The Society for News Design is excited to announce that Kevin Merida is joining our lineup of speakers for the SND Charlotte workshop on April 19-21 in Charlotte, N.C.
Merida is a Senior Vice President at ESPN and editor-in-chief of The Undefeated, a web site that explores the intersections of race, sports and culture. He is responsible for the site’s editorial direction, tone and policies, and provides oversight and strategy leadership for key initiatives undertaken by The Undefeated.
Before joining ESPN, Merida worked at The Washington Post for more than 20 years in various roles, including Style writer, magazine columnist, associate editor, national editor and managing editor. During his tenure as M.E., The Post won three Pulitzer Prizes.
SND.org’s Greicy Mella chatted with Merida about the birth of The Undefeated, what’s ahead for the site and why he thinks this is the best time to be a storyteller.
WHAT IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH STORYTELLING AS A JOURNALIST? To experiment with it in my own writing and to collaborate with visual storytellers. The gift of the digital revolution is that we now have more tools at our disposal, more ways to tell stories. We have animation. We have turned audio into its own art form through podcast. We can marry audio and still art and stimulate people’s imagination.
We have film of all kind. We have taken what used to be the province of long film, and created or distilled it into smaller short form that we’re able to display on video, and bring it to people’s phones while they’re waiting for their train to come.
We have lots of interactive ways to play with graphics. We can find drawings and sketches — which are still important, by the way — and animate them. We have GIFs, memes and moving pictures. We’ve made it possible so anybody that has creativity in their heart can go out and produce something that the whole world can consume.
I think it’s just a great time to be a journalist. I think it’s the best time.
TELL US A BIT ABOUT “THE UNDEFEATED.” At The Undefeated we have a tag line “Not Conventional, Never Boring. ” It’s hard to live up to that to be honest, and we said that when we created that as a tagline. For us, that was setting a bar high so that we would have something to shoot for, something to live up to, and to be actively experimenting and trying things and being unafraid about it.
You know, we’ve done things with poetry? One of my favorite things we’ve done marries one of our film partners from ESPN with one of my favorite poets, Kwame Alexander. We shot him doing an original poem about The Undefeated. We shot it in a film, and it was really meaningful.
We experimented with comedy. We have Reese Waters, who’s kind of a comedian and does some things as a correspondent for SportsCenter, but what he does for us is different and edgier, right on the center of racial discussion. And we’ve done a lot of interesting things with him.
These are forms everybody recognizes — to use comedy as commentary, to use poetry as commentary. It’s something we try to do in music. We have a lot of music fans here and some real experts in music at The Undefeated. We started our music series “Aux Chord Chronicles.” We just started doing playlists. We did one for Fourth of July. We thought “what music do you want at the cookout,” and we started doing music and playlists for different occasions.
For us, I think the thing is to try to experiment, to reach people wherever they are. We’ve done four live events, two televised town halls — one featuring the President of the United States — and we did our first televised special with Serena and Common. It was a new format we called The Undefeated In-Depth, just two in conversation, and [the audience] got something it wouldn’t have if you had a conventional interviewer.
HOW WAS THE UNDEFEATED BORN? CAN YOU WALK THROUGH THE CONCEPTION OF THIS PROJECT? I’m coming in as the second editor-in-chief. The conception is really [ESPN president] John Skipper’s. It was his idea to have a site that focused on race, sports and culture. I was approached about coming to The Undefeated to be second editor-in-chief and take over for Jason Whitlock, who as you might have read, didn’t work out.
I left my great job at The Washington Post because I really believed in this. I came in November , and we went about trying to develop it, build it, test it, hire good people and actually launch it. So, we did that in a span of five or six months. We launched on May 17, 2016, and here we are seven months later, with the work that we produced. And I think we’ve had a very good seven months.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING WITH UPSTATEMENT TO BUILD A DESIGN AND BRAND FROM SCRATCH? We worked with different design templates to see what was possible to do with the design. We had something I really liked not long ago with Misty Copeland in Cuba. I loved the GIFs we embedded of Misty riding along.
