The Woman in the Room: A Conversation with ESPN’s Marie Donoghue ’92
When Marie Donoghue ’92 first joined ESPN in 1998, she was a bit of an internet pioneer. As an in-house attorney at Poly-Gram Holdings, the parent company of Island Records, she had wrestled with the threat of Napster. Then, as an exec at Starwave Ventures, she helped produce ESPN’s early internet products.
That crash-course in the internet’s power to change media has come in handy for Donoghue. Nearly 20 years later, ESPN’s executive vice president for global business and content strategy has overseen the acquisition of political polling site FiveThirtyEight and launched the sports and culture website The Undefeated. She also expanded ESPN Films, and, under her leadership, helped O.J.: Made in America become the first television series to receive the Academy Award for best feature documentary.
A member of the first co-ed class to graduate from Columbia College, in 1987, Donoghue has been on The Hollywood Reporter’s “Power 100 Women in Entertainment” list and has been dubbed a “game changer” by The Sports Business Journal, the industry publication. She is acutely aware that her industry is changing fast. As media habits evolve and cable subscriptions drop off, ESPN has begun a restructuring, and Donoghue sits squarely at the center of the company’s initiatives.
She recently sat down with the CLS Communications Office to discuss where she sees ESPN heading, as well as her career path and Columbia memories.
This interview was edited for space and clarity.
You have spent most of your career at ESPN. How essential was a law degree?
It all started with my law degree. I wouldn’t have gotten in-house without the law degree, and I wouldn’t have been able to move to an internet company without the internet legal experience I had. I’ve always found that the law degree and legal education is a phenomenal way to learn how to think, to learn how to approach problems and opportunities, and it does amazing things for your logical thinking.
It’s an incredibly valuable and well-rounded education to enter the workplace—the logic and the negotiating I learned as a lawyer really helped me have a seat at the table, and help our company as we navigated the constantly changing media landscape.
You expanded ESPN’s documentary film content dramatically, adding more 30 for 30 series films and the female-focused Nine for IX series, as well as several short films. Can you talk a little about how O.J.: Made in America developed out of that experimentation?
What we’ve always tried to do with 30 for 30 is focus on diversity—diversity of how we tell stories, diversity of the stories, diversity of the filmmakers. We really highlight and empower the filmmaker’s point of view. I think it’s one of the strengths of 30 for 30, because no two films are the same.
When we first started to talk about exploring the O.J. Simpson story, we knew it probably wouldn’t fit in a 90-minute or 2-hour 30 for 30. Ezra Edelman, the director, who’s brilliant, and Libby Geist, the producer, and Connor Schell [a 2004 graduate of Columbia Business School], who worked for me at the time, really were excited and said, “This is an amazing project and there’s so many amazing storylines that could run through it.” Everything from race to sexual politics to the history of L.A. to media…we really thought that the five-hour length really let us explore them.
We convinced my boss, [ESPN President] John Skipper, and he was interested enough to continue to fund us and let it go longer. I think I saw one version that was about 11 hours. But [Edelman and the production team] picked a few particular concepts to explore and explored them fully and deeply. They were very disciplined in not just exploring the surface of other topics. For what they intended to do, [the final cut] was the perfect length.
And how did The Undefeated come about?
I would say that fits into the same category—we really wanted to bring unique, insightful voices to our platforms. Sports, race, and culture intersect so much, and it’s important to us at ESPN to bring in those voices.
[The Undefeated staff is] a smart, insightful team that can really explore different topics, and have a little bit more leeway on certain topics. When you’re trying to explore race or things related to race, there’s a benefit to having a team that is diverse, but where the minority is the majority. You end up coming up with new approaches and different perspectives, which I think can be a great benefit to the company and to our readers and our viewers.
ESPN acquired FiveThirtyEight from The New York Times in 2013, and then re-launched it with sports analytics content, as well as political polling. How did that come about?
We [bought] FiveThirtyEight because we very much wanted to work with [editor/pollster] Nate Silver, to bring in [another] unique, smart, insightful voice. Nate started in sports, in baseball. When his deal was up at The New York Times, he started talking to us about how he wanted to return to sports. It didn’t mean he didn’t want to do politics, but he wanted to explore both. At [ESPN’s parent company] Disney, we have ABC News, and they were very supportive of bringing Nate on board [for election polling analysis].
This past election was just once in a lifetime. FiveThirtyEight set all sorts of traffic records. Nate’s incredibly disciplined and smart, and stays incredibly calm.
You recently participated in Columbia College’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of its first co-ed class, speaking on a panel about the challenges female executives face and what Columbia can do to advance change for female students and graduates. How do you think being part of this class shaped your career?
I loved my time at Columbia. [I was] particularly excited to do [the panel] with the other pioneering women that started that year.
I’ve spent most of my education and my career at institutions where women are outnumbered. One of the lessons I’ve learned is it’s important to get more women in the room so you’re not just “the woman.” You’re more than “the woman.” But also, I think it’s important that when you’re the woman in the room, you should own all of who you are. I’m also a digitally trained executive, so I tend to be a little more of a change agent when it comes to media and technology. And that’s part of who I am and why I’m valued at the company.
I’ve always taken a special interest in mentoring and supporting diverse voices. Ultimately, that’s the best business strategy. If you don’t avail yourself of the entire workforce, you’re operating at a handicap. I guess it’s a longwinded way of saying that for a long time I tried to fit in more than I focused on the ways that we’re different, to celebrate that and have a point of view.
Any career advice for the Law School’s Class of 2017?
If you think you know what you want to do, then pick your jobs accordingly. It was important for me to go to a corporate law firm [the Wall Street firm then known as Winthrop, Stimson, Putnam & Roberts], where I would get maximum exposure, build my skills, pay back my loans, and have a really well-rounded legal experience so that I could then take that somewhere else.
If you’re a law student coming out of Columbia, and you go straight to an entertainment company, that may work out okay because you get in early, and those jobs are hard to come by. But you may end up having someone who worked on Wall Street for five years come in and be your boss, because they’ve gotten much more experience. So focus on getting towards what you want.
I would also say, so much of life and your career are dependent upon the personal relationships you have, and that you make along the way. Don’t discount the people you meet and the experiences you have along the way.
Posted on July 10, 2017