One Year of The Undefeated
As ESPN’s race, sports and culture vertical The Undefeated approaches its one-year anniversary, its editor-in-chief, Kevin Merida, and two of his colleagues visited the Philip Merrill College of Journalism Feb. 21 to discuss the website and take questions from the community.
The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism panel was moderated by George Solomon. Joining Merida were senior editor Danielle Cadet and sports and culture reporter Justine Tinsley.
The Undefeated made its full launch on May 17, 2016 after a two-year development period during which ESPN hired Kevin Merida, former managing editor of The Washington Post, to take over editor-in-chief duties.
The site operates under the motto “Not conventional, never boring,” as it reports and analyzes news and issues in the black community and publishes features like its recent “The Undefeated 44.”
“I don’t know that we have any competition, and I don’t say that by virtue of being arrogant. I just think that we’re unique,” Merida said.
All three panelists offered advice to journalism students in the audience about pursuing their careers. Cadet said that although some have found success without backgrounds in the industry, “you cannot underestimate the power of a really great education in journalism.
“There are things you’re gonna learn here that will honestly put you 10 steps ahead of the game from a blogger or somebody who calls themselves a reporter or a journalist, who doesn’t necessarily have that foundation.”
Tinsley said he looks to his peers, one of whom he claimed is a “10 times better writer than I ever will be,” for motivation to improve in a competitive industry.
“It’s not a lot of seats, but it’s a lot of people trying to get into the room. So at the moment you start slacking off, there’s about 700 people behind me right now that’s ready and willing and able to take my position,” Tinsley said.
Tinsley also suggested an array of writers he reads, from James Baldwin to Zora Neale Hurston to Rembert Browne, as well as revealing how reading has led him to story ideas—a biography of Marvin Gaye and an old black newspaper’s interview with Wilt Chamberlain led to stories about Gaye’s tryout for the Detroit Lions and Chamberlain’s support for Richard Nixon.
Solomon relayed a friend’s criticism that The Undefeated’s content ought to be mixed in with its parent site, ESPN.com, rather than separated for a website targeted at African Americans. Merida mentioned that The Undefeated has a module to feature three stories on ESPN’s home page at all times. But he also pointed out that specializing a site for a particular audience interested in anything from women’s issues to sneakers “is the world we live in” and called race, sports and culture “big lanes.”
“You might as well criticize the internet, because the culture we live in is one where we try to build communities around topics of interest,” said Merida, who’s also on the Merrill College Board of Visitors.
“Contrary to popular belief, TheUndefeated.com is not Latin for ‘black people only,’” Tinsley said. “We want everybody to read our topics. But it’s OK to have these topics that are very, very relevant in society but are also the conversations that people of color have every day.”
One example of The Undefeated treating a news story with a different perspective than ESPN.com occurred when basketball coach George Karl released a memoir that included a passage suggesting Carmelo Anthony was immature because he was raised without a father. Tinsley wrote an article dissecting how the issue of single-parent households affects youth and breeds stereotypes.
“I honestly think that was the reason The Undefeated was created. It’s not just ‘Black Grantland,’” Tinsley said, referencing a common explanation of the site that compares it with ESPN’s retired Bill Simmons vertical. “It’s not just a black site, because we deal with more issues than just being black.”
During the student question-and-answer portion of the event, the panelists reminisced on their favorite moments of 2016, and all of them were related to The Undefeated. Merida spoke about the official launch (and the post-launch celebration), while Tinsley recalled that his mother thought he’d interviewed Michael Jordan when Jordan had in fact released an announcement on The Undefeated.
Cadet brought up the town hall The Undefeated hosted at North Carolina A&T State University with President Barack Obama.
“For me, it was a moment that I realized, whoa, we’re really doing something here,” Cadet said.