For this week’s Journalism Showcase, guest columnist Editor-in-Chief, ESPN The Magazine and espnW Alison Overholt describes the process she and her team went through to change the focus of the publication’s latest issue, due to the death of Muhammad Ali. It’s available on newsstands today.
Initially, the next issue of The Mag was intended to preview the NBA Draft, and to look at the upcoming season of unprecedented free agency action by taking a look at the fact that it’s the 10th anniversary of the one-and-done rule for college players, and all that has wrought on the league and the way players are drafted. It was a smart, unique way to look at the draft differently, and heading into our production week, we thought we were ready to roll. Then Muhammad Ali fell ill, and we started following news reports that his condition in the hospital was critical.
When a legend like Ali passes, it completely changes the conversation. His impact went so far beyond sports, it was cultural, societal. And seeing the tributes flowing that weekend, it was also clear that his impact was very deeply personal, to individuals across the country and even the world — far beyond the sports industry, or even the community of sports fans. Our conversation changed, then, and we began to look at whether this was an instance where we should be putting out a special dedicated issue for Muhammad Ali in addition to our usual Mag issue. Years earlier, the staff had begun work on one, though it had never officially been greenlit, so we started poring through story drafts, selected photos, everything that we had in-house.
But the conversations changed yet again as we looked through those previously produced pieces and realized that the ESPN community of creators had also changed in the years since those first editorial efforts had been commissioned. Our voices today are more diverse — the launch of The Undefeated, which is explicitly focused on conversations at the intersection of sports, race and culture, being the prime example — and the coverage that weekend reflected that more sophisticated and layered look at the issues where Ali’s voice resonated most. espnW has found its voice, for another — and we saw that weekend an original commissioned poem from a Kentucky poet that felt like it deserved a wider audience. We also had new writers in The Mag’s orbit, like Hanif Willis-Abdurraquib, who wanted to write on the impact of Ali for Muslims in America like himself.[For all these reasons, The Mag staff came to work Monday morning determined to completely rethink how we would approach our regular issue that was headed to press that week. Senior deputy editor JB Morris led conversations with story and photo editors to develop a lineup that felt like it could represent all those touchpoints, and photo director Tim Rasmussen worked closely with his team and with JB to identify iconic (but also lesser-seen) images that could bring the pieces to life. Then creative director Chin Wang and her design team went to work on figuring out how to create a look and feel for the book that would really tie everything together. One major decision: Every photo in the Ali section would be in black and white, to underscore the timeless feel we wanted the editorial to have, the sense that this was something very different and very special compared with what we typically produce.]