October 19, 2008
David Berry is a journalist for Vue Weekly, an independent news and arts publication in Edmonton. Until recently, he was also a blogger for Covered in Oil, one of the best Edmonton Oilers blogs on the Web, which is saying something when you consider the quality inherent in that corner of the hockey blogosphere.
Now, Berry is a symbol and symptom of the continued hypocrisy, idiocy and inflexibility that still incredibly defines many of the relationships between bloggers, NHL teams' media relations foot soldiers and, by proxy, the mainstream hockey media.
In what had been a latent war, muted by slow gains for alternative media and muffled by gimmicks like the New York Islanders' Blog Box, David Berry is the hockey blogging equivalent of Joe the Plumber -- a conversational pivot for a renewed debate.
In the process, he's shown that the Oilers are embarrassingly behind the times when it comes to new-media acceptance. The times, in this case, being circa 1999.
In summary, Berry's dilemma: He was credentialed by the Oilers to cover games from the press box and collect quotes afterward for his publication. At the same time, Berry was also blogging for Covered in Oil, which has been quite critical of the team and management over time. He was live-blogging a game against the Colorado Avalanche from the press box when he was pulled aside by an Oilers PR drone. From Berry on Covered in Oil:
Just before the start of the third, when one of the Oiler press guys pulled me aside and informed me that I'd no longer be allowed in the press box, and that if I didn't have a job to do, he would have had someone escort me out of the building right then and there. I was understandably a little confused as to what was going on, and after a little questioning, he told me that I was not allowed to blog in the press box, as I was there on another media pass.
I apologized and explained that exactly no one had told me about this, and I'd be more than willing to stop doing it in the future if they had a problem with it. That didn't seem to help at all: he got more agitated, reminded me that he could have me thrown out right now, and told me I wouldn't be welcome back. I pressed for a bit more of an explanation, and I was eventually told that the Oilers didn't grant press passes to bloggers unless they were employed by the organization or the NHL, and that I had abused my press pass and wasn't allowed back.
Later, another conversation with an Oilers official included comments like "when the guys upstairs see what you're doing" and "writing stuff like that," which led Berry to believe that censorship has as much to do with this situation as policy had.
Please read Berry's rundown of the incident, as well as his follow up in which he explains why he's leaving blogging. And then know this: The Edmonton Oilers are technically right, morally wrong and otherwise completely wrong in this situation.
They are technically correct that Berry was abusing his press credential. The policy of most NHL teams, and most media relations departments across the sports landscape, is that the publication or media entity is credentialed for an event, along with the individual representing it. From the NHL Draft credential of yours truly:
"This 'Credential' is issued by National Hockey League to 'Accredited Organization' for the sole purpose of providing arena access to an individual with legitimate working function on behalf of ‘Accredited Organization' ... Credential is for use solely in connection with Bearer's news and editorial Event coverage."
Thus, if Berry was doing work for a media entity he wasn't formally representing, or that wasn't accredited by the Oilers, this is a violation.
But the Oilers are morally wrong if this is the tact they're taking, however. It's a technicality, the equivalent of a cop busting you for going 57 in a 55.
Like I said: Welcome to 1999, Edmonton.
Writers in an NHL press box have been wearing multiple media hats since hockey coverage shifted away from print and onto the Web. Hell, at one point I was credentialed for a newspaper while writing for FanHouse, The Fourth Period and Deadspin. I was one job away from being part of that Jamaican family on "In Living Color," but as long as I was professional and clearly there for a job-related purpose there was no reason to play the "credential agreement" card with me. And there shouldn't be for anyone else.
Because had that card been played for the last century, how many sports books would have been written by authors collecting string after games while working for a newspaper? That's technically a violation, if they have a book deal. How many beat writers would be banned from moonlighting everywhere from The Sporting News to HockeyBuzz? And how many writers in the Edmonton press box would still be there, as Naete Segar brilliantly surmised in his coverage of the Berry affair:
On my Google Reader, I have several sites that are compiled by a professional broadcaster or writer who gets his info thanks in large part to their jobs at another outlet -- the Belleville News-Democrat's Norm Sanders' Blues Note By Note, Kelowna Rockets play-by-play man Regan Bartel's Regan's Rant and Kamloops Daily News sports editor Gregg Drinnan's Taking Note, just to name a couple. There is also Coming Down the Pipe!, compiled by Guy Flaming and Dean Millard, media personalities in, wait for it, Edmonton.
