August 19, 2016

Yes, Friday brought extensive Summer Olympics coverage, notably the ad nauseam, 24/7 mini-soap opera of the dissembling U.S swimmers — a sort of one-off Dick Wolf “Law and Order: SLU (Special Lochte Unit) that was exploiting about every platform overseen by Comcast and NBC.

But it also brought an anonymously attributed Associated Press story that the National Basketball Association would move its 2017 All-Star Game to New Orleans from Charlotte due to the North Carolina state law that sharply dilutes protections for lesbian, gay and transgender people.

And then on The Undefeated, a vibrant ESPN site that launched in May, there was the tale of New Day, the hottest act in the fakery-filled wrestling world of the WWE. It explained how the tag team has gone “from one of the most stereotypical and racist acts in the most successful pro wrestling company in the world to its most prized commodity.”

If the Junkyard Dog, the first popular Black wrestler, was our Sidney Poitier, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was our Denzel Washington, then New Day is our Three 6 Mafia, the ones who weren’t supposed to be here but made it here nonetheless. New Day — via hard work, an us-against-them, chip-on-the-shoulder attitude, a splash of comedy, and the “power of positivity” — are now the most made-for-TV act in WWE since the days of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and The Rock.

It’s a terrific piece that fulfills the site’s aim of chronicling sports, race and culture. There seemed a certain symmetry in its arriving about the time the AP was disclosing that cultural and public policy considerations would prompt the NBA to move a showcase event.

Together, they were evidence of the nexus that The Undefeated seeks to mine amid an explosion of digital journalism. The pro wrestling opus is one of many so far on the site, which has endured well-chronicled startup travails, including replacing its original editor pre-launch before settling on Kevin Merida, a longtime reporter and editor stalwart at The Washington Post.

By Washington Post coincidence, one of my favorites so far is a profile of C.M. Newton, a retired University of Alabama basketball coach. Crafted by Andrew Maraniss, son of a longtime Merida colleague at the Post, it made the case for how a long-retired, 86-year-old White man was a largely unrecognized force for integration in the long-racist Southeastern Conference (SEC). In a little-recognized way, he’s a towering figure.

So it seemed time to chat with Merida, all the more so with athletes around the world gathered in Rio de Janeiro. The American swimmers’ untidy out-of-pool experience offered a larger cultural lens by which to view sporting competition, while the pro wrestling story is an alluring tale that I was clueless about — even if I do peruse Merida’s site more often than he diplomatically suggested I do!

What is biggest change for you, as an editor, in moving to a startup from a giant operation like The Post?

The biggest change is, I moved to an even more giant operation like ESPN. You have to learn how things work there, who does what, how to be effective in a new environment. On my end of it, as leader of this startup, we had to build a team — hiring is hard! — and develop our own culture and practices. We also had to learn our strengths and weaknesses.

We all know, roughly, what a “New Yorker story” is, or something we associate with Esquire, Vox, Vogue, BuzzFeed, you name it. What’s an “Undefeated” story in your mind?

We set a high bar for ourselves with our tagline: “Not Conventional. Never Boring.” We try to live by that. And we constantly workshop the notion of an Undefeated story. You will hear our editors and writers say, “Is that an Undefeated story?” Or, “What’s The Undefeated angle there?”

To my mind, “Prince Day” is Undefeated. We turned our entire site purple and most of our content that day was about the late musical genius, including a piece about his hoops game. More recently, we had an entire week, “Water Week,” on Blacks and swimming. It was planned long before Simone Manuel won the gold medal, and so it looked prescient.

The newsroom staff is almost entirely African-American. What’s the environment like? How is it for those who, unlike you, have not worked in a similar sort of newsroom environment?

Our staff is not entirely African-American, but a large percentage of it is African-American. It’s the kind of newsroom most people have never been a part of. It’s a lively, often raucous newsroom. A lot of laughter, jokes and organic brainstorming. I love coming to work.

What’s your future strategy beyond traditional articles? I think Spike Lee is doing work for you? What’s the rough game plan for, say, video?

Traditional articles? Jim, you are obviously not reading us. “Not Conventional. Never Boring”…Regarding Spike, we are the archival home of the excellent Spike Lee Lil’ Joints series of short films. We also are doing our own original video and experimenting with the form. Here are links to two recurring features I love, “Undefeated or Nah” and “Locker Room Lawyer,” and to a piece of extraordinary videotaped poetry. These are the kind of things we want to do more of.

You’re not big on scores and breaking news. Without those, what’s your tactic for driving traffic to the site? Is it by posting articles on social media and getting regulars?

It’s true we’re not a news site. But we’ve actually broken our share of news — both actual news and conceptual scoops. I think you have to build your identity and grow your audience over time — with the breadth and energy and creativity of your work. We’ve been around for two months. We’re off to a good start. Scoops like Michael Jordan speaking out about the shootings of African-American men and the targeting of police don’t hurt.

When it comes to advertising, there doesn’t seem to be a ton, at least not yet. With ad sales, what is your relationship to the main ESPN site?

We’ve had a lot of interest from advertisers, and are happy to have the support of those who joined us from launch.

I believe you’ve built a TV studio in D.C. How do you plan to use it?

We already are using it for interviews and video series. And we have big plans to do innovative things with our studio. Stay tuned.

Is there coordination with ESPN about whether a particular story idea is best for you or other ESPN properties?

We stay in touch with other ESPN properties, including the studio shows and digital teams. Our managing editor, Raina Kelley, is in Bristol and that helps tremendously with coordination and integration.

If it’s not revealing a trade secret, how did you get the scoop on the usually low-profile Michael Jordan weighing in on the issue of police violence?

It started with an introductory lunch with a Jordan representative. A mutual acquaintance had arranged it. The meeting had nothing to do with the scoop, per se, but the scoop was born out of the meeting. It was actually kind of fortuitous.

Speaking of police, that was a big national story soon after your launch. Did it compel you to divert more than you planned from more traditional sports ideas? Or was it a nice fit with your overall game plan?

The subject of policing, along with gun violence, has become a huge national issue. It actually does fit into our mission. There is a racial component to the discussion, as we know, and there has become a sports component to the discussion. Athletes have been talking about what more they can do to use their influence. We saw LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul take the stage at the ESPYs and pledge to do more.

We, ESPN/The Undefeated, have decided to host our own town hall in Chicago on Aug. 25 to carry this conversation forward. It’s being billed, “An Undefeated Conversation: Athletes, Responsibility & Violence,” hosted by Jemele Hill. We will have a mix of athletes, police, community leaders and others on panels in front of an audience at the South Side YMCA. We’ll tape it that afternoon and air it on ESPN that night.

It’s early, for sure. But, especially with the demographics of the country changing, how do you see The Undefeated perhaps as evidence of possible future changes in the news/entertainment/sports media when it comes to covering the nation/world from different, less “White” perspectives?

The future is now. The media landscape already is changing. New voices will continue to rise, and new outlets created. All for the better.

Finally, what story are you proudest of so far?

Ah, there are too many stories to point to one, Jim. I love the range of work we’re producing. And I love that we’re having fun doing it. This group of journalists, they are amazing. We have veterans who are doing some of the best work of their lives, and we have some newcomers to the craft who are on their way to stardom. I love being around them all.

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New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S.…
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