Tuesday November 17th, 2015

If one judges Kevin Merida on how those at his previous employer feel about him, it appears ESPN has landed a terrific leader for The Undefeated, the still-to-launch digital property that the company says will explore the intersection of sports and race.

Last month ESPN named Merida, a managing editor at The Washington Post, as editor-in-chief of The Undefeated and a senior vice president at ESPN. The hire signals that The Undefeated, created amid much press release fanfare in 2013, will actually launch at some point. The previous top editor, Jason Whitlock, left ESPN in October when his contract was bought out by the company. He is now at the Jamie Horowitz-led FS1 and Fox Sports.com

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“I don't think you'll find anybody in our newsroom who doesn't adore Kevin,” said The Washington Post’s J. Freedom du Lac, the general assignment news desk editor for the outlet. “He's a superlative leader who is gifted with the ability to inspire, and is among the most empathetic senior managers you'll ever meet, too. He's also one of the coolest editors around. As a journalist, Kevin is, like, the Truth: Creative thinker, with excellent news judgment and values. He loves scoops, ambitious ideas and great stories (he knows from good narrative)—and he also likes Doritos, which I love about him. Suffice it to say his departure leaves a huge effing hole at The Post.”

The mass of Twitter well-wishes from Post staffers for Merida back up du Lac’s sentiments.

One of Merida’s first moves was hiring Raina Kelley, formerly a deputy editor at ESPN The Magazine, as the site’s new managing editor. Kelley will oversee the site’s day-to-day coverage and help develop new opportunities.

Last week I conducted an email interview with Merida on a number of topics. Our conversation is below:

Richard Deistch: As specific as you can be, how were you approached about The Undefeated job and who approached you?

Kevin Merida: I had my first substantive conversation, by phone, with Marie Donoghue, who had reached out to me. I remember it was difficult to arrange because I was at the Newport Jazz Festival, which is fantastic, by the way. It was my first time there, but she had been before so we spent a little of our time marveling at just how amazing the festival is: the water backdrop, the consistently incredible lineup, etc. At the end of the conversation, she asked if I would be willing to talk to [ESPN president] John Skipper. I said, sure. If the president of ESPN is interested in talking to me, why not? At that point, I was just curious. It took weeks before John and I connected for scheduling reasons. He suggested we meet for breakfast in D.C. After that, I thought: I might have a real decision to make.

RD: Why did you accept the job?

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KM: Once I got an offer, the decision itself was agonizing. I had been at The Post for 22 years, the last seven in senior leadership roles. I loved my Post colleagues ... still do. I had been in the trenches with many of them, during both great and difficult days, and now the place was really humming. A nimble, collaborative newsroom. Nurturing a new crop of young stars. Fastest, greatest growth in digital audience of any news organization in the country. So why leave, you ask? For the adventure, essentially. To scare myself a little, and to feel a different kind of exhilaration. I wanted to see if I could build something from the ground up, a startup inside a big company with considerable reach and imagination. I thought back to my years as a Boston University student, when a handful of us started a black campus newspaper, which didn't exist until then. And though we struggled to produce it, get it out on time or regularly, I remember how we all felt: the joy and excitement of doing it. It was an entrepreneurial experiment. With The Undefeated, I was thinking, let's try that again. But more spectacular this time. And a few more resources.

RD: What is your vision about what this site should be?

KM: The Undefeated should be vibrant, soulful, smart, cool. And brave. Not predictable, not ideological, and never boring. The subject material is certainly there. Sports/race/culture is a rich mix that will keep on giving. We talk about The Undefeated as a site. But I see it as more than ‘a site,’ which is really a desktop concept in a mobile age of sharing content and discussing it online. We want to do the work that people will talk about and remember and share with their friends—long form, short form, provocative, engaging commentary, visually driven journalism, revelatory reporting, and all the rest. But ultimately we want to cultivate and grow an audience, an Undefeated community. So I could see us doing an Undefeated lecture series in which athletes talk about the things they rarely get asked about, like love, anger, leadership. You may see an Undefeated music video. We want to be digitally innovative, and to engage people not only on The Undefeated's site, but wherever they are.

RD: How far away is the site from launch?

KM: We don't have a date for a site launch. Too early to determine.

RD: How many of the current staff will you keep for your vision of the site?

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KM: The current staff, these are our teammates. We start there and keep building. I think everybody’s excited to begin playing games.

