A Journalist Reborn

November 17, 2021

When his industry—and a brilliant career—suddenly collapsed, Ian Thomsen MPS’21 launched a personal reinvention for the digital age

man smiling and standing with his arms crossed
Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

“This is the tale of an old man who dreams of telling a new story.”

So begins Ian Thomsen’s master’s thesis, in which the 2021 College of Professional Studies (CPS) graduate recounts his journey to spectacular professional success—followed by the equally spectacular implosion of his industry and career. Among the most successful sportswriters of his generation, Thomsen saw his working life shattered by the advent of online media and its decimating effect on the print-news industry.

As magazines and newspapers trimmed budgets and staff and his own assignments grew sparse, Thomsen says, “I realized that the page had turned. The instruction manual for a career as I had known it was out of print—in fact, it wasn’t even being printed any longer. I needed to learn the systems of a new era. And the new instruction manual is digital.”

Thomsen became a student of that new manual in 2018, when he enrolled in CPS’s Digital Media graduate program and embarked on a personal reinvention for the digital age. Three years later, with new skills, a new appreciation for interaction with his readers, and a new online newsletter, the self-declared “refugee of the bygone print-media industry” is ready for the next chapter.

Choosing journalism

Thomsen’s rise in what is now often called “traditional” or “legacy” media was nothing short of meteoric. The son of immigrants and the first in his family to attend college, he remembers sitting at the kitchen table at his parents’ home in Mobile, Alabama, circa 1978, working on college applications and discussing career possibilities with his mom. He had written for his high school newspaper, and reporting appealed to him.

“At the time,” he says, “it was the only thing I could think of that I might be qualified to do.”

Thomsen turned out to be very qualified and, as he tells it, very lucky. As an undergraduate at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, he joined the student newspaper. In his junior year, he won an internship on the sports desk at the Boston Globe. That experience would change his life. At the Globe, he found himself working alongside writers whose names had already become legend in the industry—reporters and columnists like Peter Gammons, Bob Ryan, Will McDonough and Leigh Montville. 

“They were all so generous,” Thomsen says. “Not only were they the best, but they didn’t act like it.”

For an ambitious young journalist, the internship became a kind of master class. 

“I wanted to be a storyteller the way they were,” Thomsen says of his models and mentors. “So, I studied them. Bob Ryan would have a half hour to write his game stories. He’d be writing them during the game, and the colorful analogies and the ways he would describe a play would just create this powerful imagery in your mind.” 

But effective journalistic storytelling, Thomsen learned, involved a lot more than just finding strong images. In watching the seasoned writers work, and reading the articles they produced, he realized that it was a process of “training your mind to see something happening, breaking down the elements, moving those elements around, throwing out what was unnecessary and being able to put it back together again to tell a story efficiently, to instantly see a story and reframe facts in a way that someone else might not.” 

“I still don’t know if I know how to do that,” Thomsen says. “But I knew they did and I really wanted to learn how to do it.”

When the internship ended, Thomsen applied for a position at the Globe as a staff writer. He got the job, and in his third year at the paper—seven years after that kitchen-table conversation with his mom—an article he had written on the death of a high school football player in a small Pennsylvania coal mining town was named national sports story of the year by the Associated Press Sports Editors. After that, more doors began to open.

‘The best job in the business’

Thomsen spent six years at the Globe, honing his skills and style on story after story of games and events that would enter sports lore. He wrote about Doug Flutie’s famous 1984 Hail Mary touchdown pass, about the epic 1986 World Series clash between the New York Mets and the Boston Red Sox, about two Super Bowls, all three of the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird NBA Finals, and the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea. He loved the work. But he didn’t see a clear path to advancement—writers and editors at the Globe, he says, tended to stay at their jobs for decades—so he began to look for new opportunities. 

After a stint at the innovative but short-lived The National Sports Daily, Thomsen landed at The International Herald Tribune, a position he says colleagues have agreed may have been “the best job that ever existed in the business [of sportswriting].” Based in Paris, where Thomsen lived with his wife and soon a daughter, and then in London, where his son was born, the job essentially meant he could write about whatever he wanted, wherever he wanted. The freedom was ideal, but it also carried a certain amount of pressure.

