Sign of the Times


On May 9, in the wake of the Columbine shootings, The New York Times‘s Robert Lipsyte wrote a column entitled “The Jock Culture: Time to Debate the Questions,” promising that “in future columns, perhaps with the help of forward-thinking psychiatrists, psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, historians, philosophers and, yes, even fans, we will try to open our own jockcult forum.”

Naka Nathaniel, sports producer for the Times‘s Web edition, accepted the invitation. “I read the article and said that this belonged on the Web,” he says. “The way that he wrote it screamed out, ‘Let’s have a very literate discussion on this.”‘ Lipsyte agreed to serve as forum moderator.

Two weeks later, in a print column titled “The Entangled Web Around Youth Sports,” Lipsyte focused on the forum, quoting participants to illustrate points originally made in his earlier piece. “In a thoughtful and spirited debate on The New York Times on the Web Forums,” he wrote, “fans and nonfans have been wrestling with the values— positive and negative— of American sports.” (The forum, since halted, is available on the Times online archive.)

It was a unique approach for one of the country’s oldest papers: incorporating Web material into its print edition. “It was the first time for us to generate something like that,” says Nathaniel. “In March 1997, after doing a series on downsizing, we solicited e-mails from readers, but that was later incorporated into a book, not put into the paper. With the sports section, we’ve been very aggressive about trying to take a different approach on the Web.”

One of the first writers to come on board was Lipsyte. “In 1996, during the Olympics, I ran two forums for the Times,” he recalls. “I was struck by the level of discussion, generally more thoughtful than the calls and letters I got at the paper in response to print sports columns. There was a sense of engagement that I liked enormously.”

Of course, with Web forums, troublemakers are bound to emerge. “There were jerks, of course,” Lipsyte says. “But mainly people wanted to talk about the impact on them in high school of being or not being— usually not being— a jock, which also meant being unsure of who they were.”

Lipsyte says his philosophy on writing has been changed by the Internet. “I don’t see how it’s possible anymore to do journalism without seeing what’s happening on the Web,” he says. “It reminds me of the sportswriters who sit in the press box behind a glass window, insulated from the crowd. More and more, the crowd’s in cyberspace. It’s the grandstand. If you want to know what the fans are thinking, you go out and sit in the grandstand. Of course, cyberspace is better. No one spills beer on you there.”