RD: You told The Washington Post that the site will consist of “great narrative work, investigative and accountability reporting, commentary, still and video photography, and some in-the-moment, fast-twitch posts.” That type of site will cost money and need staffing. How many people do you need to make your vision a reality?

KM: I am confident we will have the staffing numbers to do what we want to do, create something dynamic and special

RD: How much integration will The Undefeated have with SportsCenter, ESPN The Magazine and other ESPN platforms?

KM: We will work with other ESPN properties, and create relationships for The Undefeated. Managing Editor Raina Kelley, who is based in Bristol, will be crucial in that process. I too expect to spend time in Bristol and also in New York getting to know people and developing collaborations.

RD: Why are you convinced The Undefeated will not suffer the same fate as Grantland?

KM: I don't know all that happened with Grantland. Like many others, I was a fan of its work as managing editor of The Washington Post. My focus now, though, is on The Undefeated—building it and making it successful. I don't worry about what will happen to something that doesn't yet exist.

RD: How much interaction have you had with Jason Whitlock regarding his regime?

KM: I have not spoken with Jason since taking over as editor-in-chief of The Undefeated, but I am sure we'll talk at some point. I plan to reach out to him. We did talk early on in his tenure when he was recruiting talent. He called and I gave him some names of people I thought he might want to consider. I always believed the idea of a site like The Undefeated was a good one.

RD: Did you read the Deadspin stories on The Undefeated and do you wish to offer any comment on them?

KM: I did read the Deadspin stories. I think it's best to look forward and not backward.

RD: Are you actively attempting to get people from The Post to join you?

KM: I am looking to field the best team we can field. Hiring is really difficult. You can't just hire all three-point shooters, just to mix sports metaphors, no matter how deadly accurate they are. You need to get the mix right. I made a conscious effort while I was still at The Post not to talk to my Post colleagues about coming to The Undefeated, both before I made the decision and even after it had been announced I was leaving. I didn't think that was right. Of course, now, we will look for talent everywhere.

RD: Have you been told by John Skipper and Marie Donoghue that the site must ultimately make money?

KM: I have not been told by John or Marie that The Undefeated must ultimately make money. But they don't have to tell me that. I want to be successful in every way you can measure success—critical acclaim, audience growth,  revenue generation. Who doesn't want to make money? I think if we can produce riveting, innovative, distinctive journalism, we're on our way to the rest

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RD: How will you determine success and who do you envision is your audience?

KM: To some extent, the audience will tell us if we're successful. If they find us essential, important to their lives, exciting, fresh and different. If the word spreads vocally, digitally: check out The Undefeated. One of the great gifts of this media era is we have the capability to measure our audience—their reaction to our work, what they like and dislike. And in real time. We have fairly sophisticated metrics. We can see what kind of sports stories African-American men, 18-35, for instance, are gravitating toward. We can track what kind of videos do well, and what kind don't. I think The Undefeated will appeal to African Americans who want to see their actual lives and experiences reflected in a sports site, who want to understand black athletes better than they do, who appreciate irreverence and swagger and also sophistication and intellect, who want to take a bat to inequality but also want to laugh and cry and be uplifted. I think The Undefeated will appeal to anybody, regardless of ethnicity, who cares about these topics and wants to be inside the conversation, and not outside of it.

RD: You oversaw a newsroom numbering nearly 700 journalists. What traits do you most look for in staffers who create content?

KM: We hired 100 people for The Post newsroom last year. I like people who stand out, who have distinctive voices or distinctive ideas, who want to experiment, who are collaborative in nature, who might be odd or quirky, or just make you go, wow. I also like people with potential, who haven't become great yet. But you can see greatness in them. And of course, you need a Steph Curry or two.

RD: How much of an impact did your piece on Trent Lott and the Council of Conservative Citizens have on your views about race and power in America? 

KM: My views about race and power weren't influenced by that piece. The piece was influenced by the way I think about race and power, which is a product of all of my experiences. I grew up in black communities, and was in the first class of bussing in Prince George's County, Md., sent from an all-black high school to one in which the black students were 19% of the student population. I went to Boston University during one of the most intense, racially charged periods in Boston's history. I covered Congress and the White House, centers of power. And I have always been drawn to hard targets, journalistically. The more difficult and complex the reporting, the more drawn I am to the subject.

THE NOISE REPORT

(SI.com examines some of the most notable stories this week in sports media)

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1. Concussion is an upcoming film starring Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the gutsy Pittsburgh-based forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsy of Steelers center Mike Webster, which led to his discovery of a new disease that he named chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The film, according to the AP, “delivers a hard hit to the NFL as it deals with data linking repeated blows to the heads of its players to dementia and a host of other problems.”

