More perspective from Merida on Front Row
The Undefeated, ESPN’s new multimedia platform that will explore the intersections of sports, race and culture, will launch on May 17. Kevin Merida, Senior Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of the site, made the announcement today at a company employee forum.
TheUndefeated.com will combine innovative long-form and short-form storytelling, original reporting and provocative commentary to enlighten and entertain African Americans, as well as sports fans seeking a deeper understanding of black athletes, culture and related issues. The name, The Undefeated, is inspired by a passage from American poet, author and civil rights leader Maya Angelou: “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”
Merida, a former Washington Post managing editor, joined ESPN in November 2015, and has since broadened the vision for the site. His senior management team includes managing editor Raina Kelley, a former deputy editor at ESPN the Magazine; deputy editor for enterprise and narrative, Steve Reiss, once a deputy assistant managing editor at the Washington Post Style section; and deputy editor for digital innovation, Latoya Peterson, former editor-at-large at Fusion and a 2013 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University.
Ahead of the launch date announcement, Merida discusses the project:
You have described The Undefeated’s target audience as African Americans and fans who want to understand black athletes better. What are some of the unique ways the site will reach this audience?
Merida: We want to produce work that is cool, smart, innovative, provocative and memorable. We are going to aggressively experiment, and be brave about that. Form is important. Convention is not. We have set the bar high for ourselves. Our motto is: Not conventional. Never boring. We will work hard to live up to that. Can we blow up how you do commentary? Can we pioneer short-form ambition? Make short-form about brilliant, amazing, mic-drop work. And not about the snackable food on which the Internet gorges. We want to do more with music, spoken word, comedy. We want to let athletes tell their own stories. And we want to reach our audience wherever they are — on the social platforms where they’re living, and live on HBCU campuses with events.
The Undefeated will launch May 17. Is there a significance to that timing?
Well, ironically, May 17th is the 62nd anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. It’s not one of the big anniversaries. But when I think of the Brown case, I think of Thurgood Marshall. Of his steadfast determination, and unbelievable courage, to dismantle segregation by any legal means necessary. He incurred countless death threats, went into the most dangerous places in the South for a black man, and challenged racism directly. He is what it means to be “Undefeated.” If you win 90% of the cases you argue before the Supreme Court as a lawyer, and difficult cases, you are in the Hall of Fame of The Undefeated. You’re in the Hall of Fame of America.
Now, May 17th also happens to be the date of ESPN’s presentation of new products at the Upfronts, and we’ll be in the heart of the NBA playoffs, a thrilling time for our audience. But on launch date, I will be remembering Thurgood Marshall. We’re not here without Thurgood Marshall.
Discuss the editorial team you have assembled for The Undefeated.
It’s an incredible staff that inspires me every day. We inherited a small team – the Magnificent 7 – and we’ve gradually built it from there. Some who have come to The Undefeated left places where they were doing well because they wanted to help create something special and original. I am grateful to those who took a chance on us, and believed. Others are at the beginning of their careers, and hungry. They just wanted an opportunity, and we’re giving it to them. Overall, it’s an amazing, eclectic collection of talent. We had our first all-hands staff meeting last week, and there was a lot of energy and emotion in the room. People have some things they want to prove. They’re fired up. I have to take a moment to mention Raina Kelley, The Undefeated’s managing editor and my partner on everything. She is a terrific leader, and there is no way we would be where we are at this point without her.
What kind of content will The Undefeated feature each day and in terms of more long-form features?
We will have four verticals: Sports, Culture, The Uplift (which we’ve described as a daily stream of joy — items to make you smile) and HBCUs. We will build our work and our days around those pillars. We will feature original reporting every day. Video every day. A lead blog called “All Day,” anchored by Clinton Yates. We will do long-form narratives, investigative work, host a weekly podcast to start, have a strong visual footprint, and look to partner with our colleagues elsewhere at ESPN on projects and special ideas.
Are there specific stories you have in the works for launch or soon after launch?
We have lots of exciting plans, and some unique journalism in development. Jason Reid, for instance, has been working on what promises to be an extraordinary piece on Robert Griffin III. I don’t want to be a spoiler here, so will stop at that. There is an idea we just hatched a few days ago. If executed well, it could break the internet.
How will content from The Undefeated be integrated into ESPN’s myriad platforms?
Our colleagues across ESPN’s platforms have been generous with their support. I anticipate our writers and our journalism will be featured on studio shows and ESPN.com, and the collaboration will flow the other way too. The Undefeated will be the archival home of His & Hers, and we plan to clip the show and also build original content around Jemele (Hill)’s and Michael (Smith)’s lively TV and podcast discussions. We also will house and showcase ESPN Films’ Spike Lee Lil’ Joints series, and we have plans to build original content around those documentary shorts.
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