Overserving the underserved: The Undefeated’s first 121 days
On May 17th, ESPN’s long-awaited vertical aimed at attracting an African-American audience finally went live. And after serving up pieces examining the civil disobedience of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the social consciousness of former Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan and even hosting an old-school town hall meeting on gun violence in Chicago, the vertical is giving ESPN an audience that it had never had before.
“We are like peanut butter and chocolate and they like it,” Raina Kelley, The Undefeated’s managing editor said Wednesday about the website’s first 121 days. She told panel attendees at the Online News Association’s annual conference in Denver that the first two months have been a whirlwind.
First proposed in 2013, conversation about The Undefeated had degenerated into trash talk after it failed to launch. Then sportswriter Jason Whitlock, the initial lead editor, was removed from the project and later left ESPN. The vertical’s future remained in limbo until ESPN persuaded Kevin Merida to leave his role as managing editor of The Washington Post to lead the project. Merida then asked Kelley, former deputy editor of ESPN The Magazine, to come aboard as managing editor.
Although Kelley made it clear that The Undefeated’s goal is to help ESPN grow its overall audience, the editorial team is focused on producing critical conversations for the website’s largely African-American following through a mix of traditional long-form enterprise stories, creative video storytelling, podcasts, playlists and town hall meetings.
“I don’t know what the first Undefeated would have been but for me and Kevin, our mission is to cover the intersection of race, sports and culture,” Kelley said. “We felt there was a hunger for that conversation.”
Although off to a great start, The Undefeated is experiencing an interesting conundrum: With so much good content, editors are still struggling to figure out how much of it to deliver to readers, and in what way.
But one thing editors are sure about: They know who their audience is. The Undefeated isn’t trying to be that site that does the “Jesse Williams” is a genius story. Kelley said black people already know Williams is a genius. But on top of that. “He didn’t say anything that hadn’t already been said by others,” Kelley said. “And it’s not like he’s in the league of a Muhammad Ali or Martin Luther King. He’s not that special yet. So we wouldn’t even do that story. We’d do a quick piece on it being Jesse’s birthday, but we wouldn’t do that ‘who knew Jesse Williams was a genius piece.’ We know who our audience is. We wouldn’t go there.”
In addition to changing the way reporting has been done on household name athletes such as Serena Williams and Michael Jordan, the Undefeated, with its coverage on HBCU athletics and culture, also is looking to expand national conversations to include more than the “one hundred fifty Black people you need to know to know about,” Kelley says.
“To be blunt, we are a group of people who have felt systematically underserved, unsatisfied and frustrated,” Kelley said. “I wanted to create a site that had the stuff I wanted to see. I wanted a playlist for my cookout. It gave us an opportunity to feel and express those feelings in a slightly different way.”
The Undefeated’s editors have ambitious storytelling goals, which include incorporating traditional reporting along with technology to reach its audience.
Describing the various ways in the past that African-Americans have enlisted in the effort to tell stories, Kelley says, “We will do all of these methods, up to and including quilts.”
The effort includes meeting African-Americans where they are technologically. The site’s editors are creating content compatible with all digital devices while also exploring the types of technologies most frequently used in African-American homes.
“The format is in the challenge,” Latoya Peterson, Undefeated deputy digital editor of innovation said. “Since African-Americans are more likely to own streaming media like the Xbox or the PlayStation over the AppleTV, then our approach has to do with making a business case for looking at a way to produce our content those platforms.”
And despite the impact technology such as tweets and user-generated content has had on traditional newsgathering, the editors say that an important part of their editorial strategy will be getting out talking to their audiences face-to-face. For example, staff writer Justin Tinsley produces a podcast which has him going out to HBCUs to speak with college students. There was also the gun violence town hall meeting — another example of face-to-face interaction.
“You don’t want people to think that you are just keyboard thugging all day,” Tinsley said, adding that he really wants to go out to see what’s on the mind of college students.
“I think we want to show people that we are paying attention to you and your world and we are not stopping when it gets difficult,” culture editor Danyel Smith said.
“We know that you are underserved and we want to over serve.”