Those $%#@&# bloggers: what to do?

Hockey blogs and hockey bloggers aren’t going anywhere. That’s a reality the Edmonton Oilers and other NHL teams have to accept and come to grips with, and the sooner the better.

Thankfully, that’s a realization that seems to be slowly taking hold as teams and their media relations departments tackle the issue of how to handle blogs and bloggers, specifically when it comes to access and accreditation.

What are the guidelines for issuing credentials to bloggers who aren’t parts of mainstream media outlets, like The Journal, TSN or Sportsnet? What should they be? How do teams decide which websites are granted access and credentials and which ones aren’t?

David Staples, at The Cult of Hockey in The Journal, has written on the topic more than once. So has Greg Wyshynski at PuckDaddy and Eric McErlain at Off The Wing.

As a member of the mainstream media who also blogs for a non-MSM website, this one, it’s a debate I’ve been drawn into more than once at levels both philosophical and personal — most recently this week, when I had a protracted discussion with J.J. Hebert, director of communications and media relations for the Oilers.

MSM AND THE OTHER GUYS

Hebert and I have disagreed often about access and credentials for non-MSM outlets. I’ve argued that some websites, Oilersnation among them, should be granted the same courtesy as their MSM counterparts.

Of course, my position on that, some would point out, isn’t altogether altruistic — I’m one of the fortunate few who gets paid as a blogger. Even with mainstream gigs like co-hosting the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260 and covering the Oilers and Eskimos as a freelance writer for the Canadian Press, it’s in my best interest to take that stance. Oilersnation puts money in my pocket. So, my version of the discussion NHL teams are having about bloggers continues with Hebert.

The juxtaposition between MSM websites and non-MSM sites and how they are perceived and treated by teams like the Oilers came up again this week because of my personal circumstances.

For the 2010-11 season, I’ll be writing for NHL.com and covering the Oilers much like did when I wrote the beat for The Journal and The Sun, at least for their home games. That means attending morning skates and writing game stories and features on the Oilers and visiting teams.

It’s a gig I look forward to and one I’ll be taking on while continuing with Gregor’s show and writing for Oilersnation with increased frequency. At least that’s my plan. If only it was so simple.

WHO GETS IN?

I’m not out to put Hebert on the spot here because he and his staff are doing their best to address the ever-increasing number of requests for credentials as they pertain to the proliferation of hockey websites.

With The Journal, The Sun, TEAM 1260 and CP, I’ve been accredited by the Oilers dating back to 1989. In terms of NHL credentials, I’ve had them since 1982, when I convinced the Vancouver Canucks to give me a spot in the parking lot and a seat in the press box.

Essentially, Hebert told me and my editor he’d be happy to issue me a pass for NHL.com (or TEAM 1260 or CP, for that matter), but that he’d have a problem — one that’s been ongoing — if I was going to continue to use my access to gather material for Oilersnation because this site isn’t recognized as part of the MSM.

One of the problems facing Hebert is that when Gregor and I write for Oilersnation, he gets calls from other bloggers: "If Brownlee and Gregor get a pass, why not me?" The argument is that if we get in, everybody should and that if they don’t, we shouldn’t. I don’t buy that, but I get how the issue could be a pain in Hebert’s ass.

Here’s the Oilers policy, or lack of same, as Staples recently reported:

"Allan Watt, vice-president of broadcast and communications for the Oilers, says, "We don’t have a policy, only a position which is consistent with the other Canadian teams regarding bloggers. We take the position that we don’t accredit websites and bloggers not affiliated with or employed by a mainstream media. We also reserve the right to deal with these requests on a case by case basis."

MOVING FORWARD

I believe the position, as stated by Watt, is far too restrictive and needs to be reconsidered. There are a lot of bloggers producing well-written, thought-provoking and insightful accounts and commentary that draw millions of page hits and, as a bottom line, enhance awareness and interest in the Oilers, and all NHL teams for that matter.

Not all those websites, as has been pointed out before, have an interest in getting credentials. They can do what they do without them. But some of those sites do want access, and there’s no legitimate reason in 2010 that those sites, including this one, be dismissed without consideration because they aren’t affiliated with MSM outlets.

That said, the Oilers have every right to decide what websites and outlets they issue credentials to. They have a right to expect and maintain levels of professional conduct and coverage. It’s their show.

What needs to happen is for the Oilers and all NHL teams to adopt a position that they will issue or decline credentials based on the merit of the website applying for same.

