Just a few years ago, Jessica Smetana’s job didn’t exist. Smetana ’16 produces online shows and co-hosts the Most Valuable Podcast at Sports Illustrated, which, like so many legacy publications, has diversified into much more than an iconic print magazine.
Smetana writes, too. Her stories have included an in-depth ranking of the six-and-a-half Lids stores inside Bloomington, Minnesota’s colossal Mall of America, coverage of Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra marathon in Tennessee and a feature on Notre Dame’s leprechaun corps.
Here she discusses her work, the recent, deep-cut layoffs at Sports Illustrated and life as a fan of both Notre Dame and Clemson (where she spent her freshman year):
What was your inspiration for putting the leprechaun piece together?
So I saw that [ND junior] Sam Jackson had been getting some backlash on Twitter after the Louisville game, and I found that a lot of outlets were writing and talking about that without actually interviewing him. . . . I just thought there was a bigger story to write there: What it’s like to be a person of color at Notre Dame, and what it’s like to be a black leprechaun at Notre Dame. So I reached out to him first and then Lynnette Wukie, who’s the first female leprechaun, and eventually through Notre Dame was able to talk to all three of them [including Conal Fagan, a Northern Ireland native] about what their experience has been like, how they ended up becoming a leprechaun, and the kind of unique challenges of being at Notre Dame — meaning that you’re not in this big mascot suit, people can come up to you and talk to you, it’s a very different fan-mascot relationship. These three leprechauns are different, and it’s something that’s really cool that we should talk about.
Sports Illustrated just lost more than a third of its editorial staff after it was acquired by the media company Maven. What are your thoughts on the future of SI?
The layoffs were . . . it was a really hard day. They were awful to be a part of. I think that feeling, and the way things happened, is going to be hard to forget. The sports-journalism landscape is changing because of technology and the way that people consume media. But I hope that Sports Illustrated can continue on because SI is an important voice in that landscape. A lot of the work SI has done, and continues to do, is really needed.
What’s your sense for how the expectations for sports journalism have changed in terms of objectivity, especially with many reporters wearing their fandom on their sleeves?
I used to read Rick Reilly’s column every week in Sports Illustrated and that was, you know, all you would really hear from him. And now reporters can tweet and be on Instagram and have more personality. I think audiences now value authenticity. . . . I don’t think it’s always appropriate for journalists to cheer for teams, but it’s OK in a lot of circumstances now where it wouldn’t have been 10 or 20 years ago, and I think it’s because we have more access to the reporters and media personalities we like.
How important is that social-media platform and reporters’ creation of their own brands?
I think platforms are changing really quickly. Five years ago, Facebook was the biggest platform. Today, I would say it’s probably Instagram; in five years it could be TikTok or something else. I think people will follow you to whatever platform you’re creating or working off of, and that’s how you can maintain an audience that’s going to be loyal to your work. Thirty years ago at SI, all we had was the magazine. You followed your favorite writer by reading the magazine. And now, your favorite writer might write on SI.com and they might publish that link to Twitter, and now you want to keep following them there, so you need to create that audience loyalty. . . . Everything is so scattered; there’s so much stuff on every media platform and search engines and what have you, and having a brand is what keeps people following you from place to place, instead of being, like, a Sports Illustrated robot or whatever.
What’s it like being a Notre Dame fan in a sports-media environment that can be anti-Irish? And how do you balance it with your Clemson fandom and connections?
I’m really proud of where I went to school, so it’s really not too hard. I did my freshman year at Clemson, and I really loved my time there, too, and I’m still a pretty big Clemson fan — I try to get there for a game every year. I grew up a Notre Dame fan, so the bottom line is that I get to really hate Alabama, and that’s pretty easy.
I went to the playoff game, and it was weird. I had a lot of friends there from Clemson and a lot of friends there from Notre Dame, but I really wanted Notre Dame to win, because obviously Clemson had won a national title [in 2016], and Notre Dame hasn’t, and I graduated from Notre Dame. . . . I’m more loyal to Notre Dame, and I was with my parents, who are both Notre Dame grads. It was weird, because a lot of the time you want to hate your opponents in college football or in any sport, and you want to absolutely crush them. But the way Notre Dame lost was really unexpected and not great. So I was happy they lost to a team I liked, but I was upset they had lost. It was a lot of emotions. I remember feeling like I had been dumped by my boyfriend because it was like — the team that I really liked just basically broke my heart.
Rachel O’Grady is a marketing analyst based in Atlanta.