Soraya Nadia McDonald, a culture critic for The Undefeated, didn’t watch the live stream of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize winners announced on May 4. The possibility of winning wasn’t even on her mind as she watched Michelle Obama’s Netflix documentary for an upcoming article.
But once her phone started to buzz and ping like crazy, she looked down and screamed in complete disbelief; she was a 2020 Pulitzer Prize finalist for criticism — the first ESPN writer and SJI alum to do so — for her package of critiques that tackled racial and cultural issues in theater and film.
“It was extremely meaningful. It was a pretty euphoric day,” McDonald said. “It’s not something that I had my eye on as a possibility for myself.”
McDonald aims to approach each of her articles with “fearless rigor.” She won’t critique something until she is fully versed on the subject, complete with extensive research in order to look at topics from every angle.
“Soraya is so smart, so observant and so clear in her writing,” said Steve Reiss, senior deputy editor of The Undefeated, “that when you read something by her, you’re both introduced to a whole new way of seeing and left wondering why you never saw it that way before.”
However, McDonald’s journey to becoming a Pulitzer finalist wasn’t an easy one.
In 2008, after getting laid off twice in two years, McDonald took some time to reflect. This wasn’t what she had envisioned for her career.
“Is the universe trying to tell me that I shouldn’t be in journalism?” she wondered.
The U.S. was in the middle of a huge recession, which put the journalism industry through a tailspin. But that didn’t do much to soften the blow.
“I had bought into the idea that if I did everything right and I worked really hard, that I would be happily rewarded,” said McDonald, who was a sports journalist at the time. “It was really painful to have things not work out the way I wanted them to, and the way that I had expected them to, frankly.”
McDonald took a job as an assistant systems editor at the Washington Post, but it felt like a step backwards from her goals. Instead of reporting, she was providing social media and smartphone training for other writers, as well as helping the publication find and integrate new digital software.
As the recession continued, the publication cut more jobs. McDonald saw the gaps in coverage as an opportunity and began to write features on culture and style in addition to her full-time hours.
“I found a way to be excited about journalism again and about the things I was writing about,” McDonald said. “And that felt good.”
McDonald had a similar rush of excitement when she was accepted into the Sports Journalism Institute class of 2004. While learning to write on the fly, she gained mentors to guide her through covering sports as a double-minority.
While covering a game for The Clarion-Ledger that summer, McDonald was told that women couldn’t enter a minor league clubhouse.
“You just feel like it’s your fault for just sort of being a woman and existing in a press box or sports section — even though it’s not,” McDonald said.
She remembers how program leaders Gregory Lee Jr., Leon Carter and Sandy Rosenbush shared advice and boosted her confidence.
When McDonald felt unwanted at an internship after graduating from Howard University, her mentors were once again there to provide guidance. After a recommendation from Rosenbush, she was hired as a sports reporter for the Colorado Springs Gazette in 2006. But when the publication hired a new publisher around a year later, McDonald’s job was cut.
She then joined the Daily Pilot, a community newspaper under the Los Angeles Times, where McDonald faced a similar situation. The publication was bought and cuts ensued, which brought the young journalist to her moment of doubt and reflection.
Though she continued to pursue a career in journalism, the uncertainty remained. She was working around 70 to 80 hours a week balancing her roles at the Washington Post, but she wanted to focus her time on writing.
In 2012, McDonald asked to meet with managing editor Kevin Merida with the hopes of securing a full-time position covering arts and culture; if he said no, she’d enroll in graduate school for interior design and start a new path.
McDonald never had to explore that option.
“You could see that she had a unique voice,” Merida said. “She really had really original ideas, and I thought she was bringing things to the style section, into culture, that we didn’t have. And so the question always from my standpoint was like, ‘How do we maximize that?’”
The answer was a position covering pop culture for “The Morning Mix,” a new blog the publication started to cover overnight breaking news. A year after, McDonald officially joined the style section.
Less than two years later, Merida was starting a new role as editor-in-chief of The Undefeated, and he wanted McDonald on staff. She quickly accepted when he asked her to join as a senior culture writer in late 2015. In 2018, she was promoted to a culture critic.
Reiss started entering packages of McDonald’s work for the Pulitzer Prize a few years ago. She didn’t understand why when he told her. McDonald assumed her publication surely had something better to spend its money on. But Reiss proved right, with the organization recognizing McDonald’s work in May.
“It did feel like this huge relief,” McDonald said. “I had encountered a number of people in my journalism career who were not particularly interested in fully seeing me or my potential. It was just easier for them to just tell me, ‘No,’ in one way or another. This was something tangible that everyone and anyone who works as a serious journalist can identify and respect.”