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ESPN Cover Story On Deshaun Watson Goes The Entire (Social) Distance

Inside the assembly of the new profile of the Houston Texans star, the first Cover Story that's entirely "social-distanced"

The latest multi-platform ESPN Cover Story on Deshaun Watson debuted Wednesday, on the eve of the NFL 2020 season’s Week 1 kickoff tonight.

In “DeShaun Watson Is Ready To Be Heard,” ESPN.com senior writer Tim Keown profiled the Houston Texans quarterback on his decision to use his voice to speak out against injustice. Watson leads the Texans against the defending Super Bowl champion and host Kansas City Chiefs tonight.

Front Row caught up with senior editor Rachel Ullrich to discuss the multi-platform feature’s editing process.

You were Keown’s editor on this Cover Story and also the most recent one with LaMelo Ball (referenced in tweet below). On a multi-platform feature like the Cover Story franchise, what is your role as an editor? How is it different than it would be on a more traditional feature?
I’ve always described my job as being most important at the very beginning and the very end of the writing process – the writer and I talk ideas, topics, and plans after the initial assignment; and then execution and edits at the end. With a Cover Story, where there are so many platforms involved, I’d say that first part becomes even more important.

LaMelo was my third Cover Story but Tim’s first, so I was able to help guide us through some of the logistics specific to this process – what we need to provide to the producers so they can write a script; how SportsCenter and social play into the story’s release and timing; working with photo editors on cover selection to align with the story’s themes. It’s still a work in progress, for sure, but I think we fine-tuned a lot of these going through LaMelo and Deshaun back-to-back.

Does your team work with the video editors to create a cohesive through-line for the story, no matter how someone is consuming it?
We do! One of my favorite parts about Cover Story is getting a front-row seat to the amazing work our E60 team does. I’ve learned so much from [feature producers] Neely Lohmann, John Minton, Brian Rivera, and Jeremy Williams working on these two stories.

Deshaun Watson (Matt Hawthorne for ESPN)

It starts with a call with the whole team almost as soon as the assignment is made to brainstorm and toss around some ideas. The writer, producer, and I all work together to create the list of questions for the interview, and we all weigh in on secondary interviews and shoots. After the reporting process is complete, the writer crafts a paragraph or two summarizing the themes of the piece, and that, along with a selection of the best quotes, helps guide the direction of the TV piece as the producer starts work on the script and the writer begins the draft. That collaboration between the video producer, the writer, and me continues with conversations about story drafts, scripts, and screenings, right up until the final days before publication.

This was the first Cover Story to be done entirely via social distancing, even Keown’s interview with Watson was done virtually. How does that change your job?

Well, it makes Tim’s job way harder, but for me it’s actually kind of great – on Zoom, I’m able to log on to the interview, too, and follow along from home in a way that I’m not I usually wouldn’t be able to do. It’s really useful to be able to watch in real-time and check in with the writer as needed – to ask for a follow-up, or add a new question to the mix – or, in this case, just to tell Tim, repeatedly, “This is so good!” (Although it also meant I had way more opinions on the transcript when it came to the draft — I kept asking Tim, “Oooh, what about this quote?” I told him I’d take the blame for the story getting longer as we went through the edit.)

Watch ESPN Cover Story here.

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