New ESPN ombud Robert Lipsyte talks about his role

Ask if Robert Lipsyte is going to be particularly critical as ESPN’s new ombudsman, and he mentions a little piece he penned for Slate magazine back in June 2011. The piece dismantles the 763-page oral history of ESPN, “Those Guys Have All the Fun.”

In that review, Lipsyte — who once worked on ESPN’s SportsCentury and Classic Sports Reporters shows, among many prestigious sports journalism jobs — criticized the authors for not being tough enough on the Worldwide Leader in Sports.

Why didn’t they look at how ESPN’s cheerleading affected America’s perception of celebrity athlete, or its problems covering athletes it also pays? (“The phrase ‘conflict of interest’ seems flabby,” he wrote then.)

Robert Lipstye

Turns out, when top ESPN executive John A. Walsh called to ask if he would be interested in the job, Lipsyte eventually sent him that column — which also indirectly called Walsh “controlling,” “Machiavellian” and “a genius.”

It was an example of the type of work he’d be doing as the outlet’s fifth ombudsman; an independent columnist who reviews ESPN’s journalism on ESPN’s website. It’s also a job that involves, first and foremost, being the audience’s advocate.

“It’s very clear that I’m representing an audience, an audience that needs to understand how ESPN works,” said Lipsyte, 75, who found out on Monday that he finally had the gig. “I really do believe the definitions and values of sports have value in society. The way that the media, including ESPN, covers sports, adds to or detracts from our understanding of the world. And that’s my job. Explaining that to people who want to know how it works.”

ESPN spent about five months without an ombudsman; a break that brought some buzz in sports media circles. But Patrick Stiegman, ESPN.com’s vice president and editor-in-chief, said Walsh led a team that considered two dozen names for the job, winnowed down to a few candidates they interviewed in person.

“We struck gold with Mr. Lipsyte. … he’s a legend in the field,” Stiegman said. “He was provocative, was mindful of what ESPN’s business goals were, mindful of ESPN’s goals as a journalistic entity and he challenged us. … He offered a tremendous analogy: He sees the role as being a window washer for ESPN. … It’s about transparency; his job is to keep those windows clean.”

Connected to journalism since his job as a copy boy for The New York Times in 1957, Lipsyte has worked for the Times, CBS and NBC as an columnist and reporter, along with PBS, National Public Radio and the New York Post. He has also penned 10 books.

Lipsyte will succeed the Poynter Project, a revolving roster of writers from the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which last served as ombudsman (Full disclosure: Poynter owns the newspaper where I work, the Tampa Bay Times). Previous ESPN ombudsmen/women include former NBC and ABC sports and entertainment executive Don Ohlmeyer, ex-Washington Post sports editor George Solomon and Le Anne Schreiber, a onetime sports editor at the New York Times.

There are no concrete plans worked out, but Lipsyte also hopes to create a blog and Twitter page for the ombudsman’s work, using Margaret Sullivan, the cyber-savvy ombudsman for the New York Times, as an inspiration.

“I like the way she’s structuring it; finding a topic, reporting on it and gently giving her take,” he said of Sullivan, noting he’d mostly use Twitter to promote work published elsewhere — at least at first. “I think, now, Twitter is just a little too reactive. An ombudsman is supposed to be a little reflective, maybe wait a beat.”

After a moment, he drops the punchline. “Two months from now, come back and tell me how full of s— I was,” he adds, laughing.

Besides confirming Lipsyte’s old school talent for salty newsroom language, the moment also demonstrates there’s little set in stone for this job at the outset. With no firm date in mind, he’s set to start sometime in June, producing at least two pieces each month under an 18-month contract.

His output will focus on columns for ESPN.com — where every other ombudsman has appeared — though he could also helm audio or video podcasts and surface on other multimedia platforms, Stiegman said.

The most interesting tidbit: Lipsyte could be the first ombudsman for ESPN who might actually appear on its most-watched platform, the television channels.

“The ombudsman should be everywhere ESPN is, (and) it would be better to respond on the platform the story is about,” Lipsyte said, suggesting that he might pop up in an interview or debate segment to speak on a major issue. “I don’t see Outside the Lines giving me my own airtime. … but as somebody who loves to get made up, I’m more than happy to go on TV.”

Asked if he’ll work from ESPN’s Bristol, Conn. Headquarters, Lipsyte answers almost by reflex (“God, no!”), noting he’ll stay in his New York area homebase and travel north when needed.

He acknowledges slipping into an old fashioned job with new media potential.

“There does seem something comfortably old fashioned about an ombudsman; someone who is holding an institution accountable or holding the door open to let others hold them accountable,” Lipsyte said.

“I think ESPN seems like this monolith (to outsiders). … They forget it’s all these different platforms populated by all these different people with these conflicting goals and ambitions. When you break it down, it’s really just people; which is far more human and interesting than people would think from the outside.”

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.