Lipsyte Comes out of the Bullpen and Back to Prime Time with ESPN  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2013

Lipsyte Comes out of the Bullpen and Back to Prime Time with ESPN    

The highly regarded columnist takes over Saturday as the sports juggernaut's ombudsman.Thu., May 30, 2013.

By Brooks Welsh
Brooks Welsh (lwelsh12@terpmail.umd.edu) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


You can practically hear his smile through the phone.

As sportswriter Robert Lipsyte nears the end (perhaps) of his long and storied career, one more opportunity has presented itself, one that has left him brimming with excitement.

On Saturday, Lipsyte, 75, will start his new job as ombudsman for ESPN, a job he never thought he would have, a position that presents many new challenges for the veteran journalist and one that he believes he has been preparing for for over 50 years.

"I was pretty happy writing online pieces for various magazines and writing books, young adult fiction, and..out of the blue they asked me if I would like to come out of the bullpen and pitch a couple of innings," Lipsyte says. "My God, it was so exciting. It's something I have never done before, and I felt a real flutter of excitement because who knows if I can do it?

"There is no reason to think that I can because I have never done it before. So the idea of that kind of challenge now..is overwhelming. No way I couldn't go."

It all started a couple of months ago when John Walsh, ESPN's executive editor, called Lipsyte to ask if he would like to interview for the job. After a quick trip to the sports powerhouse's headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, to chat with various people, Lipsyte got the gig.

The 18-month position will require Lipsyte to write one column and hold one chat with fans each month. In addition, the fast-paced nature of the Internet will give him the opportunity to blog and respond to as many coverage topics and fan queries as he wants. He will also launch a personal twitter account to communicate with fans and announce when his articles are posted on ESPN.com.

Lipsyte, who had two stints as a sports columnist at the New York Times during his long journalism career and has written numerous books for both adults and young adults, says he doesn't think of himself as "thoughtful," so taking his time with tweets is something he really plans to focus on.

"I love the idea of social media," Lipsyte says. "I love the idea of being able to get stuff out fast. I think that I'm going just need to hold myself back..because, theoretically, the ombudsman should be a more thoughtful responder."

As Lipsyte embarks on his new job working for what he describes as "the single most important vehicle of sports news and entertainment," he is doing so with an open mind, ready to take on the issues and tasks as they arise.

"I'm not going in with an agenda," he says. "I don't have a list of any kind, and I don't see myself as an enterprise investigator here. I think that the job, as I see it, is that the ombudsman is a representative of the audience, so [what] I would be responding to [is] what's on the minds of the viewers and listeners."

There are many issues that he sees as potential topics due to their recurring nature. One stems from conflicts of interest at ESPN inherent in the company's dual role as journalistic entity and a purveyor of sports entertainment. The issue of free speech and social media conduct at ESPN, especially with regard to employee Twitter accounts, will also no doubt pop up.

Lipsyte will be ESPN's fifth ombudsman. He follows a tag team ombudsman lineup of staffers at the Poynter Institute.

His goal is to have a positive impact on the company and its relationship to its audience and to foster the development of the network's younger staff members. His role, he says, will be to serve as "the keeper of transparency."

###