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ESPN The Magazine’s Millman shares lessons from his rise in magazine industry

A college graduate for just three weeks, Chad Millman, then simply an auspicious 22-year-old journalist, ventured to Manhattan in 1993 to pursue his dream. And Millman’s dream, ever since he could remember, was to work for a magazine.

“I had been such a fan of them growing up,” he says now. “They looked so fun and glamorous. They were so shiny and sheik. And living in New York seemed like the place to be.”

But his dad, who helped him move into his first apartment, apparently wasn’t yet sold. Before leaving, he handed his son a bartending manual and offered a bit of wishful thinking. “I hope you don’t need it,” he said.

Three weeks later, just as Millman was about to crack open the book, the phone rang. Sports Illustrated was on the other line with a job offer.

Eighteen years later, his dicey gamble to move to the magazine capital of the world has paid off ten-fold. On Tuesday with graduate students of Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center, Millman, now the editor-in-chief of ESPN The Magazine, offered insights into the journey that has seen him ascend from a scribe working for his college newspaper, The Indiana Daily Student, to one of the more venerable positions of the media juggernaut that is ESPN.

In his near-20 year career in the magazine industry, what’s the one prevailing lesson about his future profession he wished he had known coming out of IU?

“It’s hard, it’s really hard,” he says succinctly. “It’s grunt work and it’s hard. I wish I had been told how hard it was so I could have been better prepared.”

Millman’s absurdly quick ascension – his first job out of college was at Sports Illustrated, after all – underscores the bevy of talents he brings to the table as a journalist. He’s an author of six books on a wide range of subjects. He essentially, he says, shaped a beat at ESPN that hadn’t been previously pursued: the enigmatic world of sports gambling. Editor-in-chief since June, he maintains a gambling-centric blog and a Behind the Bets video series.

Perhaps most telling of all: he boasts more than 28,000 followers on Twitter.

“I love my job,” he says. “For me, when you’re putting a magazine together, you never know if it’s going to work. You plan these things weeks and months in advance, you come up with these grandiose schemes and great story ideas and fantastic photos. It’s a crapshoot, and you have no idea if the decision you made in June will come to fruition in August. What I like is the exact moment when I figure out it’s going to work out. I like it when the decisions you make are great ones and it leads to a great magazine.”

To little surprise, a prominent role at the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports comes with a fair amount of controversy. Partly due to the massive spectrum ESPN operates in, there are hoards of criticisms, both based and otherwise. In the gamut of the magazine, Millman says his unit has caught fire on a number of topics, from the publication’s Boston-themed October issue to the ever-debated What if Michael Vick Were White images to the magazine’s oversized pages.

“The biggest complaint we get is that size is too big,” he explains. “They hate the themes. Those who criticize are a very vocal minority.”

There’s also the circulating notion that his employer – business partners with a wide array of college conferences and professional sports leagues – is having trouble maintaining its journalistic integrity. A recent USA Today headline begged the question: “Is ESPN the force behind realignment?”

“There is the perception that ESPN is soft,” Millman says. “And we’re always going to be battling that perception. The perceived notion will never go away. But there’s never been an instance where we at the magazine haven’t been able to pursue a story we want to pursue because of that.”

The bottom line: Millman’s staff of roughly 100 writers, reporters, editors and designers continue to churn out the nation’s second-most widely read sports periodical in the country (circulation: roughly two million). They’ve established a progressive mantra that spills across their pages; as Millman will tell you, ESPN The Magazine is always thinking ahead, never behind. Their eye-popping photographs and appending graphics compliment the work of their award-winning writers.

The thinking, according to Millman: “What are you going to read now that is going to make you a smarter sports fan tomorrow?”

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