine industry has followed the trajectory of something out of Six Flags.
Inspired by a Spike Lee film, Clinkscales raised $35,000 to launch Urban Profile in 1988. After growing circulation to 75,000, Clinkscales then rose through the entrepreneurial ranks at Time Inc. – what he called “the graduate school for magazine publishing” – launching Vibe with Quincy Jones in 1993 and meeting the rising stars of the black music industry.
“I knew Jay-Z back when he was ‘Sean,’ Diddy when he was also ‘Sean,’” Clinkscales said. “Beyonce, Destiny’s Child—I thought that was a silly name.”
Clinkscales, who was once dubbed by the Washington Post as the “boy wonder of black publishing,” decided he needed a new challenge at Vibe. “I was chasing Silk The Shocker,” Clinkscales said. “Where have I gone wrong in life?”
Clinkscales then partnered with BET to publish three magazines – Honey, Heart & Soul and Savoy – as part of a failed venture called Vanguard Media. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2003, and Clinkscales resigned as CEO. “I spent my 40th birthday with my wife over a quiet dinner,” he recalled. “I hated magazines.”
ESPN, though, gave Clinkscales a shot at magazine redemption. When he signed on at ESPN The Magazine in 2005, though, ESPN.com – a “98-pound weakling for years” when compared to the magazine—was outgrowing the magazine. Said Clinkscales: “Being a magazine guy, you were old.” He would also have to endure “print is dead” proclamations during management meetings. “They could’ve said ‘print is wounded’ or ‘print is was traded for a player to be named later.’”
But Clinkscales has leveraged the internal rivalry with ESPN.com to his advantage. “When I came in it was like the Red Sox-Yankees.” Now, the magazine and site share some columnists and content, including ESPN.com’s popular Page Two.