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At the Atlantic, Jemele Hill wants to be a journalist again

Former ESPN host Jemele Hill, left, talks to a group of Atlantic fellows. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Six young fellows from the Atlantic sat around a table inside a coffee shop at the Watergate Hotel on a recent afternoon as Jemele Hill, a new staff writer at the magazine, recounted her journey in journalism.

Hill had been hired just a few weeks before after a very public exit from ESPN, where she had become one of the network’s most prominent TV personalities. But she reminded the fellows — all of them both women and minorities — that print reporting was her first love.

As a student at Michigan State, she once wrote a story about a professor giving out fake grades. During an internship at the Raleigh News & Observer, she told the group, she spelled the name of a subject wrong in her first front-page story.

“I wanted to pirouette off a building that day,” Hill said.

With a pair of Beats headphones draped around her neck and her braids pulled back in a pony tail, Hill, 42, told the fellows, “In this business, you are going to walk into so many rooms and no one will look like you. You will make mistakes and not feel like you belong in this world, but don’t feel like you should pirouette off a building.”

She paused.

“Believe me,” she said. “I would know.”

Hill spent more than a decade at ESPN, climbing from online columnist to podcast host to host of the 6 p.m. “SportsCenter.” Last year, she became famous far beyond sports circles when she called President Trump a “white supremacist” in a Twitter reply. Press secretary Sarah Sanders responded in the White House briefing room, labeling Hill’s comment a fireable offense. (Hill was later suspended from ESPN when she suggested on Twitter that unhappy NFL fans could boycott advertisers associated with the Dallas Cowboys after owner Jerry Jones said his players would be benched if they didn’t stand for the national anthem.)

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Hill remained at ESPN for a year after the Trump dust up before reaching a buyout in September. Her 6 p.m. “SportsCenter” struggled to build an audience, and when she left she was writing for ESPN’s race, sports and culture website, The Undefeated.

Still, she recognizes the paradox of her final months at ESPN. Off “SportsCenter,” she became a bigger star and a symbol of The Resistance, almost accidentally achieving a unique brand of Trump-era celebrity that then offered a platform not available to every ESPN host — or Atlantic writer. ESPN, meanwhile, has faced a difficult business climate, losing cable subscribers and striving to separate itself from a divisive political climate, as critics on the right charged that the network had become too political and too progressive.

“It was a mutual breakup,” Hill said. “I don’t think it could have gone on.”

Of her comment about Trump, she added, “I know I wouldn’t be [at the Atlantic] today if I hadn’t said it, but I don’t want that to be the first line of my obit: 'She tweeted at Donald Trump.’”

The Atlantic, then, represents a fresh start. And there, Hill said, she wants to be a journalist again.

“For real, I got into TV when I heard about Matt Lauer’s contract,” she said with a chuckle. “Twenty five million dollars and he got Fridays off.” She later added, “Now I’m back with my tribe.”

Hill has straightforward marching orders from her new boss, Atlantic Editor in Chief Jeffrey Goldberg. “The thing that ESPN did not want her to be,” he said, “is the thing I want her to be.”

Goldberg was scrolling through Twitter one night several months ago when he saw that Hill was a free agent. He was a writer at the Atlantic in 2011 when the civil rights historian Taylor Branch published a cover story about college sports, arguing that the system was corrupt and that players ought to be paid. The magazine’s cover image was of a shirtless black athlete with a tattoo: “Property of the NCAA.”

In his office on a recent afternoon, Goldberg tossed the issue on a table and said the piece was exactly the way the magazine should cover sports — through the lens of race and politics. “We’re never going to cover games here,” he said. “I’m interested in ownership issues, in what happens to players after they retire, in educations that are provided to players for free who are playing for very wealthy universities. And so is Jemele."

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The Atlantic is undergoing an expansion, hiring dozens of journalists after an investment from Laurene Powell Jobs. Goldberg thus reached out to Hill, and when they met she came prepared with story ideas, from short columns to long magazine pieces. Hill’s top profile target, for instance, is Serena Williams.

Goldberg looked at old clips from Hill’s stops at the Detroit Free Press and the Orlando Sentinel, where she was a sports columnist. “You know what TV is like — I go on TV — it’s easier than writing,” Goldberg said. “It’s nonsense, right? She’s got gifts, fame and drive and analytical acuity. She can really do journalism on a set of important subjects that will make a difference.”

In the wake of her departure from ESPN, Hill was asked over and over whether she would look for a job as a political pundit, perhaps on MSNBC or CNN. In some respects, the job she took is the opposite. “I would be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t try to execute one horrifically long magazine piece while I’m here,” she said. “I’m thinking 20,000 words.”

Hill, who lived briefly in Washington this year, has since moved to Los Angeles and started a production company, Lodge Freeway Media, named for a highway in her hometown of Detroit. She is voicing a Showtime documentary produced by LeBron James, “Shut Up and Dribble,” and developing a comedy series with Sony and the actress Gabrielle Union, Dwyane Wade’s wife. There could be more partnerships with both Union and James’s production company in the future. For all the ambition Hill and her editor share, that raises a nagging question of propriety: Whether she can be in business with athletes while also writing genre-defining pieces about them.

“We’ll have to watch this,” Goldberg said. “If she’s working on a documentary with an athlete, we’ll be transparent and say so with full disclosure and let the reader weigh it accordingly. But if we come to the conclusion that because of various complications she can’t do the full task required, we’ll move to another subject. There’s plenty to write about."

Goldberg added: “Maybe I’ll have to write the LeBron James profile."

Hill compared the arrangement to when she has written critically of her alma mater Michigan State in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal. She and Spartans basketball Coach Tom Izzo developed a friendship over the years, yet she wrote a tough-minded piece for The Undefeated, arguing that he owed the public better answers for how he handled sexual assault allegations against his players.

“I’ve been through the awkwardness of having to write about someone I’m friends with,” she said. “I’m not even friends with LeBron; I’m friendly. He understands the media’s role and nothing would change the dynamic [of journalist and subject].”

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Might Hill one day need to choose between print journalism and her other pursuits?

“If I became the next Shonda Rhimes, I would have to make a decision,” she said, referring to the television producer, “but I don’t think they’re in competition with each other.”

For the Atlantic, Hill has examined black men’s support for Brett Kavanaugh and written about Beto O’Rourke’s support for NFL players' right to protest during the national anthem. There is, she said, a freedom in moving on from ESPN, but also, perhaps, a level of intimidation.

“Every single person you’re running into at work has covered foreign affairs or the White House or something super significant,” she said.

Back at the coffee shop, Hill and the young fellows traded notes on their favorite editors, discussed how to pitch stories and returned often to the subject of how people of color can make their way in the profession.

“In some ways, it can get even worse as your career progresses,” Hill said of opportunities for minorities. “Like on TV.”

“I’m really happy you’re being so honest,” one fellow said.

Hill’s answer: “I’m never going to sugarcoat it.”

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