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Tips for Credentialed Bloggers — and the Teams That Credential Them

Two weeks ago, I wrote about my first visit to Citi Field as a credentialed blogger and my ambivalence about the experience. As a follow-up, I emailed with Eric McErlain, who blogs about the Washington Capitals at Off Wing Opinion and helped the team develop a policy for credentialing independent bloggers in 2006, and later with Nate Ewell, the Capitals'  director of media relations.

Here's our conversation, condensed and edited for clarity and space.

Question: Eric, how did your suggested policy for credentialing blogs evolve from your first take until the final version? What changed, and what inspired those changes?

McERLAIN: The genesis of the policy was an exchange I had with Caps owner Ted Leonsis, who invited me to watch a game with him in his box after reading a couple of posts from Off Wing. After my trip to the box — which led directly to
one of the posts on Off Wing that I'm most proud of — I kept in touch and asked for a press pass. He was kind enough to oblige. My first trip was a lot like yours: I didn't feel entirely comfortable and I was more than a little timid.

Still, I kept at it, and later suggested to Leonsis that there were plenty of other bloggers who would like the same opportunity. He asked me to draw up a "Bloggers' Bill of Rights." In the offseason I got to work, making sure to share
my draft with my readers. Quite unexpectedly, the draft was also posted over at SportsJournalists.com, and plenty of working reporters took their shots. Overall, their takes were quite valuable, and led to some major improvements.

Eventually, it all came together in a document I called "Guidelines for Granting Media Credentials to Bloggers and Other Online Media Representatives." The next season I attended 38 of 41 home games, and I've had a full season
credential ever since.

Over time, I think the policy has held up, and I know Leonsis concurs.

Q: How has the policy for credentialing bloggers worked out for the Capitals? For other NHL teams? What lessons have been learned, and what's still being explored?

McERLAIN: I think it's worked out very well, but it needs to be seen as part of the team's overall media strategy. When I started blogging in 2001, I was probably the only blogger who regularly took a look at the Caps. Then there was
a time when I knew everybody following the team. Now I can't keep up with everyone who regularly visits the press box, never mind everybody who regularly covers the team.

For a non-traditional NHL city like Washington, the development of this network has been vital. Up until a few months ago, D.C. was still a two-newspaper town for sports. But then the Washington Times — the home of the late, great Dave
Fay — decided to shutter its sports section. Five years ago, that would have had a terrible effect on coverage, but the conversation didn't miss a beat. Even Corey Masisak, the former beat writer for the Times, kept going on Twitter and
picked up a gig with Comcast SportsNet DC.

While engaging bloggers is a part of that success story, it's not the only part. So much of this was just a natural extension of the kind of businessman that Leonsis is. He's transparent, he's honest and he wants fans to get as close to the team as possible while having a good time. Wrap it all up with a long-term plan to rebuild the franchise, and the multiplicative effect has been impressive.

EWELL: I think it’s been a real positive for us. In the early stages, shortly after the work stoppage, it helped us get coverage we weren’t getting in the mainstream media. Now, as the team and other coverage has improved, our fans'
appetite for news has grown, and I think our bloggers help meet that demand.

Q: Have there been any collisions between bloggers and beat writers? Any lessons learned from problems there?

EWELL: I can’t recall any incidents between bloggers and beat writers. (I can recall a couple between mainstream writers, for what that’s worth.) I think there’s a respect among the bloggers covering our team for what beat writers
have to do, especially in a game setting – the time demands on them, etc. I also think they respect the knowledge that a beat writer can bring to questions in a press conference or scrum.

From the beat writers’ side, I know that the crowds in the locker room can be an issue. For most games, we don’t have a problem accommodating bloggers in the press box, but we have had some difficulty with the number of people in scrums postgame. We’re still figuring out the best way to address that, if there is one.

McERLAIN: In person in the press box, everyone has been very professional, and that's the way it ought to be.

Online, we see a lot of healthy competition. The development of local Caps blogs has forced other local outlets — especially the Washington Post — to raise their game online. Even in a one-newspaper town, competition works. I think
everyone has benefited — the team most of all.

I should add that there's a lot of healthy disagreement between the bigger outlets and bloggers in general. I think that's all to the good.

