SBJ/June 19 - 25, 2006/This Weeks News

Should bloggers get a seat in the press box?

Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Capitals, discovered offwingopinion.com, a hockey Web log, while searching for information on his team last November. He was so impressed with the writer’s hockey knowledge that he invited him to a game two days later.

Bloggers have not yet ambitiously pursued
credentialed space at events, but that may change.
NHL policy denies independent bloggers — people who write Web logs — media credentials providing access to the locker room, pressroom and other areas, but Leonsis’ invitation gave the offwingopinion.com writer access to the owner’s suite and the owner himself. In other words, more access than any other blogger leaguewide could hope for, and enough to turn the heads of some traditional media stalwarts.

That visit became the subject of a Web log on offwingopinion.com, and it highlighted what Leonsis believes will be the next way for teams to use the ever-expanding world of new media.

“Traditional media is being marginalized with shrinking circulation and tough ad-sales climates at the same time blogs are growing in importance and reach,” Leonsis said. “It makes good business sense to welcome in new media.”

Once a fairly small presence on the Internet, Web logs have emerged as major content providers for information on sports and teams. From college to professional sports, most teams and leagues say they have yet to receive requests for press credentials from bloggers. But all foresee a future full of such requests and have begun to make preparations for handling them.

Capitals owner Ted Leonsis

What they read
While not every team or league has been as progressive as Leonsis when it comes to acknowledging bloggers, organizations are increasingly recognizing their importance and drafting policies to address requests for press credentials from bloggers.

“Our end audience is our fans,” said Brian McIntyre, senior vice president of communications for the NBA. “Any way we can bring our game to our fans we have to look at.”

Web logs have become the latest evolution in the Internet’s growth and influence. There are more than 39 million blogs read by more than 50 million Americans regularly, according to Technorati, which tracks the emerging medium. Blogs began to gain mainstream credibility when the Republican and Democratic conventions credentialed bloggers to cover their events in 2004.

The Republican National Committee placed more than 15 bloggers along radio row during its convention, giving prominent political bloggers from sites such as powerlineblog.com and redstate.com the same access to Senators and congressional leaders as other members of the media. The resulting coverage in the blogosphere not only expanded the exposure of the convention, it also became a story itself, as papers such as The Wall Street Journal tracked the blogosphere during the race.

“We saw them playing an increasing important aspect in analyzing political coverage,” said Patrick Ruffini, the e-campaign director for the RNC. “Their prominence was growing by leaps and bounds, and it turned out to be very successful.”

In the sports world, Major League Baseball developed its policy on blogs in 2001, drafting a position paper on credentialing online entities. It stipulates that credentials will be granted to online entities that are part of a national agency such as ESPN, reach a broad audience, have a record of producing original content and employ at least four full-time journalists.

Pat Courtney, a spokesman for MLB, said the guidelines grew out of a request for guidance from teams who were seeing a rise in online requests. So far it’s effectively allowed teams to fill the limited press space they have, he said, adding, “All 30 clubs can take comfort knowing there’s a common practice.”

Denversportszone.com’s Gabe Stein is urging
MLB to change its policy toward bloggers.
But not everyone has applauded the policy.

Gabe Stein, a blogger who runs denversportszone.com, launched the MLB Fair Press movement to encourage baseball to change its policy toward bloggers after he was denied press credentials by the Colorado Rockies. He’s asked visitors to his site to send an e-mail to Major League Baseball petitioning it to credential bloggers.

“All we’re doing is saying, ‘Why is Major League Baseball totally backwards on this?’” Stein said. “I understand they want to protect the media and their background in the media, but there should be some sort of process by which legitimate Web sites can be recognized.”

Other leagues have begun to consider how they will deal with those requests in the future as the blogosphere expands. Though the NFL has not seen a major influx of credential requests from bloggers yet, the league brought in an expert on blogging, Steve Rubel with Edelman Communications, a global public relations firm, to speak at an annual meeting of public relations officials in April.

