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Taking the Long View of a Hockey Dispute

A current cause celebre in the sportswriting world is the New York Islanders’ decision to revoke the media credentials of Chris Botta, the managing editor of the noted Isles blog NYI Point Blank.

The backstory reads like a soap opera: Botta worked for the Isles for more than 20 years, was instrumental in establishing the team’s Blog Box back in 2007, and NYI Point Blank was sponsored by the Islanders when it debuted. Botta is one of the most respected hockey bloggers around and also one of the most successful, averaging 1.5 million page views a month.

I’m going to leave thoughts about what happened between Botta and the Islanders to others – you can find the basic story here, read pointed takes by Stu Hackel of SI.com and Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo Sports, and follow this link to hear Botta discuss the issue with New York radio host Mike Francesa. Instead, I’m going to focus on the implications.

On one level, this is part of a larger story for the NHL: The league has given its teams wide discretion in deciding how they approach the subject of bloggers and media credentials, and different clubs have different thoughts on that and different policies.

Many of Botta’s defenders are upset because they think Botta isn’t being treated like a journalist, and because they object to what they see as an attempt to muzzle journalism. But I can’t help seeing the controversy as part of a potentially much bigger story. It’s one that has little to do with blogs vs. newspapers, and has far-ranging implications for any person or organization seeking to report news – whether it’s sports or any other variety of it.

As sports journalists, we see the world as a place full of stories to tell and truths to be unearthed – and along the way, we hope we can bring the personalities of the playing field to life and move the occasional reader to tears or anger or joy. But that’s a pretty limited perspective. To get another one, let’s think of things like a team or league, and step back to the way things were not so long ago.

The essential power of newspapers was never the journalism they practiced or their role as civic watchdogs – those were happy consequences of a much more basic power: Newspaper publishers had a hammerlock on the localized business of printing material and distributing it speedily and efficiently to a mass audience.

If you were a department store that wanted to get news of a sale out to a good percentage of local consumers, your best bet for doing so was the local newspaper. Ditto if you were a car dealer that wanted people to know prices had been slashed on last year’s models, a bar touting a Saturday night music bill, a local government agency required to publish public notices, a guy trying to sell a slightly used lawnmower or a small business looking for a secretary. You turned to the newspaper.

The same was true for a professional sports team wanting to build excitement among potential fans and get people out to the arena.

Teams had an additional advantage: Newspaper readers treated accounts of their games, strategies and potential future doings as newsworthy, meaning papers would devote reporters to covering their games. For the price of press boxes, steam-tray cuisine, the infrastructure of interviews and locker-room scrums and help with travel arrangements, teams got coverage and public awareness.

Of course, sometimes that coverage was about things the teams would rather have gone ignored: losing streaks, locker-room turmoil or other woes. But the publicity was always better than a lack of it, and so relationships developed between teams and leagues and reporters. But all of it sprang from that monopoly on printing and distribution.

Today things are different in a way that’s still astonishing to think about: If you have a computer and an Internet connection, you’re a publisher. You have the digital equivalent of a printing press and a lightning-fast world-wide distribution network sitting on your desk – or in your pocket, disguised as a phone. The newspaper’s hammerlock on that business is gone, and the news industry’s struggles are consequences of this.

This really is the stuff of revolutions – but what the champions of blogging and social media and other DIY platforms sometimes miss is that “everyone can be a publisher” really does mean “everyone.” It doesn’t just mean little guys who once could only be heard by writing letters to the editor or calling radio talk shows. It also means big guys – powerful individuals and government agencies and industry associations and giant corporations. If you want to get a message out quickly and efficiently to a mass audience, you can do it yourself – or seek out one of an increasing number of alternatives to the newspaper.

Athletes and agents are ahead of teams and leagues in this regard – they already break news themselves that once would have gone to a friendly or persistent writer. But teams and leagues will get there, too – they’re already experimenting with how to do so. Witness this arrangement between the New Jersey Devils and Gannett, which I wrote about last spring. Or look at how MLB.com covers its own teams with in-house writers.

As this trend continues, teams and leagues will inevitably reconsider the bargain struck a century ago with news organizations. Right now, bloggers sometimes have to battle for access that long-established news organizations generally take for granted. But that reflects familiar practices and existing relationships, not eternal truths. They’re no more the way things will always be than the assumption that the newspaper is where you turn to place a classified or a help-wanted ad.

Before too long, teams won’t look at credential requests based on whether the person asking is a blogger or a newspaper reporter or a trained journalist or a diehard rooter. They’ll look at the requester’s influence and audience and how useful he or she will be to the team’s publicity goals, and consider the request against all the other options available for getting the message out. (In that regard, Botta’s 1.5 million monthly visitors are much more relevant than his medium or his background.)

This seems like a new calculus, but it really isn’t – it’s just that teams never had the choice before. Now, they’re beginning to understand that they do.

Jason Fry is a freelance writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom. Write to him at  jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.on Fry is a freelance writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom. Write to him at  jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.
  
 

 

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