NHL’s Blogger Policy: Is There a Third Way Forward?

[Ed. note - For our readers looking for more photos of Ovechkin in a Speedo, feel free to skip over this one.]

For weeks a rumor has circulated that the NHL will set in place new media guidelines that effectively restrict bloggers from accessing the locker rooms of visiting teams. On Wednesday, AOL Fanhouse reported that the policy is now in place:

Starting this season, “bloggers” will only have access to the home locker room unless they make prior arrangements with the visiting team (and considering some of the positions taken by teams like Edmonton and the New York Rangers, that doesn’t sound like it’s going to be an easy proposition in some cases).

And now we’re back that seasonal debate pitting new media against old and recapitulating the NHL’s seemingly indefatigable ability to alienate its audience. The NHL is not just shutting out free publicity, it’s also pissing off that same free publicity.

Oh, who are we kidding? We don’t really care. Access to visiting hockey players has almost nothing to do with what we write about. The value of our blog is not having the inside scoop, it’s just writing honestly about what we see. Neil analyzes numbers, Fedor is a soviet, Ian hugs people, and I say stupid things that upset smart people. That’s our angle. We are open of arms and smart of ass. So the new NHL guidelines affect us not at all.

Not an appropriate topic for locker room interviews

Not an appropriate topic for locker room interviews

In fact, it might be a good thing. You don’t actually want folks like me talking to the visiting team. I’ll end up asking Mike Comrie something distasteful while wearing a Good Charlotte t-shirt. On the flip side, the Philadelphia Flyers version of us probably shouldn’t have unfettered access to my dear, sweet Matt Bradley.

And from what we hear, it’s ultimately the visiting team, not NHL brass, who decides which press people get into their locker room.  Besides spitting in the face of grassroots publicity, the NHL hasn’t really changed much practically, so it’s hard for us to get riled up about it.

Maybe it’s because we’re bound by a personal, not professional, code of ethics. Russian Machine has no profit and therefore no profit motive. We are unaffiliated with any large corporate interest to which we must answer. We’re doing this because we love the team and the sport and because we want to participate. That makes us bloggers unwieldy and raucous and, in the end, the best representation of the NHL audience.

The world of hockey writing is huge and full of disparate forces, particularly in D.C. We’ve got the gentlemen and ladies of On Frozen Blog and Japers Rink, who studiously champion the blogger horde and represent the very best of us. We’ve got Katie Carrera in the unenviable position of taking the reins at the Washington Post’s Capitals Insider. We’ve got Dan Steinberg of D.C. Sports Bog, whose 8″ x 10″ glossy photo I admire everyday before my morning shower.

And behind them all is the infinitely patient and gracious communications department at the Caps organization itself. The real reason the NHL’s new Tordesillas line for media coverage doesn’t matter so much is because the Washington Capitals remain impossibly friendly to new media types, whatever that term means.

We’re still sussing it out the difference between bloggers and journalists or between new media and old media. We know we’re in the lesser half of the equation, whereas WaPo and AOL FanHouse and Yahoo!‘s Puck Daddy seem to occupy the other side of the equation. We’re not media studies scholars, so we asked D.C. Sports Bog’s maestro, Dan Steinberg, to help us out.

Do you consider yourself a blogger? Are you new media or old media?

Well, I write a blog, and I guess I call myself a blogger, but I’m definitely old media. The Washington Post is as old as it gets, and I started as a regular reporter at The Post, and I never hesitate to identify myself as a Washington Post staff writer when it would help me get access or credibility. I’ve never had to worry about getting refused for credentials, or at least not for years.

Do you see a difference in the coverage that comes from new and old media? What is that difference?

Well, there are so many distinctions within each world. Does The Washington Post cover the Caps the same way as The Examiner? Are Japers Rink and Capital Spirit the same, or similar, or in the same universe just because they’re both “blogs?”

I guess I’d differentiate between blogs/reports/stories that are based primarily on first-hand reporting (i.e. the gathering of information from observations and interviews) and blogs/reports/stories that are based primarily on analysis, or commentary, or images, or the fan experience, or jokes, or whatever else.

The only thing I’ll say that will surely open me up for criticism is that our jobs are on the line with this stuff, so the stakes are often higher. This goes for missing stories, or not properly sourcing stories, or turning rumors prematurely into stories, or whatever. Some bloggers will be incredibly hard-working and sticklers for these same things, but even then, their careers are not on the line in quite the same way. I think the coverage from a proper old media outlet should ideally be comprehensive enough that a fan could consume it and know just about everything he or she should know. Blogs don’t necessarily have to meet that standard.

Now that hits the spot right there. RMNB can never compete with the dedicated, salaried, trained journalists of the professional media. They’ll win every time when it comes to securing interviews and asking the incisive, provocative questions we expect of them. They’re the boots on the ground, and they’ll write with an authority we cannot even pretend to have. “New media” people trying to change that fact are disadvantaged from the start; they’re picking the wrong fight.

So what can an independent, volunteer-based blog do that a newspaper with global distribution cannot? Literally whatever we want. That’s what Russian Machine Never Breaks will continue to do. We’ll talk hockey, raise boisterous toasts to our heroes, playfully lambast our opponents, and talk shop in a manner so nerdy you’ll need a glossary. Above all else, we’ll enjoy it, because that’s the gift of volunteerism.  Our fun is palpable.

You can count on us to maintain friendly relationships with media outlets both new and old.  Despite the NHL’s myopic and scornful attitude towards the groundswell of buzz, we’re confident that the new media upstarts will play nice with the old media geezers and vice versa.  Despite some chatter to the contrary, WaPo’s Capitals Insider looks like it will continue to link to our slovenly corners of the net.  We won’t deactivate our alarm whistle that goes off whenever Mike Wise writes about the Capitals.  It really isn’t a competition.  These are complimentary spheres of journalism after all, and there’s no reason we can’t just link to and write about each other in a big, happy love fest.

We asked Dan Steinberg what he advantage he thought he gained by working under the aegis of the Washington Post now:

Well, people will call me back. People will treat me seriously without me having to prove myself. I have a travel budget, and a laptop with an aircard, and editors to help me when I need help and to save me from mistakes. I don’t have a second job that will take me away from worrying about sports and my blog.

But mostly it’s the first one. If I want to set up a long sit-down interview with Alex Ovechkin’s parents and a translator, I can promise that the resulting story will almost certainly go on A1. There’s still a prestige and a power to that, which means IMG will still help me with that request. In a way they might not help, for example, Russian Machine Never Breaks.

But the distinction gets smaller and smaller every day.

For once, Dan, we disagree.  We’ll never have your credibility, and that’s a good thing.  You guys can keep the soul-bearing interviews and well-earned prestige; we’re doing just fine with our parade of homemade birthday cards.

  • Dan

    It will be curious to see how the NHL (though not so much the Capitals, per se) treats web-only startups like TBD.com that are definitely new media but also are couched within and old media frame work. I, for one, am looking forward to the challenge.

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  • Peter Hassett

    Dan, I think you’re saying that TBD is owned by the same folks that own Politico (Allbritton). So while they’re new media in form, they’ve got a pedigree. Is that your point? I bet if Allbritton’s folks can get into the White House press corps, they’ll get into a locker room. Good on them.

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