Behind The ScenesESPNThe Undefeated

The Undefeated’s Kevin Merida shares wisdom, optimism at NABJ/NAHJ Convention

Kevin Merida, ESPN Senior Vice President and Editor-In-Chief of The Undefeated, addresses the NABJ Sports Task Force Breakfast Powered By ESPN. (Nicole Peterson/ESPN)
Kevin Merida, ESPN Senior Vice President and Editor-In-Chief of The Undefeated, addresses the NABJ Sports Task Force Breakfast Powered By ESPN. (Nicole Peterson/ESPN)
Kevin Merida’s tips for young journalists

During his keynote speech at the NABJ Sports Task Force breakfast, the head of The Undefeated shared three concepts that he wants young journalists to consider in their career pursuits. Here’s an abridged version:

  • 1. “Make your friends before you need them. You never really know who’s going to be in some position to help you. Don’t overlook anybody.”
  • 2. “Don’t let ambition ruin you. That may be a little counterintuitive. I want you to be ambitious, but don’t let it ruin you. . . Another way of saying it: Don’t cheat learning.”
  • 3. “Be brave. We’re accustomed to associating bravery with fighting in wars – those people are brave – and firefighters. They’re brave. But there’s also the bravery of ideas, the bravery of trying to step out and do something different. Try a different job, a different kind of experience.”
To illustrate his third point, Merida cited the work of his former Washington Post colleague Michel du Cille. A three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the photojournalist lobbied for numerous assignments to chronicle the fight against Ebola in West Africa. In December 2014, du Cille died while on assignment in Liberia.
“When we learned he died that day, it was just a surreal moment,” Merida said of du Cille, whom he praised for his willingness to go where few others dared. “We knew we had lost this tremendous photojournalist – not just for our staff, but for the world.”

WASHINGTON, D.C. – About 40 summers ago, when he was working in The Smithsonian’s corridors as a janitor, Kevin Merida learned a lesson that served him well in his eventual career as a journalist.

Daily, he and his fellow janitorial crew members emptied garbage cans and buffed floors in virtual anonymity. Even though they were in plain sight of museum patrons, no one acknowledged them, no one asked about their stories. To Merida, he and his colleagues had histories as rich as the Smithsonian’s exhibits.

His takeaway: “It taught me something about invisibility. And it taught me to look in other places for stories.”

Merida, ESPN Senior Vice President and Editor-In-Chief of The Undefeated, shared that thought and more [see sidebar] Thursday at the NABJ/NAHJ Convention and Career Fair at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel here. The five-day event, which began Wednesday, is the nation’s largest convention for journalists of color.

Early Thursday morning, Merida was the keynote speaker at the NABJ Sports Task Force Mentor Breakfast Powered By ESPN; by midday, he also was part of a panel entitled “Executive Roundtable: A View from the Top & Inside U.S. Newsrooms,” moderated by ESPN’s Bomani Jones. In the early evening, Merida was host of a job candidate reception for The Undefeated.

“I spent 22 years at The Washington Post the last three as managing editor. I can’t remember having this much fun since a few of us started a black newspaper at Boston University,” Merida said of his 10-month tenure as head of The Undefeated, ESPN’s website exploring the intersection of race, culture and sports.

The Undefeated officially debuted in May 2016 and has featured distinctive storytelling on issues big and small. Merida is enthused about the state of journalism and the depth of storytelling talent.

“I could have staffed 10 ‘Undefeateds” with journalists of color,” Merida said during the “Executive Roundtable” panel. Applicants he considered are among “the best talent I’ve ever seen. And that’s not hyperbole.”

Merida’s recent experiences making hires at The Post and ESPN leave him impressed with the journalists emerging from both traditional and nontraditional backgrounds.

“This really is your time,” he said, addressing young journalists at the Sports Task Force breakfast. “I think this may be the greatest period in journalism. It’s not dying. [Journalism] is part of this digital revolution. It creates opportunities that didn’t exist before.”

Those storytellers who take the initiative to not only create for traditional media outlets but who self-publish “have a leg up,” Merida said.

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