Current gig Editor in chief, espnW and ESPN The Magazine
Previous gig Editor in chief, espnW
Adweek: There's been a lot of buzz around the fact that you're the first female editor of a national sports magazine. What does that mean to you?
Alison Overholt: It's actually kind of a tricky question in the sense that it's meaningful for a lot of reasons, though not for the reasons that most people might think. Everybody's focused on the historic nature of it, but I don't think that my placement into this position had anything to do with the fact that I'm a woman. It's having an editorial track record that has put me in this position. So in that sense, there's a lot of attention on something that feels a little bit beside the point. However, that said, it's still incredibly meaningful! When you look at the symbolic value that the person leading editorial for espnW becomes the editor in chief of ESPN The Magazine, that's significant. And it's also significant in a symbolic sense because any time a woman gets to take on an important position, whether you're aware that there's a barrier or not, it's one more thing that other girls and women won't have to think about in the future.
What kind of new perspective do you think you'll bring to the magazine?
The No. 1 thing that I am hyper-aware of that maybe other prior editors were not as personally sensitive to is the importance of new voices. Any editor worth his or her salt is always looking for the next great voice, but coming from groups that are historically underrepresented, you live it and breathe it in a daily way that can be unconsciously overlooked when you're part of the mainstream. I want to find more signature female voices for the magazine.
You often hear that sports media outlets don't cover women's sports because viewership isn't very high. How do you fix that problem?
I was speaking to someone about that when I first got this job, and I tossed out a hypothesis that I feel like that's a bit of a media-fueled storyline. To a certain extent, we have to take responsibility for that because we are the sports media. We are the ones who create the storylines and focus attention on the athletes and decide which narratives are worthy of attention, so if we never choose to find out and elevate and share the stories of women, how is anyone going to know that they ought to be paying attention to them? I think we have an opportunity here to be sharing more of those stories.
You first joined ESPN in 2005. What are the biggest changes you've seen in the evolution of sports media since then?
The biggest change is the difficulty of access to athletes for a traditional media outlet. Today's professional athletes grew up in an environment where they were crafting their images as people—not just as athletes—on social media. That makes a reporter's job really different because there's a certain self-censorship that athletes have when you do get a chance to sit with them. There's also much less of a sense of obligation on the part of the athletes to even sit with you in the first place. They can tell people what they want them to know, so why should they have to go through the invasive process of letting a reporter do an immersive, all-access piece? That's one of the things that, I think, makes magazine journalism even more powerful. When somebody is going to commit that amount of time and investment and, frankly, vulnerability, it has to be worth it. So for [an athlete], if a story feels like it's going to be lasting and meaningful, maybe that can change their calculus as far as whether they will give you access.
Is being on a magazine cover still important to professional athletes?
Absolutely. Because it's a thing you can frame and put on your wall. And there's still something about holding it and realizing, "This is me!"
This story first appeared in the April 25, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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