Reactions to the NHL's confirmed changes to locker room access policies for bloggers

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(Just throwing up this disclaimer once again: this is all about blogging and access, so it might not be of much interest to many of you. Fair warning.)

We discussed the NHL’s plans to allow visiting teams to ban bloggers from their locker rooms in late August, and now it sounds like that rumor is turning into a reality. Adam Gretz of NHL Fanhouse posted the news.

Starting this season, “bloggers” will only have access to the home locker room unless they make prior arrangements with the visiting team (and considering some of the positions taken by teams like Edmonton and the New York Rangers, that doesn’t sound like it’s going to be an easy proposition in some cases). Blogger credentials are clearly labeled with a different color from that of the “mainstream” media (of which websites like FanHouse and Yahoo! Sports appear to be considered).

As you might expect from an opinionated and passionate group, this announcement generated some angry responses from bloggers. On Frozen Blog is one of the most artful and interesting blogs in the rich sea of Washington Capitals blogs, so it’s not very surprising that they responded to the situation with verve and an authoritative stance.

In the debate over media access as envisioned by Ted Leonsis versus that of Glen Sather, the league has sided with Slats. Really, you just have to chuckle at the idiocy.

You might argue: what has worked in Washington isn’t necessarily appropriate in all other markets. Indeed. Member teams need flexibility in branding strategies. And some are going to be on the move soon because that branding ain’t working so well. The NHL’s new new media policy strikes a blow at such flexibility. It’s a one size fits all blanket policy on access. Moreover, in its spirit, it’s malignant.

That’s the real travesty with this decision: What’s so harmful – pernicious, really – with this decision is that it casts a suspicious eye on a benign entity.

The overwhelming majority of new media product is constructed in quality, by volunteers, and now the thankless NHL wants to give the creators a good smack in the face for their efforts.

It’s one thing for a blogger to respond to the situation in a dismissive way, but outside sources are criticizing the league’s stance too. One of the most interesting stories generated on the subject came from Poynter Online, one of the best sources for introspective looks at the journalism industry as a whole.

“There’s a fear of the unknown,” said Franklin, the Indiana University professor. “There’s deep concern with bloggers that there’s less accountability or no accountability.”

Still, Franklin is among many observers who believe NHL teams would be wise to accommodate bloggers, even if that entails some risk or occasionally makes a player or team official uncomfortable.

“The NHL doesn’t get the same kind of mainstream coverage that the NFL does, and in most big cities, not the same level of coverage that the baseball or NBA teams get,” Franklin said. “So in some ways, bloggers in hockey are even more important to a team’s fan base than they would be in another sport.”

It’s understandable that teams want a way to tell the difference between a serious blogger and a fan who maintains a cursory website as a means to score credentials and hobnob with players. But rather than judging a site on the number of full-time journalists it employs (or its writers’ feelings about the general manager), teams could try to gauge the size of the site’s audience, how often it’s updated, and its reputation among other fans. (A survey of season ticket holders likely would reveal which blogs are most popular and influential.)

Of course, denying credentials isn’t likely to keep bloggers from writing about hockey anyway. Many people who maintain prolific blogs pay their own way into stadiums or simply watch games on television — forgoing press box and locker room access even in arenas where they’re allowed.

Many people are quick to say that bloggers could use their lack of access/media credentials to their advantage. After all, if you shot a sports reporter with truth serum, he or she would probably admit that they sit on a ton of huge stories merely to maintain a relationship with their sources. That perceived “lack of accountability” can be a plus when it means that you can write critical pieces without worrying about filling your quota of quotes the next day.

Still, the root of the concern is that blogs cover a wide array of purposes. Some blogs aim to cover their teams objectively and more or less fill the void left by a lack of newspaper coverage. By stripping them of that opportunity, it’s hard to deny that the NHL is stripping itself of extended coverage.

Sure, a tougher-to-identify chain of command can make allowing bloggers access an unnerving process, but the NHL isn’t exactly feasting on front page coverage (although I’ll have something on that later). In other words, the league might be mistaken in thinking that beggars can be choosers.