What is the history of the site? Is the content fan-boy trash or mindless gibberish laced with profanity, or does it resemble, at least loosely, what you find on MSM sites? How large an audience does the site reach? Is somebody just looking for a free seat in Rexall Place or a chance to get into the dressing room? Is the content and commentary being produced of a "professional" standard? On and on.

TIME HAS COME

Asking those kinds of questions, and others, in establishing policy for issuing credentials to non-MSM websites translates, at least initially, to a helluva lot of thought and extra work for media men like Hebert. But the time has come.

If an old-school, inked-stained wretch like me has come to the conclusion that there’s a lot of well-written, worthwhile content and commentary out there being produced by people who have never been near a journalism school and who aren’t employed by MSM outlets, it’s likely long overdue that NHL teams recognize it as well.

Websites like Oilersnation aren’t going anywhere. Hockey blogs and hockey bloggers are here to stay and they’re going to have their say, one way or another. From where I sit, that’s a good thing.

It’s time for the Oilers, time for every NHL team, to open their doors and embrace that reality.

Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.

  • It only figures the Oilers do this. Look what they did to Stauffer. They won’t allow him to Twitter.

    Is anyone stupid enough to believe that in spite of your writing for other organizations, because you blog, you can’t be accredited?

    Tell Watt that John MacKinnon, Dan Barnes, etc. blog. Is their access denied?

    I think this is more about bloggers being able to call a spade a spade. It isn’t done often in MSM because you have to travel with the players and management for so many months of the year.

    Perhaps it’s because JW was against public money going into the downtown arena?

  • Good article Robin, there are more than two shades of colour to this debate but one thing that is undeniable is that blogging isn’t going away.

    Without hashing and re-hashing the same tired arguments that never get you guys anywhere why not look for a solution?

    The way I see it is that there are a number of bloggers that probably have proven they can handle the responsibilities that come with team access. There are also a number of bloggers that have a professional journalism background and are open minded enough to recognize who those guys are and what those responsibilities require.

    Based on that and speaking only from an NHL blogger perpective, wouldn’t the most progressive approach be to establish some sort of association?

    I know it sounds formal but if blogging has truly grown up to where the people in question no longer wear bunny pajamas and hide form the sun light for days on end then perhaps it is time to treat it as such. You know small beginnings and great things or something to that effect.

    Such an approach seems to solve all the problems. The quality and so called ethical issues then become self governing as well as it releives NHL teams and guys like Hebert the impossible task of wondering if this guy or that guy is simply looking to score free tickets and get a glimpse of how an NHLer lives.

    They can provide a set of standards that the association members needs to abide by and the association takes responsibility for it’s members for risk of losing access.

    Sorry, long post but in short if bloggers want the perks of professional perhaps it is time the show they can be professionals.

  • Ender

    The scary thing about the Oilers deciding that “this blog writer gets a pass and this one doesn’t” is that there will always be the unspoken threat hanging over the head of the blogger that gets one: play nice if you want your pass renewed next season. I know that it exists right now for the MSM guys, but the thing is that they already expect to be nice (for the most part); an MSM outlet can’t get too carried away with what it writes. A blogger can write anything and everything they feel like.

    Just found out about a player trade that went sideways? A blogger has that up inside of five minutes. Someone with a press pass asked to keep it quiet? I’m guessing they don’t have quite as much lattitude.

    The big question, then, is will having a press pass change the type of content that some bloggers currently have? This may not be quite so applicable to the Nation since there are several contributors here and what Gregor or Brownlee might not be able to touch, Wanye can spout off about to heart’s content, but even here what one writer posts may have an impact on the access afforded the others as touched on by Brownlee today. Other, smaller blogs with two contributors or even a single writer could be held to a much firmer ultimatum; take the ‘correct’ tone or forfeit inside access. For some blogs, I think it’s far better not to be held hostage by the almighty press pass. It’s like a drug; everything is hunky-dory until you get a taste, and then you can’t live without it – until you’ve realized how much it’s changed you from who you were before you had it, anyway.

    I trust Brownlee and Gregor will continue to offer us the same fine content they have been, even if they have to watch who their words impact. And for the really juicy stuff? Well, maybe they can leak it to Towel Boy who can disguise the important leak in comment #63 prefaced by a big ol’ “Who saw this coming!!!

