Friday, August 27, 2010

So, you want to be a credentialed blogger?

A QUICK LOOK AT BLOGGING'S IMPACT ON SOCIAL MEDIA

The mainstream media (aka MSM) and blogosphere have been at odds ever since the first bloggers crawled onto the scene. It's not to say it's not justified on some level; after all, there are people out there trying to make a living being journalists and photographers, so anybody posting things for free on the internet takes away from the earning potential of the pros. It's hard not to have some measure of resentment for that.

But the truth is that the mainstream media simply does not have the capacity to cover everything that happens - be it sports or any other newsworthy event. In fact, if it wasn't for the blogosphere and social media, there are plenty of news stories that would not have been covered or even discovered, or gotten covered to the extent that they were. Social media further complicates things because the traditional newspaper, as we know it, has considerably shrunk in readership over the past several years, leading to further cutbacks in staffing for newspapers. 

Even newspapers rely upon reader-submitted news tips and photography, while simultaneously retaining their own staff and a selection of freelance writers. The face of MSM has changed greatly in the past 20 years, and bloggers have provided an important and notable addition to the news front.

The important thing to realize about the blogosphere is that the face of blogging has changed as well. In blogging's earliest forms in the mid- to late-1990s, it started with people who kept regularly updated websites about their personal lives. A surge of easy-to-use, personal diary websites sprung up between 1998-2000 such as Open Diary (1998), LiveJournal (1999), and Blogger (1999), taking on a life of their own and spawning a wide variety of similar DIY, WYSIWYG blog sites. Blogging also led to the advent of other forms of New Media, like Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006), which bills itself as a "microblogging" website.

Today, there are multiple uses for blogging. Sure, there are still plenty of navel-grazing blogs out there. But businesses large and small caught onto the concept of blogging and New Media as well, taking what were originally designed as socialization tools and turning them into a means to promote their business. Blogs have also found a lot of popularity among fandoms, providing the means for dedicated fans to share news, pictures, video and information about the object of their admiration.

SO, WHO IS OUT THERE BLOGGING?

There's blogs for every interest, and there's multiple layers of blogdom. You start with the casual, intermittent blogger who writes trivial stuff on occasion. ("I had sushi for breakfast. Does that make me weird?") You have humorists, artists, anti-fandom blogs (where somebody "hates" something/somebody so much they create an anti-blog), the whole "I CAN HAZ" phenomenon... the list goes on.

At the very top of the heap are two kinds of bloggers, both bloggers with a purpose: 1. those bloggers who're aiming to be more than just a fan sharing opinions on their favorite sport/personna/etc, these are those who aim to make the leap from amateur to professional writer; and 2. those bloggers who are dedicated enough to blog frequently and talk intelligently about whatever they're a fan of, and may even make good money off running their blog, but are not looking to be any part of a "big picture". 

HOCKEY, THE NHL, AND BLOGGERS

Puck Daddy's Greg Wyshynski wrote an article yesterday about how some teams would like to completely ban blogger access to players and coaches, whether it's across the board in their own arena, or it's just to visiting teams, which touched a nerve and sent a lot of hockey bloggers scrambling to their keyboards to voice their opinions. Some, such as Justin Goldman of The Goalie Guild's piece suggesting tips on how to earn your stripes as a hockey writer, were very well-thought out and a sensible look at how to elevate your writing to another level.

But there were also a number of bloggers who took a look in the mirror and asked, "Do I really want to be a credentialed blogger? And if so, why?" And not surprisingly, the answers swung between yes and no.

Across the NHL, teams greatly vary about how they handle bloggers, ranging from zero connectivity between bloggers and the teams they support, to liberal and blogger-friendly like the Washington Capitals and the NY Islanders. Teams who have struggled to expand their market reach, such as the Atlanta Thrashers, also tend to be more blogger-friendly as a way to increase their team's exposure in any way possible. Older, better-established teams may feel they already get enough coverage or publicity.

Can teams - and the NHL in general - find a happy medium?

