In more than two decades at The Washington Post, Kevin Merida has earned a reputation as one of the newspaper’s most versatile players. He has been a political journalist, a national-affairs reporter, a features writer, a book author and a senior editor.
Starting next month, he’ll add “editor in chief” to his résumé — but not at the newspaper.
Merida, 58, will join ESPN to head a long-anticipated but so far unlaunched digital venture called the Undefeated. ESPN, the sports-media behemoth owned by the Walt Disney Co., announced Monday that it has turned to Merida, one of The Post’s two managing editors, to resuscitate the site, which aims to cover the intersection of race, culture and sports in the United States.
The Undefeated has often been called “the Black Grantland,” after another ESPN venture that offers commentary about the cultural aspects of sports. It has been plagued by management turmoil since it was announced two years ago. Its founding editor, columnist Jason Whitlock, was demoted in June after a troubled tenure in building up the site’s staff and developing its editorial approach.
ESPN had hoped to build the site around Whitlock, similar to how it built Grantland around its founding editor, Bill Simmons. (Whitlock left ESPN and joined rival Fox Sports last week; Simmons left ESPN in May after a long series of disputes with its management.) At the moment, the Undefeated is essentially a landing page for a few stories commissioned under Whitlock’s leadership.
Enter Merida, who since early 2013 has overseen a large portion of a newsroom that now numbers 700 journalists. He was the first African American to hold the managing-editor job in the newspaper’s history.
He said that leaving the paper was difficult but that the ESPN job was “a daring new adventure. . . . We’re in the digital age, and we’re not starting magazines and newspapers anymore,” he said. “But there are digital start-ups, and this is a chance to create something new. It’s a great opportunity at this stage of my career.”
A lifelong newspaperman and the co-author of a book about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Merida has written about sports from time to time. He wrote a well-received series for The Post’s Style section on onetime professional basketball star Tracy McGrady’s 1997-1998 rookie season. He also has written pieces about Mike Tyson and the people who hang around pro athletes.
Although he’s still formulating his plans, Merida said the Undefeated — which will be based in Washington — will consist of “great narrative work,” investigative and accountability reporting, commentary, still and video photography, and some “in-the-moment, fast-twitch” posts reacting to the news. His approach, he said, will be collaborative: “It’s not going to be Kevin Merida’s the Undefeated. I have some ideas, and other people have some ideas. There’s going to be a lot of brainstorming.”
The site currently has seven employees. Merida said the number will increase “significantly,” but he declined to be specific.
He added that it will coordinate its work with ESPN’s ever-expanding portfolio of media properties, including ESPN’s magazine, “SportsCenter” and its data-driven site, FiveThirtyEight.com.
In a staff memo Monday, Post executive editor Martin Baron announced Merida’s departure, writing, “I expect there is not a person in our newsroom, or in our entire organization, who is not heartbroken over this decision, even as we wish Kevin the very best in his new position and know that he will perform brilliantly.” He added, “I am thinking what all of you are thinking: It is hard to imagine our newsroom without him.”
Baron said he has made no decisions about replacing Merida.