“We wanted him to help us understand how we could work with bloggers,” said Brian McCarthy, an NFL spokesperson. “It was a recognition of the evolving media landscape. It’s something we want to get out in front of.”

Blogs that have led the story

Read about the stories that Deadspin.com, Mr. Irrelevant, Ecklund's Hockey Rumors, and MetroFanatic have broken.

At the meeting, Rubel highlighted an Edelman survey of more than 2,000 people who said that the most trusted source of information was not a newspaper, athlete or analyst, but a peer. He explained that sports bloggers were the ultimate peer — an online source of information from someone as devoted to a team or sport as most readers.

Rubel acknowledges that Web logs are still small, saying many have fewer than 1,000 readers, but he believes that those readers could be the most devoted and influential fans a team has. “They’re the ones online reading about the team, tailgating and talking about the team offline,” he said. “Teams have to recognize these people as a force. If they can build bridges through small steps, it will mean a lot to bloggers and a lot to the people they influence.”

Most NFL teams do not credential bloggers, but Rubel hopes that will change. He recommends that teams pick two or three influential bloggers and invite them to training camp. “It says, ‘You know what? We know you are a conduit. We know you are important. We want to work with you because we know that journalism is changing,’” he said.

Top Sports Blogs

Read descriptions of the most-visited sports-related blogs unaffiliated with a major news outlet, according to alexa.com.

To date, bloggers have not ambitiously pursued credentials. In the last five years, the NHL has received two annual credential requests from bloggers for the Stanley Cup Finals, and spokespeople at the NBA and NCAA said they have not had any requests from bloggers for either championship events or playoff games. However, those spokespeople said they expected that to change.

“We don’t know where we’re going to go,” the NBA’s McIntyre said. “We don’t ever want to say no. If some blogger has a tremendous following, we’ll consider it.”

Mark Bedics, who oversees media coordination for the NCAA championships department, said he doubts when those requests come that the association will recognize bloggers. “At this point it would be hard to define them as media,” he said. “And personally, I don’t see how they can be.”

The degree to which bloggers will seek credentials in the future remains unknown. Jamie Mottram, host of Sports Bloggers Live, an online radio show featuring sports bloggers, believes many bloggers don’t want access to the press box. They fear that will ruin their freedom to say what they wish about their team or sport, he said.

Others see access as advantageous. Tyler Bleszinski, who runs athleticsnation.com, said the number of visitors to his site skyrocketed after he did a one-on-one interview with Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane. Today, Bleszinski gets close to 10,000 visitors a day, according to Alexa, which monitors Web traffic.

“I thank my lucky stars that I follow a team as aggressive and intelligent and willing to think outside the box as they are,” said Bleszinski, who still doesn’t receive credentials for games based on the MLB policy. “I wouldn’t be in the position I am otherwise.”

Bleszinski acknowledges the challenge of granting bloggers’ requests. “It’s a lot of work for PR people to go online and see which blogs are being fair and not just doing a rip job,” he said.

Public relations officials agree, saying they fear being inundated with more requests than they can handle and spending unknown amounts of time evaluating each site. Plus, there’s a limited amount of space in each press area.

“You could fill up the press box 10 times over with bloggers,” MLB’s Courtney said. “It’s important to have a criteria where you prioritize a major list or the ones who reach a broader audience.”

Sandy Padwe, an associate professor of journalism at Columbia University, thinks one way to solve that problem would be to charge media people covering events for a seat. “I could see the baseball, basketball and football writers associations throwing a fit,” he said, “but that would solve the problem.”

Regardless of how teams address the issue of space, Rubel said the time has come to do something. He doesn’t expect teams to let everyone in. “That would be ludicrous,” he said. “But if they took small, measured steps and became more open, it’s going to become a home run for them.”

Tripp Mickle is a writer in New York.

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