WHAT’S AHEAD FOR THE UNDEFEATED? WHAT TYPES OF STORYTELLING DO YOU ENVISION FOR YOUR TEAM IN 2017? I just want to keep doing other things. Putting other work out, like gaming and seeing what we can really do with virtual reality and augmented reality.
I think for us, [we want to do] more live events, some pop-up things, lectures, debates, Undefeated talks, and some things with musical artists. [We] might look to do documentary work and short-film work. We have an animation project we’re trying to develop.
We want do more narrative work, more investigative work and just continue to really build the audience, which is the most important thing. Our work is important, but building an audience that will come and consume the work, and to want to be with you wherever you are is the most important thing.
YOU ARE A LONG-TIME MEMBER OF NABJ. HOW IMPORTANT DO YOU FIND BEING A MEMBER OF A PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATION? WHAT HAS IT DONE FOR YOUR CAREER? I think it’s always good to be in professional associations, and even the ones I’m not currently a member of. I love being at Investigative Reporters and Editors [IRE] conferences because I love our profession.
I think with NABJ, as a black journalist at this point in my career, it’s a place to connect with people, and a lot of times some people you only see around that time of year. And the more you’ve been around, you recognize when you’ve become one of the people that other people want to talk to. You have that feeling of both responsibility and also joy to be able to share what you have learned with other people coming up, and to encourage them in the pursuit of their career goals and to help them in any way you can.
When I was coming up, that was a big part of it, too. You were networking, you were trying to find people find career opportunities and learn about them. And now you know, so you’re trying to help that next generation get where it’s going and give back. It’s amazingly gratifying. It’s such a great time. The young people coming into our profession are really good. There’s so much talent out there and that’s really encouraging.
I’D LOVE TO HEAR MORE ABOUT THE BOOK YOU CO-AUTHORED WITH DEBRA WILLIS, “OBAMA: THE HISTORIC CAMPAIGN IN PHOTOGRAPHS.” PLEASE TALK ABOUT THE PROCESS OF PAIRING SUCH POWERFUL PHOTOS WITH YOUR WRITING. DID YOU FEEL YOU HAD TO STRIKE A PARTICULAR BALANCE? I was brought into it by the editor Dawn Davis, who at the time was running an imprint for HarperCollins called “Amistad.” She got Debra Willis, a really acclaimed photojournalist, historian, author and genius. I’ve done a number of books on black image and beauty, and for me, that was one of the attractive things about it. It was working with [Debra]. I was familiar with her reputation.
At the same time, I was writing about the campaign. I was an associate editor at The Washington Post, but I was writing about the 2008 campaign. I knew a lot about what was going on with Obama and the campaign. Deb and I teamed up to select the photos to include in the book. It was Deb’s vision of wanting to have to chronicle this historic campaign in photographs. To chronicle that would be to show how both professional photographers were ordinary people. So there’s a lot of cell phone shots and things that ordinary people captured. We got a lot of interesting shots, glimpses from behind the scenes, from vantage points as if you were a person there at a rally and what you saw there.
She wrote from her vantage point as somebody who could speak about imagery and the power of photography. I just wrote from the beginning of the campaign when [Obama] announced in Springfield, all the way up as far as I could go before our deadline. The book stopped at the conventions because the idea was to have a book ready as soon as the election ended. It was actually a brilliant idea because our book was the first photo book out there.
HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE THE IMPORTANCE OF BLACK AND LATINO VOICES IN JOURNALISM AND STORYTELLING? It’s essential because it’s essential that everybody be represented. Everybody who has lived, contributed and helped develop this country, so that they can see themselves and hear their voice and recognize someone like them telling stories that are familiar to them. [They want] the language and cadence with the sensibility of their own race, ethnicity and culture. It’s necessary for us to understand each other as a nation and to understand that we have all these voices. I’m happy to play a part in bringing some of those voices to life, and that’s certainly a great pleasure and a great joy at this point in my career to be able to do that.
About SND Charlotte
• Don’t miss your chance to UNITE & REBEL, register today: Register
• Book your hotel room (before they run out!): Use the SND discount link
• Check out the lineup of speakers we’ve announced for the workshop. What a team!
• Don’t miss the Think Before You Make pre-conference day at the U.S. National Whitewater Center