“I remember being very scared of it,” Thomsen says, “because I was going to be writing a lot about things I didn’t know anything about such as soccer and rugby and all these other things I hadn’t covered.”

His nerves soon settled, and before long he was covering continental contests such as cricket, soccer and rugby with panache. He also wrote about sports he knew better, like tennis at the French Open and Wimbledon, basketball in the European leagues, and international track and field—along with U.S. stories that echoed around the world, such as the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan figure-skating scandal.

In conversations with the Herald Tribune’s executive editor, John Vinocur (now a Wall Street Journal columnist), Thomsen also learned a lesson he applied later, when he began his studies at Northeastern: “John said, ‘What you want to do is write a story so that people who know nothing about rugby will be able to read it and understand it and be inspired by it—but then also people who know everything about rugby will be able to read it and like it and be inspired by it.’ You have to try to find a universal element to every story that would cut across culture or language or perspective or expertise. It’s a really hard thing to pull off. But when you force yourself to think like that every single time, it really trains you.”

In 1997, Thomsen landed a job at the era’s pinnacle of sports writing: Sports Illustrated. For someone with his training and aspirations, it was a dream come true. The magazine had built its reputation on taking sports seriously—publishing deeply reported, long-form articles that went beyond scores and sensationalism into the personalities and narrative arcs of teams and individual athletes. Those were exactly the kinds of stories Thomsen wanted to tell, and he wrote them at Sports Illustrated for 17 years. Many ended up on the cover. He started out reporting on European events—the 1998 World Cup in France was one—but soon was spending most of his time on the basketball beat in the U.S., where he reveled in becoming an NBA insider, getting to know players and coaches and writing about a game he loves (although also one, he notes, that despite his passion and 6-foot-6-inch frame, he has never really played). 

It was during Thomsen’s years at Sports Illustrated that the digital tide began to rise and print publications of all kinds began to founder. In 2000, Google Ads went online. In 2006, Facebook opened its membership to the public. Twitter launched the same year. Between 2008 and 2014, according to the Pew Research Center, 24,000 newsroom jobs were lost in the U.S. By 2020, an additional 5,000 were gone. From 2008 to 2019, according to Statistica.com, aggregate yearly revenue of U.S. periodical publishers fell from about $42.5 billion to about $26.2 billion. In a related article, USA Today concluded that such figures “illustrate how the press is staggering as it continues its quest for financial sustainability in the digital age.”

Sports Illustrated was no exception. In 2014, Thomsen was laid off, along with eight of his colleagues. 

“I could see it coming,” he says. “The industry was dying.”

Ian Thomsen 2.0

In the years that followed, Thomsen worked as a special contributor to NBA.com, taught a Sports Journalism class at Boston University, and wrote a critically acclaimed book on LeBron James, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, called The Soul of Basketball. But when he was laid off again in 2017, this time by NBA.com, he realized that using the same old tools to repair his professional prospects just wasn’t going to work.

“My story was representative of what happened to many journalists in the print media industry,” Thomsen wrote in his master’s thesis. “I was left with two takeaways. The first was a feeling of vulnerability, as though after a successful career the ground had vanished under my feet. The second was a new sense of mission and purpose to reinvent myself.”

Thomsen’s exploration of the digital universe started in the communications office at Northeastern. In August of 2018, he accepted a job writing for [email protected]. A month later, he was enrolled as a Digital Media student in the College of Professional Studies. Soon he was learning an entirely new playbook—one that involved search engine optimization, digital strategy, interactive marketing, branding research, and techniques for harnessing the power of social media. 

“Getting a digital media degree at Northeastern,” Thomsen says, “was basically to learn everything I didn’t know anything about and that I had not been trained to understand. In my old world, the print-media world, it was a one-way street. You would write something, and it would be printed, and there was no back-and-forth with the reader. Now, everything depends on that back-and-forth. So there was a lot for me to learn.”