  • smiliegirl15

    I think there’s an aspect of discomfort with losing traditional standards for determining the legitimacy of a writer. It used to be very simple; go to journalism school, become good enough to be hired by a widely distributed publication, get credentials. It’s a far murkier world when it comes to blogs. All you need is a command of the English language, steady content, and a following. The blog world’s “do-it-yourself” nature is probably an uncomfortable thing to deal with for anyone used to traditional ways of information transmission.

    Accepting blogs also necessitates some difficult, gray-scale decisions. Oilers Nation is by far one of the more sophisticated members of the Oilers blogging world, with its frequent breaking stories, quality writers and between you and Gregor, some mainstream credibility. But how would you handle a blog like Black Dog Hates Skunks? Its emphasis on personal storytelling doesn’t exactly fit the profile of someone you’d want covering the team, even if the writing is strong. Do the stat guys belong, if they’re trying to analyze the game through numbers rather than personal analysis? I think there are some tough decisions to make.

    I will say that I’d love to be able to read Lowetide interviewing Stu MacGregor or Kevin Lowe, or have David Staples have a conversation with Tom Renney about the disconnect between the expectations on a big man like Dustin Penner versus the reality of what he is. The whole point of allowing coverage, from the point of view of the organization, is to encourage fan interest. It’s time for them to recognize that their best and most dedicated fans often process their information through blogs, and to respond accordingly. If they don’t, they might miss a whole generation born into the information age.

  • Ender

    [reads what baggedmilk has written]

    OK, forget everything I’ve said today. It’s just too dangerous. MSM only. Case closed.

    (oh, the humanity . . . how close were we to the apocolypse just now?)

  • The whole point of allowing coverage, from the point of view of the organization, is to encourage fan interest. It’s time for them to recognize that their best and most dedicated fans often process their information through blogs, and to respond accordingly. If they don’t, they might miss a whole generation born into the information age.

    This is really what it boils down to for me. “Fan” bloggers — those who take what they do somewhat seriously (and maybe even those who don’t) — provide tremendous value to teams like the Oilers, even if it makes those teams feel uncomfortable some (or all) of the time.

    I’ve been astonished at times how poorly Oilers treat their fans, and look to Vancouver and even Calgary as good examples of teams who get it — their comms departments host tweet-ups, invite bloggers to pre-game events, etc. I think this is the smart way to wade into this strange new world.

  • Naturally, I’m with the consensus here and in agreement with Robin’s article, even though access wouldn’t do me personally much good.

    I would like to make one side point, though: my interactions with the Oilers have been through J.J. Hebert, and while Hebert hasn’t been able to do much for me he’s always spoken both to me both professionally and politely, and I’ve appreciated it.

  • smiliegirl15

    Considering how many people actually read the blogs here, the Oilers would be well advised to continue to foster some kind of relationship with the Nation. There are a lot of people (me included) who come here for Oilers news, what’s really going on in the team and updates on current happenings – signings, the draft, etc.

    Ignoring the power of the blogs would be like saying the internet is just a fad. It’s the way of the world now; jump on the bandwagon or get left in the dust.

    I know you’ve said before Robin, the Oilers are very much aware of the Nation but do they have anyone who wades through the inane comments to see what fans are really thinking and feeling? There are a lot of posters who post worthwhile comments. There are a lot of other people who should actually read what they typed and/or what the original article said before they hit Post.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    I agree that the Oilers could grant OilersNation access to the team without little worry about professionalism. Gregor and Brownlee are basically running the MSM in Edmonton for the majority of hard core fans now.

    TSN and SportsNet don’t have the content to satiate us and the papers are too interested in keeping the Oilers happy.

    But seriously one had not need look any farther than Wayne here at the Nation. Would you let him get a press pass? Is he considered professional enough? I laugh out loud thinking of him being offered a press pass.

  • I think Watt has given away what this is really about before. The Oioers perceive blogs and websites as being competition for edmontonoilers.com. They don’t own radio stations, tv stations or newspapers and don’t generate enough info to justify doing so – they’d end up having to cover all sorts of non Oiler stuff to fill the time. web content is easy though. They own a portal. It is, at present, the best place for original source material. Say they start giving me access and I travel to Edmonton to exercise it. I start posting audio and video on my own site, along with my own commentary, which isn’t the neutered crap you get on oilers.com. Suddenly, I’m directly competing with them. If was in my second or third yea of law school and had the time and access, it’s something I’d think about doing. This is about preserving their monopoly on a specific medium, I think.