Q: What can other leagues learn from the NHL's experience?

McERLAIN: The one lesson that other leagues should come away with is pretty simple: There's a conversation going on about your team and your sport, and some pretty smart folks have a significant influence over that conversation. Doesn't
it make sense to develop a relationship with them for the sake of your business?

If and when you do that, it shouldn't be too much trouble figuring out whom you should get to know. In some cases, that might mean granting game access. In others, it might simply make sense to develop a relationship.

EWELL: I’m not sure our solution can be applied everywhere – even within the NHL. What works in Washington won’t necessarily work in Toronto. But I do think that all PR people need to recognize the value of blogs – your fans are reading them, so they have legitimacy with your audience regardless of how much legitimacy you give them.

Because blogs have an audience, I think most teams would be smart to reach out to them at some point – for coverage of a community event or a marketing promotion, for example. But it’s hard to expect blogs to help with those things if you haven’t treated them as media before.

Q: Many bloggers may not know the rules of the road for interviewing players and team officials before and after games. What's the best way to teach them?

McERLAIN: A quick read of the guidelines I developed would be a good start. It gives you an idea of what's expected once you're on the inside. Before you show up, try to get a member of the PR staff on the phone for a few minutes to get a general lay of the land. And if there's a blogger who also covers the team, drop that person an email. In general, bloggers are happy to answer questions about this sort of thing.

Q: Suppose I'm a newly credentialed blogger going into the locker room or press box for the first time. Give me some tips, please.

EWELL: This is counterintuitive given what makes good bloggers good, but follow the crowd. Pay attention to the people who have been there and who already know where to go and what types of questions to ask. Be respectful of the jobs others are doing. And reach out to the PR staff with questions that come up – we are your hosts at games, so we should be a resource.

McERLAIN: When you're in the press box, act like a professional. Don't cheer. The other folks who are there are working for a paycheck, and you should show respect for them and what they do. In the locker room, beat writers and
wire-service reporters are working on deadline. Give them room to do their jobs — when you get into a scrum around a player or team official, hang back and let those folks get their questions in first. If there's a post-game presser with
the head coach, don't hesitate to hang back there, too.

I have never been in a situation where pausing to ask a question has come back to haunt me. In my experience, there will always be a moment when a PR rep asks, "Are there any more questions?" Then again, the Caps PR team has been judged to be the best in the league for several years running, so other experiences may be different.

When it comes to approaching players, keep in mind that some of them will still be getting out of their equipment when you get to the locker room. They're tired and they don't necessarily want to talk to you. Give them the time and space to
get out of their gear before you approach. If you don't see the player you'd like to talk to, grab one of the team's PR reps and ask for help tracking him down. They want you to write about the team, so they'll do what they can to help you.

Here's another tip about players: The ones who are still in the locker room and ready to answer questions might not supply the best information. If the player you'd really like to talk to isn't hanging out, be sure to ask to see him. You
never know when you might get some real insight from a player, especially if you're not talking about the game that just ended.

Most of all, don't be afraid to watch and learn. You wrote that you felt a little timid the first time you were behind the wire at Citi Field, and that's OK. Still, don't let the opportunity go by — watch how things work and you'll learn the ropes soon enough.

Q: If I'm a credentialed blogger, do I have to stop being a fan? Or can I have it both ways?

EWELL: We expect everyone we credential to act professionally – no cheering, no autographs. We don’t have a dress code, but I wouldn’t be comfortable with someone wearing a jersey to the press box.

That said, a blogger wouldn’t be making the effort to write and maintain a blog if he or she weren’t a fan. In a lot of cases that’s what makes the blog popular – I wouldn’t expect someone to change that perspective just because they got a
credential.

McERLAIN: Suppressing the impulse to cheer can be tough, but it can be done. And here in D.C., we have blogs covering the Caps that serve as great examples of how that can work. Both Japers' Rink and On Frozen
Blog 
cover the Caps as closely as any beat writer. Both have press-box access, yet at times have been vocal critics of
players, management and ownership. Yet nobody would ever question the fact that the writers at both blogs want to see the team win very badly.

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.
 

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