Saturday, September 09, 2006

On Blogs, Bloggers, and Media Access

Recently Eric McErlain over at Off Wing Opinion has been talking about ways to give bloggers media access. It is clear that he's put a lot of time, thought, and work into this idea. I'm not surprised in the least that Ted Leonsis first approached him about putting this idea in action. I haven't had the time to put my thoughts together and comment on this proposal until now.

I have to say from the start that I have my doubts about this idea for many different reasons. While I appreciate the compliment that I'll help provide better coverage of the Caps than traditional D.C. media outlets, I really don't believe that to be the case. For instance, once I got comfortable in this gig, I shot out an e-mail to 16 friends and family members. Based on the reactions I've gotten so far, I have a good reason to believe that only 3 of those people are reading this blog today on a regular basis. Some of those 16 took over a month to finally check out my blog and one has flat out told me that he hasn't surfed on by because he doesn't read blogs.

However, when it comes to giving bloggers media access, the first thing that I feel I should mention is my belief that that if bloggers are given access on par with the traditional media, bloggers should be expected to uphold the same standards required of traditional journalists. For instance, let's say a blogger decides to go the Jayson Blair route and make things up. Who is going to stop them? A traditional media outlet would fire that type of person rather quickly. But who can fire me from this blog? Who can fire any blogger? Bloggers are not media types even though media types may have their own blogs.

But even if you say that this potential issue is easily handled by denying the blogger future access, you've already let the cat out of the bag. Look at Eklund (Rumor boy) for instance. The guy clearly had no contacts at the start of his blog and has turned it into a money making machine for himself. Give a blogger real access and the ability to prove that he has real access and he can really do some damage

Another potential issue is that traditional journalists know when to keep their mouths shut. But do bloggers? My buddy Sparky from Washington Hockey has been able to get media passes for Caps games in the past and he's used them. He told me once how he got media passes for when the Caps were in the playoffs a few years ago. He told me how he would go into the Caps locker room after games at the Phone Booth. He said that the players viewed him as an outsider. He said one Cap, who was a key player on the team at that point in time, was rather standoffish towards him. That particular player had a huge ice bag wrapped around him and Sparky asked him about it. The player denied being hurt at all. By the third trip into the locker room, Sparky and this player had a standard dialogue. Sparky would ask "are you going to tell me again that you're not hurt?" Player with ice bag would smile and say "yep!" If you want to know who that player is, I'll let Sparky tell you the full details. It isn't my place.

But beyond potential injury reports getting out, you have to also remember that these players have private lives. Anybody remember the Martin Brodeur self-inflicted soap-opera from five years ago now? The media that followed the Devils knew about it, but didn't report it, because not only was not newsworthy, but it was also nobody's business and they aren't in the field of embarrassing players by airing their dirty laundry. The issues that the Caps players had with former coach Bruce Cassidy (and the Sundance Kid) had to have been known by the beat writers. But that too wasn't aired until Cassidy was gone and even then, names were not attached to those who aired their grievances. Bill Clement for years talked about locker room issues with the Caps on ESPN chats. But Clement never said who or what was causing problems in the Caps locker room.

So if a blogger doesn't go the rumor boy route and make things up to gain notoriety; he or she could simply "scoop" everybody else by airing things that don't need to be aired. How is this a good thing? While "scooping" by bloggers isn't likely to happen right away, odds are that it eventually will. The temptation is too great. A person who is passionate enough to write about their favorite team from the sidelines is going to put the time into getting to know the players well enough that they trust them (much like the Caps eventually did with Sparky). That blogger has nothing to stop him from embarrassing the players and the team that they love. Sure, the team could blacklist them, but then the cat is out of the bag and in this case, all it takes is one bad apple to spoil the whole bunch.

Now if Ted were to invite me to spend a night in his Owner's box, as he has with other bloggers, I would more than likely accept the invitation but as for applying for media credentials for the same game, I don't think I ever will. Why? Well, first of all, I know I can cheer for the Caps in Ted's box. Hades, it might even be a requirement. I can't do that in the press box. Secondly, I already have three jobs and a graduate school class on my plate. This blog is recreation for me and Caps games are my release. I don't want to add to my workload for just a few friends and family. While some bloggers clearly see themselves as pseudo journalists, I don't. I'm not putting down those that do see themselves as pseudo journalists, but even once I graduate from graduate school and finally get a full time job that doesn't require me to earn other income, I simply don't want to put in the time it would require for me to build the contacts that I would need to provide better coverage than the traditional outlets do. I prefer to be the guy on the sidelines. I see nothing wrong with that.

Finally, let me close this long post by saying that I don't think that this idea will work the way some think it will. Bloggers operate in an echo chamber. I have more than 16 friends and family that I could have shamelessly self-promoted myself too. But I know that those people have no interest in sports and what I have to say about it. Only the most rabid of fans are going to read what we bloggers write and even then they may not. The one friend who told me doesn't read blogs is a big sports fan himself. Again, I am not saying that my experience counts for everybody, but I can read the Google Ad Sense stats and I get my most page impressions when Off Wing throws a link my way. Even then, I move from the "barely noticed" to the "hardly noticed" category.

Bloggers get a lot of well-deserved credit for taking down Dan Rather and his outrageously false memo story. But what got Dan in trouble was not that the memos were fake, but that Rather stubbornly denied being duped and then went for the "fake but accurate" line. Bloggers only exposed him but Rather’s arrogance took him down.

If you want a good example of how a "nontraditional media" echo chamber works, read Byron York's The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of the Democrats' Desperate Fight to Reclaim Power. It is a great example of how that echo chamber can fool you into thinking you're creating something that you aren't. And for more examples of an echo chamber, check out a blogger's comments section. More often than not, you'll find it is the same group of people posting comments. The more widely read a blog is, the larger that cadre, but the point remains. You're not reaching out to the people that you need to. That the NHL wants to reach out to their hardcore fans is great and perfectly fine. But the NHL needs to get more causal fans if they want to grow. "Preaching to the converted" will not accomplish this goal.

I welcome all comments, questions, complaints, and criticisms of this long post at "capsnut" over at gmail dot com.

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