SI Swimsuit Issue: is it porn? Heck if I know

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A few days ago, I walked into my office in the Time-Life Building and nearly slipped on a thick magazine tucked under my door: Sports Illustrated’s annual Swimsuit Issue.

I blogged that day expressing my mild annoyance at this unwanted gift. Since then, I’ve been hit with a mini-tsunami of responses from readers and colleagues—not to mention other bloggers (Gawker thinks I’m a bonehead unworthy of my paycheck; Michael David Smith of Sports.AOL’s Fanhouse sympathizes; Folio’s Dylan Stableford praises for letting a twerp like me vent).

That whoosh you just heard is me taking a deep breath. At the risk of stirring up more muck—and earning me a visit to the principal’s office—I feel called to follow up.

1. My beef is not with the existence of SISI. It’s a boffo earner for my company, and believe me, we can use all the yen we can scratch up right now. I don’t consider it journalism on the level of, say, SI’s award-winning work exposing the Balco investigation, but I know many of my talented colleagues work their butts off preparing the issue every year. I do think it disingenuous to call it a fashion catalog; no woman I know takes their swimwear guidance from SI. Like my brother George would say, it is what it is: an issue packed with barely dressed ladies for a male audience normally interested in sports. It’s sort of like Valentine’s Day: an excuse to scarf candy once a year.

2. I don’t know or care if SISI is porn. Though I called it porn in my post, if I’m being honest with you (as Simon Cowell would say), I was being flippant. Obscenity is notoriously difficult to define; as Justice Potter Stewart said in 1964, he knows it when he sees it. Heck if I can pin it down. But as commenter CoworkerInProgress first pointed out, we employees are sort of left to wonder what management thinks when each copy distributed to each desk is placed, deliberately and carefully, face down.

3. My beef is with the fact and manner of the distribution to employees. Time Inc. publishes 125 magazines. Each have best-selling, high-value issues: the Fortune 500; People, following the death of a big star; InStyle post-Oscar. My own magazine puts out some highly sought-after issues, if I may say so: TIME 100, say, or Person of the Year. None of these are distributed to every employee in the building. The fact of the distribution stamps an implied value on SISI not placed on our other top-selling issues. But it’s a value determined without explanation or much sense, considering the issue’s unique content and our diverse employee population.

4. Many of my Time Inc. colleagues agree. Since my post, I’ve gotten a slew of notes from employees who say they too have long objected to this singular practice (though many add I’m a knucklehead for saying so in public). Most are women; some are men. They variously pointed out the weirdness of singling out one issue, of copies placed face down, of receiving the issues at all. Many said they just tossed their issues in the bin, which, I might add, is what many readers have told me to do. But doesn’t that completely work against our business goal of selling as many as possible?

On behalf of these colleagues, I humbly offer a suggestion. Doing away with the free issue isn’t it; far be it for me to suggest eradicating a perk that no doubt more than a few of my fellow workers treasure.

Instead, how about allowing employees to opt out of receiving a copy beforehand? Ordinary subscribers have been given that option since 2005 by calling 1-866-228-1175. Doesn’t it make sense to offer workers the same? That way, the workers who want their issues get them; we who don’t, won’t; and the company saves possibly hundreds of issues from the recycling bin and instead gets to sell them for $5.99 each to a willingly paying public. Win, win, win. Right, principal?