    In any event, say they decided they would accredit blogs with some demonstrated sustain and readership. What are we really talking about? Ten guys at most, a bunch of whom don’t even live in Edmonton?

  • Quicksilver ballet

    I can understand the Oilers not wanting to allow the bloggers access to press row in their building. They have no control over what is being written in most if not all cases. If they can’t temper/control what’s being written then why endorse it, period. They can’t keep hiring their biggest critics. Bum Stauffer is a good example, he’s not an overly gifted color man for the Oilers, but that’s the only place Katz could hide his critical arse. He had a good thing going with Total Sports and the Oilers effectively ripped out his spine by hiring him and tempering/severing this critcism all together. You can’t do in msm what you can do in the viral world.

    Must just be chafing JJ’s arse with all this valid criticism being leveled their way this past year with little or no control over it. Finishing 30th in a 30 team league has been boffo for the western based bloggers and hell for the Oilers administration i’m sure.

  • Jason Gregor

    Robin, be careful what you wish for. With access comes the inevitable selfcensorship. It’s only natural that articles would get toned down for fear of losing access.

  • Greg

    So if one of the issues is that it would take too much work to develop criteria for qualifying which bloggers to give credentials too, why don’t the bloggers themselves take on that work? Setup an association that spells out the criteria, continually reviews and adjusts that criteria with the NHL teams, and does the leg work to determine which bloggers meet the criteria. Each team could give a quota to the association of how many bloggers they’ll accept, and the association determines which ones get it as long as they meet the criteria and, say, a vote amongst the members.

    That gives the teams a body to go if one of the bloggers gets out of hand, and puts all the work on the bloggers to organize it, qualify each other, and hold each other accountable to whatever standards are agreed to. At the same time, a league wide association would hopefully have enough clout to avoid being influenced to writing certain stories by the teams. Should strike a good balance, no?

    • NHL teams are not about to relinquish control of who they issue credentials for to an outside group, nor should they.

      Screening and accrediting websites isn’t a matter of being too much work for media personnel, it just means more work.

      • Quicksilver ballet

        Don’t they already?

        When you were granted access did the Oilers do it after assessing you individually or based on you being employed by the Journal/Sun or member of the AP or some professional writers association?

      • oilerdiehard

        Well not control over issuing the credentials. But I do wonder sometimes wonder if control is at the heart of this issue. Which could be why bloggers get shut out.

        With regular MSM people having those credentials or not having them can greatly effect their job, earnings and by extension their family. I often wonder how much opinion or content is mentally transferred to the not going to use bin. Because they always have the fear that their credentials can get yanked and having to deal with those people daily.

        With most bloggers if they get their credentials taken away and having no boss to answer to if the Oilers take issue with them. It means they have very little control over what a blogger might write. I do not mean a bunch of swearing or the like. But having things written that put them in a bad light and receive real biting criticism. Maybe the blogger even witnesses things (that a MSM guy would only discuss with other MSM guys but never write) and has no problem writing about it.

        This is of course all opinion from the outside looking in. It is hard not to have the feeling sometimes that we often only get part of the story and a small portion of the real opinion of the MSM member.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    I’m sure the Oilers probably like to keep an eye on whats being said about the organization, if Glen Sather didn’t agree with what Dick Chubey had to say about the Oilers over a period of time, could they go to a rag and have a msm guy removed, or take away his access?

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Cranky old Chubes had a long run. He was eventually moved aside for Dan Barnes, who earned the promotion.

    I haven’t heard of the Oilers seeking to have any writer moved off the beat since I got here in 1989, which covers the Sather, Lowe and Tambellini eras.

  • Oiler Country

    How would the Oilers or the NHL for that matter measure the level of professionalism of one’s site?

    It’s a question that needs to be answered, however, perhaps a good measuring stick is to see how many “bloggers” are people who are or have been employed by the MSM? Audience metrics would be harder to capture however, and how would one know if the blogosphere is reputable?

    Oilersnation exists at the level it does because of writers like yourself, Lowetide, and a couple others. It gets creditability from your background.

    It all comes down to measurement of what blog has the beef and what blogs are just fan blogs.

    • Oiler Country

      There are some very talented writers who have never drawn a pay cheque from the MSM, so I wouldn’t weight that too heavily.

      It really isn’t that difficult for an NHL PR guy to look at websites over the course of a few months and separate the “Look, I got a picture of Cogliano with his shirt off on my cell phone camera” from those providing content more substantial.

