NHL Proposal to Curtail Bloggers’ Media Access Exposes Culture Clash

Of all the major-league sports in America, hockey has a reputation of being especially friendly to new media. The National Hockey League has organized nationwide tweetups, encouraged fans to produce online videos, and offered bloggers access to many games and league events.

On that last point, some teams now are complaining that the NHL has gone too far.

At the behest of a handful of franchises, the NHL is circulating a proposed policy that would dial back access for some “Web-based media,” limiting their admission to locker rooms and segregating them from mainstream media in the press box. It would be the NHL’s first effort to develop a league-wide policy for bloggers, who now are credentialed on a team-by-team basis.

While the policy seems unlikely to be adopted before the season starts Oct. 7, it has led to controversy throughout the league and demonstrated the tension that can result when traditional-laden institutions like the NHL are confronted with new forms of media.

“This is a fiery debate that seems to be really raging across all the professional sports, not just the NHL,” said Tim Franklin, the director of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University. “There really is no consensus about how to credential bloggers and what kind of access to give them.”

Among the NHL’s 30 teams, current policies vary widely. Some clubs actively reach out to bloggers; others rarely credential anybody who doesn’t work for a traditional publication or broadcaster. League officials say the divergent policies lead to grumbling when teams that restrict credentials in their home arenas encounter bloggers on the road.

“It was simple before,” said NHL Media Relations Director John Dellapina. “You worked at the New York Daily News, and they told us you were the Rangers beat writer. Obviously you were credentialed for the game. It’s not so easy when somebody says, ‘I write this Islanders blog.’ “

According to an NHL memo initially leaked to Yahoo News, the proposed policy would divide online media services into two groups. Only services that employ full-time journalists and are part of “national news gathering agencies” would be eligible to receive full press credentials, allowing them into the same areas as newspaper, radio, and television reporters.

Bloggers who don’t meet those criteria could be limited to certain parts of the arena or denied credentials entirely. While the policy would continue to give home teams wide discretion to regulate access, it would specifically ban bloggers from the visiting club’s locker room unless the visiting club welcomes them inside. It also potentially would tighten access at league-wide events such as the All-Star game and the NHL draft.

“Not everybody can be admitted to the game for free and have access to the press rooms and the locker rooms just by saying they have a blog about hockey,” Dellapina said. “No sport is in the business of letting every fan in the locker room.”

“Jim Crow laws for media”

Although NHL officials have not decided whether to enact the proposal, the idea sparked an online backlash after it was discussed in a league-wide conference call this summer. Yahoo Sports blogger Greg Wyshynski, who first reported the policy last month, called the locker room ban “outrageous.” Jeff Little at The Hockey Writers termed it “short-sighted and misguided.” At Hockey Wilderness, a blog devoted to the Minnesota Wild, Bryan Reynolds decried “Jim Crow laws for media.”

“To me it’s completely draconian,” Wyshynski said in a phone interview. “You’ve got directors of media relations for these teams who are very closed-minded and don’t understand the dynamics at play in the blogosphere.”

Wyshynski says one incident that helped spark the discussion involved the New York Rangers, a team that is among the most reluctant to embrace new media. Wyshynski reported — and Dellapina confirmed — that Rangers officials were upset when the NHL credentialed a blogger to attend the 2010 draft a few months after his blog promoted a rally where fans called for Rangers general manager Glen Sather to be fired.

“Their concern was that Glen would have to sit next to or be interviewed by somebody like this without having any sense that might occur,” Dellapina said. “They didn’t know this guy. They had no history with him or ability to know how he was going to behave.”

Not surprisingly, the blogger in question — Jim Schmiedeberg of Blueshirt Banter — said the Rangers’ concern is misplaced, noting that he and several colleagues from the SBNation blog network covered the draft without incident. “We were very professional,” Schmiedeberg said in a phone interview.

He blamed the controversy on the Rangers’ “undying need to control information. If you speak out against the organization, there are going to be consequences,” Schmiedeberg said.

Rangers officials declined to comment. (“We’ll leave all discussions from an internal NHL conference call internal,” spokesman John Rosasco wrote in an e-mail.) But Dellapina concedes that the problem some teams have with bloggers is “the way that they cover the game.”

“What do you do with the guy who built a pretty good following for his blog, but every other word in his column is an F-bomb or he writes about the personal lives of players?” Dellapina asked. “We don’t consider that appropriate coverage for us to enable.”

A clash of cultures

Such disputes are perhaps inevitable as bloggers — immersed in an Internet culture that values independence and unfettered expression — proliferate in sports, where teams control access to players and expect journalists to respect certain boundaries. If team officials perceive that a traditional reporter has overstepped the bounds of propriety, they can lodge complaints with an editor. But it may be harder to police a blogger.

“There’s a fear of the unknown,” said Franklin, the Indiana University professor. “There’s deep concern with bloggers that there’s less accountability or no accountability.”

Still, Franklin is among many observers who believe NHL teams would be wise to accommodate bloggers, even if that entails some risk or occasionally makes a player or team official uncomfortable.

“The NHL doesn’t get the same kind of mainstream coverage that the NFL does, and in most big cities, not the same level of coverage that the baseball or NBA teams get,” Franklin said. “So in some ways, bloggers in hockey are even more important to a team’s fan base than they would be in another sport.”

It’s understandable that teams want a way to tell the difference between a serious blogger and a fan who maintains a cursory website as a means to score credentials and hobnob with players. But rather than judging a site on the number of full-time journalists it employs (or its writers’ feelings about the general manager), teams could try to gauge the size of the site’s audience, how often it’s updated, and its reputation among other fans. (A survey of season ticket holders likely would reveal which blogs are most popular and influential.)

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Of course, denying credentials isn’t likely to keep bloggers from writing about hockey anyway. Many people who maintain prolific blogs pay their own way into stadiums or simply watch games on television — forgoing press box and locker room access even in arenas where they’re allowed.

“I’m much better off working from the outside,” said Schmiedeberg, the Rangers blogger, who unsuccessfully sought credentials from the team last year but now says he no longer wants them. “I can say what I want, I can criticize who I want, and I don’t have to kowtow to anyone.”

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