Being perhaps the most net-savvy of all professional sports, the NHL does include a fan-powered section on the league website, called NHL Fans, very easily found from their front page, where fans can upload pictures and videos, as well as write blogs. Fan contributors there are not paid, but obviously that is a way to gain exposure for your work. In perusing the websites for the NFL, MBA, MLS and NBA, only the NBA comes close to the same, with an area for fans to upload pictures and interact with forums and blogs.


CONSIDERING THINGS FROM THE TEAM'S STANDPOINT

Another primary conflict currently lies between the NHL's own policies on press credentials, versus teams' individual requirements for credentials. There is no league-wide policy; teams are left with the rights to build (or deny) their own relationships with the local press. However, here's where it gets interesting - at certain events, NHL-level credentials can override local team credentials: the Winter Classic, the All-Star Game, the Draft, and the Stanley Cup Final series.

Needless to say, since these are the most high-profile games and events that the NHL runs, the demand for credentials runs high, and suddenly, the local team has to deal with a huge influx of unfamiliar faces, most of whom may not be familiar with their policies and procedures.

As a team, it is natural to be protective of what's going on inside your own building. Hockey, as we have been frequently reminded of this summer, is a business. The ultimate goal of a business is to make money. Athletes are, after all, doing a job, and as a team, you are paying them an average $2.7 million per player (assuming full 22-man roster and a full $59.4M salary cap). At that money, it means that each and every one of your players is a not just a person, but an investment, with the end goal being the glory crowned by Lord Stanley's famed silver chalice, which means of course, more money. What do you do with your investment? You protect it - and not only the players, but everything around them - so that you can reach that goal or at least come as close to it as you possibly can.

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press. Then there's Freedom of Information Act. However, the two should never be mistaken for one another. Hockey is a business. Hockey players may be public figures, but they work for privately-held businesses, and their team has the right to control access to those players. 

Jaques Plante famously once said about goaltending: "How would you like it if at your job, every time you made the slightest mistake a little red light went on over your head and 18,000 people stood up and screamed at you?" Being a sports writer means having the right to critique those players. If you think that MSM writers are vanilla or boring about their critiques, they're not - but they're probably using a lot less colorful language than some bloggers.

THE REALITY OF BEING A JOURNALIST

Being a journalist means you get to ask questions about stuff that happens on the ice, but journalists are doing a job too. They have to satisfy the fans, who are hungry for information about their favorite players. They have to satisfy their bosses, by attempting to provide any scoop or angle or edge which will help drive paper sales or online site hits (and thus advertising revenues). Depending on the nature of their job, they may be granted the right to travel for team coverage - which means a lot of days and nights away from home, choosing hotel and meals based on whatever slim budget their publication can afford.

If they're really lucky, and build up enough trust over time, they might get granted to cover more exclusive stories or be granted the right to hold more frequent, singular interviews with the star-power players that other reporters have to share face time with competitors to talk to.

A journalist bridges the gap between the untouchable game on the ice and the fandom beyond, normally separated by a 5/8" wall of glass. They ask the questions of the players that the fans can't. It puts them in a unique and desired position. There are a lot of people out there who, if presented with the question of what their dream job might be, would answer "writer".

Being a journalist, however, is a far from glamorous job. 

If you're a blogger, you have the luxury of working at your own pace and writing whatever you see fit, in whatever voice suits you. There's no deadlines, and unless you have advertisers who want to see a certain level of return from their ad spend, or you're part of a compilation site, there's no obligation to perform at any given level. If you attend a game as a fan, you can do what you like (within reason). You can paint your face, wear your favorite player's jersey, drink beer, cheer, chat, and have a good time.

Journalists are doing a job and have their responsibilities. (see above). So for sports writers, when they are on-site and covering a game, it is a far different experience for them. There's dress codes, for a start - they're here to do business, so they dress the part. That means a dress code - business casual or a suit, depending on the particular team's regulations. During the game, they're taking notes and writing their articles. They have deadlines. The press box, far above most of the crowd, is a place to focus on the job at hand. You're not going to see journalists and broadcasters wildly leaping around the press box in excitement over a great goal. If their favorite team is on the ice, they can't be screaming in support of them.

