How I Get It Done: Jemele Hill

Illustration: Lauren Tamaki

Sport journalist Jemele Hill’s one-million-plus Twitter followers rely on her feed for pointed takes on politics and social issues — in addition to commentary about LeBron James’s latest shot. Originally from Detroit, the former ESPN anchor has made a name for herself by speaking her mind. In September 2017, Hill became the subject of controversy after calling Donald Trump a white supremacist in a series of tweets criticizing the president. People on the left defended her, while ESPN distanced itself from the tweets and the White House called for her to be fired (read her essay about the incident here). The next month, ESPN suspended the journalist for two weeks over tweets about the NFL, and in January 2018, Hill left her co-hosting position at SportCenter’s The Six to write for ESPN’s The Undefeated. This past September, Hill, 42, left the network entirely and uprooted from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles to start developing projects for her new production company, Lodge Freeway Media. She is also a staff writer for The Atlantic and working on a memoir. Here’s how she gets it done. 

On a typical morning:
My phone starts going off at 4:30, 5 a.m. It’s next to me on my bed. The ringer is off but I still hear it vibrate. I roll out of bed at around 7:30, 8 a.m. I eat either yogurt or Life cereal, brush my teeth and hop in the shower. That’s when I probably watch ESPN to see what’s going on. It’s interesting watching as a viewer having had the experience of working there. You notice things like why something did or didn’t work. I watch 15 to 20 minutes of that, then I’m off to a meeting around 11 a.m. My co-producing partner [college friend and fellow journalist Kelley L. Carter] and I are meeting with potential writers, development folks, or networks for shows that we’re trying to get off the ground.

On her erratic schedule:
The strange thing about this part of my career is that I’m reverting to the time I was a younger journalist and every day looks different than the day before. I spent the past four-and-a-half years on an strict schedule because I did daily TV. These days, I have a calendar, but if something is not in my calendar, I don’t know I’m doing it. I’m very absent-minded so I need something to check. I have an assistant and a publicist who thankfully keep me on track.

On L.A. culture:
In L.A., very few meetings seem to start before 10 o’clock. I also just love the fact that I have yet to dress up for any meeting. Everyone is in jeans, T-shirts. I was like, “These are my kind of people!”

On life on the road:
This year I’ve rarely spent more than three days in a row at home. The thing I like least about being on the road is the lack of routine can be your enemy, and it just breeds unhealthy habits. For example, I wouldn’t normally have a vodka at noon if I were at home. But if I’m on the road, it’s a possibility. I have a crazy amount of frequent-flier miles and speak fluently in Marriott points.

On her Chipotle addiction:
The food I eat most consistently is Chipotle. I’m not kidding! It’s a sad indictment on my life. But I do enjoy it. I get a burrito bowl to go with chicken, brown rice, fajita mix, mild and medium salsa, and cheese. With a blackberry Izze to drink.

On TV versus print:
I didn’t take TV seriously. As a die-hard print person, and most print people would admit this, we made fun of TV people. We thought we were the nobler of the professions. So when I started doing TV, and because this was never something I intended to pursue as a full-time career, it was very easy and natural for me to be myself. I was like, “It’s just TV. Like, who cares?” I had a very flippant attitude, and, strangely, it wound up working for me. I looked at it as just having another conversation and a camera just happened to be in the room. You’re talking sports, you’re not exactly saving babies from burning buildings.

On being mansplained to:
Even as a print reporter, there are a lot of men trying to test you to see how much you know. Even though the majority of men I’ve known who have been colleagues or competitors have never played professional sports. A lot of them didn’t even play high-school sports! I played fast-pitch softball, and I was a shortstop. I was pretty good. Somehow what you know about sports — for that matter, whether you have permission to discuss it — is rooted in the genitalia you have.

On how she got her new job at The Atlantic:
When the reports started circulating that I was leaving ESPN, they reached out. We had a meeting shortly after I left and I hit it off with editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg and editor of Adrienne LaFrance. Even though I had five or six other writing opportunities, this made the most sense. I knew I could do work writing there, and I’ve always respected them.

On watching sports to unwind:
I watch a lot of Michigan State basketball and football. Being in L.A., it helps that LeBron is here, so I’m watching a lot of Lakers games because I’m naturally curious as to how this team will develop. Saturdays I watch as much college football as I can. Sundays I watch as much NFL as I can. The San Francisco 49ers are my team.

On her favorite mindless show: 
When I’m on deadline, I have The Young and the Restless on in the background. I’ve been DVR-ing it and watching it for the past 20 years. I’m working on a book proposal and I think I went through six episodes while I was writing it.

On her writing process:
I write for about an hour a day. I take breaks. I learned this lesson from Gary Smith, a writer from Sports Illustrated. I once wrote him and asked him to explain how he’s able to produce such beautiful stories. He wrote me back a ten-page typewritten letter. One of the things he said that stuck with me was he never believed in tormenting himself at the computer and sitting there with a blank screen. There’s nothing more frustrating for writers than seeing that cursor blink. You start putting pressure on yourself. I only write when I have something to say.

How I Get It Done: Jemele Hill