Lipsyte final words as ombudsman: ESPN needs to improve its journalism

Robert Lipsyte used his final column to implore ESPN to be more consistent with its journalism.

He writes:

I think that improvement is most needed in ESPN’s inconsistent execution of journalism, which does not appear to be the highest of company priorities. That’s understandable from an economic perspective. College football and basketball, for example, are important revenue producers for the company. Extensive investigative reporting into the exploitation of college athletes, and the legal battles around that, would seem to conflict with ESPN’s business model. How do you turn over the rocks in the Southeastern Conference, for instance, while owning the SEC Network? 

And why should ESPN bother? Its dominance in sports broadcasting is apparent, its bottom line is rising and, at the risk of shield-polishing, I think its live event coverage and studio production, the core of its renown and revenue, is as good as or better than any of its competitors. 

However, I think ESPN should bother because no other media company has the resources, the talent pool, the access, the leadership and the institutional intelligence to cover sports as well. It feels like a responsibility. 

And here’s the key point:

I think ESPN should bother because American sports needs to be seriously examined in a turbulent time.

Indeed, Lipsyte is saying ESPN could have it both ways: Garner ratings from games and be a major journalism force in sports.

He writes:

A starting point: cut through ESPN’s variety of voices offering various kinds of information and speculation — reporters embedded with teams and college conferences; “First Take” debaters; Insiders with rumors of trades and injuries; squawk radio; Grantland podcasters and espnW profilers. Well, to do that, ESPN needs to create a central news desk with its own dedicated staff of writers, reporters, producers and on-air talent. It would be a news firehose ready to crash on a story and get it on digital, radio and/or TV. 

It would be costly and difficult to keep a staff both ready when needed and otherwise productive between assignments. But doing so would mean that when a Penn State/Sandusky story breaks, a team is on its way. When a Boston Marathon bombing occurs, ESPN doesn’t have to depend on the great good fortune that its stars Bob Ley and Jeremy Schaap – and help from sister company ABC News — and support staff were available.

Lipsyte concludes:

Thus, my last thought: the creation of a new, hands-on network, ESPN-J. 

Several months ago, ESPN President John Skipper reminisced to me about his North Carolina boyhood. He recalled sitting at segregated lunch counters, looking through the kitchen at African-Americans eating on the other side. The memory haunts him. 

“The greatest injustice in our business,” Skipper said, “is the lack of black sportswriters. I want to try to do something about that. ESPN fellowships, ESPN as a birthplace for careers.” 

One way to jump-start that vision would be to set up a network of ESPN sports journalism workshops in high schools across the country, concentrating on schools in underserved neighborhoods and those with large populations of color. Working with schools’ English and journalism teachers wherever possible, ESPN men and women from digital, print, radio and TV would explain their jobs and how they got them, assign and critique written and visual stories, and allow students to observe remote game sites and staffers on the job. There could be follow-ups by email and via Skype. 

There could be support for school publications and radio stations — even the establishment of such. Based on their own academic experiences, ESPN staffers could point these students toward colleges where they might continue their ESPN-J education — with a further goal being internships, those Skipper-professed fellowships and entry-level jobs in Bristol. 

If not ESPN, who? Especially now, as the company, its hegemony seemingly secure, looks to make a positive social impact within its ambitious mission TO SERVE SPORTS FANS/ANYTIME/ANYWHERE. 

Such a project is invariably two-way. As anyone who has taught kids knows, the teacher usually learns more. The gifts of ESPN-J will show up on the air and on the pages, as increased understanding and sensitivity and less willful denial. 

An ambitious idea, yes?

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