During its premiere last Tuesday night at AFI Fest in Hollywood, director  Peter Landesman told the AP that “anybody who sees this movie knows this movie is a shot between the eyes of the NFL. Not because we’re going after the NFL. Just because the truth is our defense you know and it’s a powerful movie about human beings.”

Sports movies traditionally generate a ton of publicity on the networks that air NFL games, especially those with 24/7 cable sports networks. But given this film is critical of the NFL, viewers should pay attention to how much attention and discussion it gets on CBS, Fox/FS1, ESPN, NBC and the NFL Network, the NFL’s television partners.

On this note, it was interesting to read a story in last Thursday’s Hollywood Reporter about whether the networks will accept ads for the film during NFL games. Generally speaking, networks don’t turn down ad money from Hollywood. THR reached out to those networks but they did not respond by press time. I did the same over the weekend, asking spokespeople from the networks if they were accepting ads for Concussion and whether they would run during NFL games. Here’s how they responded:

CBS Sports: They will air ads for the film during NFL games.  
Fox Sports: They will air ads for the film during NFL games. 
NBC Sports: They will air ads for the film during NFL games. 

ESPN: “Ads for the Concussion film will air on our networks. We’re not going to get into specific shows, but they will appear in NFL related programming.”

NFL Network: Declined comment.

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The NFL, one of the most PR-savvy and heavy organizations in modern history, knows that if it puts pressure on its television partners not to accept the ads, such news would eventually be leaked and cause another ugly news cycle for the league. As a general rule, networks prefer not to comment on how and where their clients (in this case, Sony Pictures) spend money with them.

1a. In yesterday’s column, I profiled Joe Davis, the Fox Sports broadcaster who was signed by the club to work in the post-Vin Scully era. There’s also a section on what it’s like to cover the 11-0 Golden State Warriors, including the access afforded by the team to star Steph Curry.

2. NBC Universal Telemundo Enterprises announced yesterday that it extended the contract of broadcaster Andrés Cantor through the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar. The contract calls for Cantor to serve as lead broadcaster and play by play announcer for Telemundo and NBC Universo for the upcoming Rio 2016 Summer Olympics, the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup, the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia and the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar.

The Rio Summer Olympics  2016 will mark his sixth Olympic Games Cantor has served as a co-host of Telemundo’s coverage and lead play by play announcer for soccer. He has covered every FIFA World Cup since Italy 1990.

On Tuesday, Cantor will be a guest on the SI Media Podcast.

3. Episode No. 29 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features ESPN NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy, who partners with play by play announcer Mike Breen and fellow analyst Mark Jackson to call The NBA Finals on ABC.

In this episode, Van Gundy discusses how Marv Albert helped him break into broadcasting, how he prepares for each game, the reporters he reads to stay current, how honest NBA broadcasters can be on air, how often he hears from the league about something he says, his reaction to Howard Stern calling him out, why Chris Paul would make for an excellent broadcaster, what lines he can’t cross because of ESPN’s business interests, how he approaches calling his brother's (Stan Van Gundy) games, what his relationship would be with the local media if he returned to coaching, and much more. 

A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI's podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at me.

4. Charlotte Observer columnist Scott Fowler ‏on the baby Rae Carruth hired a hit man to kill. He turned 16 on Monday.

4a. The Chronicle of Higher Education (led by writer Brad Wolverton) partnered with the Huffington Post on how college students are bankrolling the athletics arms race.

4b. CBS will air Alabama-Auburn on Nov. 28 (3:30-7 p.m. ET) from Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala.

5. The Nov. 24 edition of Real Sports features an investigation on the sport of elephant trophy hunting and the black market trade that has left the African elephant on the brink of extinction. Also, correspondent Andrea Kremer has a one-on-one interview with NBC NHL play-by-play announcer Doc Emrick.

5a. Longtime Boston Globe and ESPN writer Gordon Edes was named the Red Sox historian by the Fenway Sports Group.

5b. On Sunday from 2-3 p.m. ET, NBCSN’s Premier League Download will feature an interview with Sir Alex Ferguson conducted by Rebecca Lowe. The following Sunday, NBCSN has another Premier League Download featuring Men In Blazer’s Roger Bennett examining Crystal Palace and its passionate fans.

5c. I'd urge you to read this op-ed from Nicolas Henin in The Guardian about being held hostage by ISIS.

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