When the game is over, or almost over, they put together their gear and they head downstairs to the designated area to wait. Locker rooms are not cavernous to begin with, and you insert some 20-odd players, a few coaches, several staff... the room's crowded before you even get any media in there. The media that are allowed in jockey for position, zeroing in on notable players for the night, or whoever the team decides will do the talking after a given game. Once they get their sound bites, it's a race to complete their stories as quickly as possible to file and meet the deadlines, and hopefully scoop their competitors.

They're not there to buddy up to the players. They're not there to pose for pictures with players, or fawn and gush over them, or ask for autographs, or otherwise behave like a fan. The players have a job; the journalists have a job, and they're held accountable to standards. Forsaking those standards can and will lead to a loss of privileges.

So why would any bloggers want to become credentialed? you might wonder.
 
As stated earlier, there is a certain percentage of bloggers who aim to make the leap from amateur to pro writer. In order to do so, you must build a body of work - and a body of work that stands out from others. Just because you walked out of college with a degree in Journalism clutched in your hand doesn't guarantee you a job. (Actually, since a Journalism degree is mostly a degree in English/writing with a bunch of history and law tossed in, it's the kind of degree that says to employers that you know how to write - a skill which is sadly lacking these days. Also, you don't need a journalism degree to become a writer.)

But you do have to know how to write, and you have to show that you can do so consistently - day in, day out.

Journalists are also by their very nature and job description competitive. Who can get the scoop? Who can get the photo that gets tagged and sent to everybody - "You gotta see this!"? Who can find and write about a unique perspective, a different story, a new angle than the rest of the pack? Who can ask the right question to get an interviewee to open up?

Make no mistake: there are plenty of bloggers out there who are doing just as good a job as the professional journalists out there when it comes to writing - sometimes even better - even when they can't get interviews in order to answer all their questions.

SO, WHERE'S THE MIDDLE GROUND FOR TEAMS TO REACH OUT TO BLOGGERS?

There are some teams who will make the answer very cut and dry: if we give you a press pass, then we have to give one to every blogger who comes asking for one.

That's not true at all. It should be a given that any team (or any kind of organizer) that is in a position to grant something like press passes should have a minimum set of standards. It should be expected that if you're registering for a press pass, you should be providing your legal, given name, for example. They can have age requirements, tenure requirements (say, a minimum of at least 6 months of solid, consistent work), even things like hit count minimums, or a proven minimum number of hits within the blog's existence.

In addition, to help track what a blogger can bring to the table, it is possible to provide personalized coding for links, so that a team's webmaster can see exactly which blogs are driving the most traffic towards their site.  There are easy ways to quantify the results, in other words.

Teams can take lessons from the Capitals and the Islanders' work with bloggers thus far: structuring the amount and ways that bloggers can interact with players or coaches; controlling where they sit in the stadium (press box? concentrated area?). They can cap the number of spaces they allow for bloggers, just as they can for regular journalists.

If it's a concern of "if we give up a seat to a blogger, that's revenue lost", then they could sell that seat to a blogger at the same price as it would cost a season ticket holder, but on the stipulation that the club has the right to revoke the pass/seat if the blogger stops blogging or otherwise abuses the privileges that would go with having that pass. They could even make it be a pro-rated deal: if the blogger successfully holds up of their end of the bargain, then the team could refund the cost or apply it to the next season. If the blogger in any way breaks the agreement, the team could revoke the rights, keep the full price, and re-sell that seat.

In other words, the team needs to set the standards and expectations that a blogger must agree to, and the blogger who qualifies for the pass should sign an agreement that they will uphold those standards.

At the bare minimum, teams could at least allow bloggers to sign up for direct information/press release feeds, where they could receive press releases and the like.
 
WHY TEAMS SHOULD ACTIVELY SEEK TO WORK WITH BLOGGERS

The simplest reason lies in the very fact of what bloggers are: fans who are so dedicated to the sport of hockey and the team(s) they love that they dedicate it a significant portion of their time to create an ongoing work about that team. As stated earlier, most of them lose money on what they do. A fraction of them might produce enough advertising or other revenue to cover the costs of webhosting or that would barely qualify as a stipend.