      Like I said, they should look at:
      — What’s the content? Is the content balanced and fair, even if it’s not necessarily positive?
      — Who writes for the site?
      — How much traffic does the site draw? Five-thousand page views a month, or a million etc?
      — Does the site pay writers? Does the site spend money to cover the team, such as by sending writers to the draft, league meetings etc? In other words, is it competing against MSM sites by covering issues and events?
      — Based on content, does the site need access to games or is it a case of somebody just trying to get into Rexall for free?

  • oilerdiehard

    Of course you don’t write everything you see or hear, at least as a beat writer who travels with the team — that’s part of the understanding you enter into with the gig.

    Some bloggers would last five minutes because they might choose not to follow the conventions. Like you said, without an editor to answer to and ongoing employment at a news outlet to consider, some people might take the approach that anything they see or hear is fair game and if they cross the line, so what?

    The tell-all guys would get weeded out very, very quickly. Adios.

    • Legoman

      Absolutely Robin. There ass would be outside Rexall so fast they would not know what happened. The problem with this scenario is if someone steps beyond that invisible line and reports something juicy that has not been heard (TMZ like). You as a mainstream writer would probably have no choice but to cover this. You would get scooped per say and also because of the possible fall out that would ensue how much access would the team grant at that moment. It takes one mouth. As a fan and a blogger I want my team covered but also protected. Individual basis based on reputation, experiance and player/team trust, is the only way to go.

      • While a segment of bloggers out there might disagree — those who think the MSM doesn’t ask the “tough” questions they would or tell it like it is as they would — staying within the understood guidelines doesn’t mean you have to kiss up to get along.

        A few simple (and reasonable) examples of what we were expected to avoid as reporters who travelled with the team and had access most people don’t.

        — If player X is playing through an undislcosed injury, don’t use the fact you have access to the room and medical areas to write, “Hey, I noticed Sam Gagner had a big ice pack on his knee today . . .”

        — Don’t make public private conversations that are overheard on the team flight, bus or hotel.

        — Reporters sometimes end up eating or socializing in the same restaurants etc as the players. Don’t suggest that “Player A gets more ass on the road than a public toilet seat.” If the law/curfews etc aren’t broken, what players do away from the rink isn’t public domain. We aren’t paparazzi — “Look, it’s Sheldon Souray with two hot chicks . . .”

        It’s mostly common sense stuff.

        • While I’m not sure if any of your three examples reflect the concerns of the blogging group you mention, “– those who think the MSM doesn’t ask the “tough” questions they would or tell it like it is as they would –“*, some might well disagree with your grouping of the first example with the 2nd and 3rd.

          I’m sure there are some that would have interest in your 2nd and 3rd examples, but I don’t think those are particularly good examples of information bloggers feel the MSM should, but doesn’t, report. Those have nothing to do with hockey, they are tabloid material unrelated, as you rightly note, to covering hockey. Obviously the line gets murky at some point, but I’ve never read any respectable blogger criticizing the MSM for not revealing the type of information gained in examples 2 and 3.

          That said, I’m not sure everyone would agree with you on whether the first example is “reasonable”, since a player performing poorly because/while he’s injured is (at least arguably) a “hockey” story.

          I think most would agree that, even if you’re reporting on strictly hockey-related stuff, if you’re writing and publishing articles with no tact or respect for those involved, there would be some concern that your access might be limited going forward. But does that mean the reporter should be obliged to treat injuries as a secret if the team doesn’t release the information itself?

          That said, I understand that if you report information that was understood to be off the record, your sources probably dry up quickly.

          * I think these criticisms relate more to questions asked of GM’s and coaches than of players.

  • JohnQPublic

    The Oilers (and NHL) need to ask themselves: “why does the MSM get media passes?”

    The answer: free media coverage to fans to generate interest.

    Do blogs generate fan interest? Obviously. In fact, blogs have the most devoted Oiler (NHL) fans of all.

    So what’s the problem?

    The Oilers management sound regressive on this policy.

    Here’s the solution: grant blogs access if they have XXXXX number of hits per day. You have to be this tall to ride this ride.

    It’s a simple solution. Get with it Oilers. I only read national papers, but get most of my hockey news from blogs – it’s more timely, entertaining, colorful, and often has much deeper analysis.

    (… and more maroons, but you can’t have it all.)