Q&A with Aaron Dodson, assistant editor at The Undefeated

Aaron Dodson is an assistant editor at The Undefeated, a website that will examine the relationship between race and sports. Dodson is a 2015 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, where he worked at The Daily Tar Heel as a reporter and copy editor. While in college, Dodson had internships at the sports departments at The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post. In this interview, conducted by email, Dodson discusses the objectives of The Undefeated and his job there.

Q. What is The Undefeated? What should we expect to see on the site?

A. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked this question — “What is The Undefeated?” — since I got hired, and the beautiful thing is my answer is constantly evolving. At its core, The Undefeated will be a site that ESPN has envisioned to explore the intersection of race, sports and culture, particularly through the lens of the African-American experience. But as we get closer to our launch date, which we are still in the process of finalizing, and once the site gets up and running, I believe our identity as a multi-faceted, storytelling platform will continue to shape itself.

One thing I can say is people should expect a high quality of bold, passionate and honest stories. My favorite part of journalism is longform, which The Undefeated will certainly have a great deal of. We want to tell the stories that deserve to be told but in many cases get overlooked. For example, we will make an effort to highlight historically black colleges and universities — a sector, especially in the sports realm, that often goes uncovered.

The site, however, will not be limited to the longform style of storytelling. Expect to see a unique mix of longform, shortform, commentary, audio and visual journalism and even your everyday lifestyle blogging.

Since its inception, The Undefeated has been referred to as “The Black Grantland,” though that’s not a label we want to embrace going forward. This is by no means a knock on anything Grantland produced — content we all grew to know and love in the four years of the site’s existence. It’s just that we want the opportunity to create our own identity — to be simply The Undefeated.

And I think under the leadership of our editor-in-chief Kevin Merida, former managing editor of The Washington Post, we have a very bright future ahead of us. I’m just happy to be a part of the team.

Q. Describe your role at The Undefeated. What is your typical workday like?

A. I’ve been with The Undefeated for about a month and, to be honest, there hasn’t really been a typical workday yet, which has been very exciting.

My normal role with the site will be working as a copy editor, but since we’re still assembling our team and preparing for the launch, there hasn’t been normal copy flow. This period has allowed me to contribute in many different ways, and the best way to describe my current role is to employ a sports term. So far, I’ve been a “utility player.”

I’ve been able to pitch a few stories that I will have the chance to write myself and am working on. I’ve also been collaborating very closely with one of our senior writers in a research capacity for a few pieces she’s envisioning. Even more exciting, I received an opportunity to make my first-ever television appearance on a local station, during which one of The Undefeated writers and I got a chance to talk about the NCAA Tournament and what the future holds for The Undefeated.

It’s definitely been an adjustment going from a college newsroom last year to a professional newsroom last summer during my internship with The Washington Post to now being involved with a completely new site. Regardless, I’m enjoying every minute of this experience, which is why I’ve been so open to helping in any way I can.

Q. You are a 2015 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What skills and concepts that you learned there are you using in your job? What have you learned on the job?

A. The most important thing I learned during my time in UNC’s journalism school was to be open-minded while chasing the goals you set for yourself in the journalism field. I always knew I wanted to work in sports media, and for the longest time I solely wanted to work in a print journalism capacity as a sportswriter for a daily newspaper.

Then I took Andy Bechtel’s News Editing course, which exposed me to a different side of the process of producing content — the editing process. Now, my first full-time job out of college is as a copy editor, though I’ll still have an opportunity to contribute as a writer! That semester in News Editing eventually turned into another semester in Advanced Editing, and finally I found that the skills I learned in these courses translated into improvements in my writing, reporting and even my personal brand through social media.

The journalism school taught me that it’s nice at times to take a step back from what you’re doing — how you’re striving toward a certain career path — and look at it in a different way. It took me a while to figure things out, but in order to find a place within the field of sports media, I had to embrace the realization that having a diverse skill set is better than being a one-trick pony.

I might’ve looked too deeply into this question, but I do think a lot about your courses and some of the things my other journalism school professors, like John Robinson, taught me while I was at UNC. You guys tested me, kicked my butt at times, but I wouldn’t have been able to get to ESPN without you.

Q. Sportswriting is a popular pursuit among journalism students. What advice do you have for them?

A. The best advice I could give is to never pass up on an opportunity. The more opportunities you tackle — freelancing, blogging, covering games (especially the ones no one wants to cover) — the better you will get.

In a sense, becoming a good sports journalist is a matter of trial and error. Eventually, you’ll begin to look at sports news, games, players and stories in different and exciting way. This brings me to my next (and probably cliché) piece of advice: dare to be different! When I interviewed with The Undefeated, I was asked to pitch a story idea even though I applied to be a copy editor, not a writer. I pitched a story that was weird and something the editors had never heard of or even thought about. The idea came to me as a product of how much time I’ve spent in the last few years writing, editing and reading as many stories as I can.

After I got hired, I was told that my story pitch was what got me the job. I hope to eventually get a chance to write that story for The Undefeated, but in the meantime I’ll keep looking at sports journalism in unique ways. I think this open approach is beneficial to anyone pursuing a career in sportswriting.

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