At the heart of it, they each do it for the same reason. They have information that they can't fit into the news-hole or a live broadcast, but they know there's appetite for that info. The point is that the Oilers were wrong, and the NHL is wrong, to make an example out of Covered In Oil for simply trying to do its part for the team's fans.
Like I said: hypocrisy. Petty interpretation of the rules aside, the Oilers were otherwise completely wrong in this situation because they, like so many others, continue to misrepresent or underestimate the shift in hockey coverage from mainstream media to alternative media.
My friend Eric McErlain has had the bullhorn on this subject for years, and it was good to see him tee-off on the Berry incident for FanHouse. Because he speaks the truth:
As I'm typing away here, I'm sitting in the press box high above the ice at Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. This is the third year in a row that the Capitals have afforded me the privilege of sitting in the box, a privilege I now share with better than a dozen other bloggers -- both locals and out-of-towners -- who have spent an evening in the box.
Like it or not, this is the way the business is going. The days of ink on paper are rapidly coming to a close, perhaps a lot more quickly than some folks are comfortable with. More often than not, bloggers like me -- and to be brutally honest, far younger -- are the future of the sports writing business. And the folks in the sports PR business need to adjust whether they like it or not.
Hey, at least the Oilers can be thankful no other bloggers picked up this story and ran with it. Well, save for these cats:
But honestly, other than those 21 sites and several others, really no one noticed ...
This all may be a little too inside baseball for many of the readers who come here for hockey coverage rather than blogger navel gazing, which is why I try to limit this kind of story unless events warrant it.
This warrants it, because it speaks to how you will get your hockey news and analysis going forward. This level of pettiness, this level of blatant censorship would not occur with a mainstream writer backed by his or her newspaper or by the Professional Hockey Writers Association. It's pure bullying, based on a belief that anyone with "blogger" affixed to his or her name is a reckless amateur with no business sharing the same free popcorn with the pros in the mainstream media.
There are actually two battles still being fought here, years after the peace accords should have been signed: Against the corporate team mindset that bloggers are irresponsible and therefore must be minimized or controlled, and against members of the mainstream media that still refuse to accept alternative media (in general) as legitimate colleagues.
I had a back and forth with one such MSM writer (and prolific author) this week over e-mail. He didn't like something I wrote about his work, and he responded not by debating the facts but by going straight for my professionalism and the nebulous label of "blogger."
(For the record: I am a full-time hockey writer with the No. 1-ranked sports site on the Web, and his article was published ... wait for it ... on a Web site.)
Once I started reading lines like "[I've] been in and around the game for 20+ years. Newbie fanboys can blow me" and "Buddy, I've spilled beer on more gms (sic) than you've ever or will ever talk to," I started feeling genuine sympathy for him and every other endangered journalist that acts like a petulant child refusing to share his sandbox.
But in the end, access for alternative media has more to do with the teams than the snobs in the press box. I think David Staples of Cult of Hockey -- an Edmonton Journal blog, by the way -- had a very solid take on the changing relationship between bloggers and teams:
No one has a right to a press pass. You have to apply for one. Organizations can and will pick and choose who they give them to. If they refuse someone, the consequence for the organization is to be accused of unfairness and censorship.
What bloggers do have a right to is free speech (so long as it's within the realm of fair comment, this being Canada after all). So it will come as no surprise that the Oilers might decide to revoke the press pass of some blogger in the future whom management believes is being constantly unfair to them.
In the end, the most critical bloggers may well not get press passes, but they will still have their blogs, their own places to write they like, and that is worth far more than a spot with your name on it in the press box.
Which is why, despite his declaration, here's hoping Dave Berry keeps blogging. And why teams are absolutely foolish not to enter into working relationships with bloggers to temper that criticism. It's smart business, provided they can work past their biases.