In return, the teams and the league are basically getting a load of free publicity. The secret to continued consumption of a product and growth in the market is marketing; bloggers help keep the product - the game, its players - in front of more eyes. A passing interest can be nurtured into a season ticket holder.

Blogs with faithful followers are also a good way to reach out to the dedicated core of fans, because fans with a greater interest in the game are more likely to seek out increased interaction with other fans and more knowledge about the team they love.

In short, it is to teams' benefit to evaluate and choose which local bloggers are an asset to their team, and find ways to maximize the potential there.

If teams aren't willing to create some kind of in-between press-pass level - a position where the more serious, dedicated bloggers can get a little more access than the average fan, but not so much access as the paid professional journalists - then teams could at least find other ways to reward/acknowledge those fans for the contributions they make to the local hockey community.

One of the most obvious solutions is that every team generally has a "Fan Appreciation" night. Having a few prominent bloggers chosen to participate in those would be a clear token of appreciation for what bloggers bring to the table.

Another suggestion would be doing a "writers' night" with a combination of bloggers, perhaps some local journalism students, some of the team's media staff, and maybe a local sports writer where they could do a "behind the scenes" tour of the arena, locker room and press box, and then have a discussion about what it takes to make it as a professional sports journalist.

The team could also find ways to provide a unique experience for bloggers, which would provide them with fresh content that is different than just watching games. There are many teams that do not hold open practices, but credentialed media are allowed.

Invitations to bloggers to attend special event nights, perhaps at a slightly discounted ticket price from full face value but more than STH costs, would be very welcome, giving bloggers a chance to cover things like Opening Night, Alumni Night, or any other kind of special event nights that are sure to be a little more of interest than the average game night.

Teams might also let bloggers get a chance to interview AHL players affiliated with their team, which would also help build publicity for their AHL teams; or even have a little more leniency in granting press passes at the AHL level. In return, the exposure the bloggers would give the AHL players would mean more familiar faces if/when those teams make it up to the NHL, and a chance for both the blogger and the younger players to build more experience in press relations.


Ultimately, the percentage of bloggers who would genuinely be interested in working with a team's media staff - following the rules and standards to earn the right for whatever level of access a team might grant - is going to be a very small percentage. But that number is an untapped resource for today's teams. Some of the teams already recognize the value and have begun capitalizing on it; it's up to the rest to follow.




3 comments:

  1. I know you're really passionate about this subject, and this was a great read on a topic that has been brewing for a little while.

    As a writer in the Montreal area, I've accepted that it's nearly impossible to get credentialed in my city. The media is just too prominent. But even here there's is a budding resentment for the MSM, and a brotherhood of bloggers developing. In this city, if the Habs were to allow credentialed bloggers, it would be a nightmare. The media would jump all over it, and the bloggers who didn't get access would throw a fit.

    In cities like Long Island, having bloggers as part of that media community is almost necessary. Rob, who blogs for The Checking Line for the Isles, is part of the Isles blog box and gets access to games, but at the same time, i know he has A LOT of followers for his work and can justify it as he brings attention to the Isles that wasn't there beforehand.

    Some teams could benefit from it, others might actually get hurt by it. So in that respect I really understand that its a team-by-team policy. I would love to be able to go to games for free, snag interviews with players and still be able to voice my opinion as a "blogger". In this town, as I said, it's next to impossible. But if you're passionate, dedicated and consistent about your work, in most other places and even here (albeit in a different way, from a different path), you're bound to get recognize and just have to keep chipping away and building your audience.

    Great article, very good read and opinion on this matter.

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  2. Wow, excellent article about the whole MSM v bloger debate.

    I have to agree with you and Prax in that it really is about keeping momentum going.

    Create a breadth and depth of good work and eventually doors will open for you.

    K

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great piece and perspective in this. I know some MLB blogs that have gotten notoriety over the years, by being consistently good at their content.

    How do you feel about those who video blog (vlog) do you think the same standards applies to that or is it a different kind of situation.

    ReplyDelete

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