As an older student, Thomsen says he was at first a little self-conscious—but as he got to know his classmates, the feeling soon passed.

“I was by far the oldest person in every class,” he says. “But everything felt perfectly equitable. All of my classmates were just very welcoming and generous. After my initial uncertainty, we were all just students in the class trying to figure it out.”

According to Professor James Gardner, who advised Thomsen on his thesis and with whom Thomsen took “Social Media and Brand Strategy Implementation,” Thomsen’s many years of practical experience simply meant he brought another critical lens to the class.

“Ian has seen the arc of traditional media from its complete and utter heyday,” Gardner says. “He was at the pinnacle of the pinnacle. And then obviously he saw it go sideways as digital disrupted the world of print publications. A lot of my students are young enough that they don’t really have a recollection of how things used to be in a non-streaming entertainment world. It makes it challenging for them to appreciate just how significant that change was. We talked about that in the class a lot.”

Thomsen also became a sought-after partner for group projects and exercises. 

“He was in a position to bring a lot of value to discussions around things like storytelling in content marketing—which is a big part of what we talk about in the course,” Gardner says. “You’re not going to find someone that knows more about storytelling than Ian.”

That knowledge, in fact, became the seed for Thomsen’s master’s thesis—and for his current extracurricular venture: a sports newsletter with a twist

The Word of Eugene

While his day-job at Northeastern remains his primary focus, Thomsen has carried forward an idea that germinated in his thesis work with Gardner. To breathe life into it, he decided he needed an unconventional approach. So, he invented an alter-ego.

“Eugene is a fictional character,” Thomsen says of his newsletter’s narrator. “And he’s going to start out as a bit of a mystery. He’s the father to a large number of kids that he and his wife are raising, so he doesn’t have a lot of time on his hands. And he doesn’t suffer fools gladly.”

In part from a sense of paternal responsibility and in part simply to have his say, Eugene has invented a religion—based on sports.

“He sees this very polarized world,” Thomsen says of his creation, “and sees that sports actually should serve as a model for fixing our world.”

In the blunt voice of Eugene, Thomsen writes a weekly column celebrating the best aspects of humanity. He applies the sports news of the day to lessons of selflessness and teamwork—the kinds of things preached by coaches everywhere. 

“Sports is a window,” Thomsen says. “It’s a window into the imagination of people, the inspiration, the ambition—and to building communities. If you’re playing a team sport, you have to build a community, because you have to work with your teammates. If you are pursuing something for yourself, but doing it at the expense of others, you’re making the world worse. But if you’re trying to build a sense of teamwork, and fulfilling yourself in a way that helps others fulfill themselves, then you’re making the world a better place. That’s Eugene’s message.”

Leavening that message is material gathered in the course of Thomsen’s first career—anecdotes and insight from his decades on the sports beat. Using the digital tools he acquired at CPS—many of which he also uses at work daily—Thomsen’s goal is to make the hard-won lessons of a successful print journalist relevant in the age of Facebook, Twitter, streaming games and online news.

If anyone can do it, Gardner says, it’s Thomsen.

“As long as he consistently delivers high quality content,” Gardner says, “I can imagine his subscription audience growing—which in some ways is a very elegant solution. It could become like a flywheel, where the audience loves what he’s doing so much that the audience grows, and the conversion of non-paying subscribers to paying subscribers increases, because you’re doing something that people really find valuable. That’s the promise of his thesis: He’s going to thread that needle and then finds an opportunity to do what he loves, continue working in a field where he’s exceptionally talented, create a livelihood, and serve the public interest by bringing interesting stories to the forefront where they should be.”

For Thomsen, the goal remains the same as it has been his entire career.

“For me,” he says, “it’s really an exercise in having fun and trying to offer people something that they wouldn’t get otherwise. When you realize that the world’s changing, you only have two choices. You can let it move on without you, or you can run alongside, jump on, and try to figure it out.”