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NBA Bloggers and Access

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So I realize it's probably not the post you are looking forward to.  Steve goes away for five days, and the first thing he writes upon his return is.... a meta-post about blogging.  But as I mentioned earlier, I had an assignment due for grad school today, and this is it.  After I finished, it occurred to me that it might be of interest to at least a few of you.  If you don't find it overly interesting, don't read it.

The essay is after the jump.

The ever blurrier line between blogger and journalist is seemingly much too big for my first thought paper.  I'd certainly be out of my depth with the issues of First Amendment protections and shield laws, as discussed by Laura Hendrickson in her essay "Press Protection in the Blogosphere:  Applying a Functional Definition of 'Press' to News Web Logs" (Chapter 10 of Tremayne).  But there is a key aspect of press privileges which has been of interest to me since I first began blogging about the Clippers:  access.

I did not study Journalism as an undergraduate student.  I never so much as took a journalism class.  I didn't even stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.  I did work on the year book committee in both junior high and high school; but surprisingly, neither experience really shed much light on the subject of press credentials.   

Early in my tenure blogging about the Clippers, I sent an email to the club's Director of Communications Rob Raichlin informing him of my existence and intentions.  He was nice enough to add me to his eMail distribution list for press releases; I took that to be an encouraging sign and I appreciate Rob's openness in doing so.  Unfortunately, that was approximately three years ago and until very recently, the net effect has been that I was well informed about all of the press happenings (media availabilities, press conferences, credential application procedures, etc.) to which I was not welcome.  Prior to May of this year when I have pursued access, even to such mundane, low demand events as training camp, that access has been denied, usually on the grounds it is NBA policy not to credential "bloggers."

I am admittedly a babe in these woods.  When I went to the "Blogworld" convention in November 2007, I asked some of the more grizzled blogging veterans (you know, guys who'd been doing it for two whole years) exactly what hoops I had to jump through to get a credential.  I imagined that there was some sort of general journalism certification process, like becoming a CPA.  They informed me that no, each organization was in charge of handing out credentials based on whatever criteria they determined.  It also became apparent that there was no league-wide policy in the NBA, or at least nothing hard and fast.  Some teams provide access to bloggers while others do not. 

I've always been cognizant of the dilemma bloggers present for organizations like the Clippers.  In fact, I did not even ask for game credentials the first couple of years I blogged, aware of the appearance of a conflict of interest.  "Hmmm, here's a guy who is essentially a fan, running some pissant fan site, and he wants to sit in press row at the games.  Yeah, right."  So as I mentioned, I limited my requests to the work-a-day events like training camp and press conferences.  After all, what was to keep someone from registering on blogger in the morning, typing a post, and then asking for a press credential in the afternoon?  And this is indeed the reasoning the Clippers provided for me in denying access - the fear of the slippery slope, of ‘opening the flood gates' (that's a direct quote, the irony of which was apparently lost on them given that there are only two bloggers who focus on the Clippers, and in the meantime every major LA paper was eliminating or severely curtailing their Clippers' coverage - apparently Kevin and I represented a flood). 

In early March of 2008, something happened that would throw a spotlight on this issue.  Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks and a blogger himself instituted a policy in which all bloggers were banned from the teams' locker room, even if they had been accredited by the team.  This was significant for several reasons.  For one, Cuban drew the distinction at the level of the medium - regardless of the organization for whom the blogger worked, if the medium where he or she primarily published was online as opposed to print, that person was by his definition a blogger and was therefore banned from the locker room.  As it happens, only one person was actually impacted by this policy - long time Dallas Morning News sportswriter Tim MacMahon, who had only recently moved to a primarily online role for the News.  The fact that MacMahon had been openly critical of the team and had been at odds with Cuban made the ploy more than a little transparent.  But it did force some issues of inconsistency into the open.  Cuban, intentionally or not, had asked the correct question.  What determines the difference between a member of the press and a blogger?  Surely it wasn't simply the printing of words onto dead trees. 

Cuban forced the NBA's hand as well.  With a long-time member of the fourth estate denied access seemingly on the whim of a maverick owner (pun intended), the league had to step in.  Essentially, they said that each team could determine their credentialing process, but that they should NOT base their access decisions solely on the publication medium. 

So in theory a writer should not be deemed ineligible for a credential simply by virtue of publishing in pixels instead of print - at least not in the NBA.  But as usual Cuban went a little overboard, promising to credential "kids blogging for their middle school Web site" if asked.  (In a side note, the blogger at FireAvery.com, a blog particularly unfriendly to then head coach Avery Johnson, did apply and was rejected.  But now that Avery Johnson has been fired, presumably that blogger is out of a job as well.  Careful what you wish for.)

It has always been inherent on organizations to apply common sense rules to credentialing and access.  And logistical issues such as space necessarily come into play as well.  Back when I had a real job, I was the Director of Development for two World Cups in 1994 and 1998.  The Accreditation process was in fact one of the applications we developed for those events - the process of producing photo badges for the accredited media.  But the difference between the media coverage of the first round match between Romania and Switzerland and the media coverage of the World Cup final between Italy and Brazil is exponential, and even if you make the press area within the stadium bigger to accommodate some of the demand, you can't possibly make it big enough.  (This was ostensibly Cuban's issue in Dallas as well - the locker room was getting too crowded, even if there was enough space on press row.)  So you have common sense rules.  A media badge is good enough to get into the stadium during the first round - but for the Finals, you have to have a ticket.  And how are those tickets distributed?  Well, if the Final is between Italy and Brazil, journalists from those countries receive special consideration.  And national publications have precedence over local.  And circulation and medium, etc. etc. etc. were taken into consideration in order to determine the priority. 

Similarly, it would seem that some common sense would need to be applied as regards the issue of bloggers and access.  If a brand new blogspot blogger requests a credential soon after writing his or her inaugural post, that request should be denied.  Given the massive percentage of blogs that are abandoned within the first month, it seems perfectly reasonable to institute a longevity test of six months or a year or whatever.  Likewise, the access should be beneficial to an actual audience.  A blog without any readership provides little public service, so it's also reasonable to institute a minimum readership, perhaps as measured in page views.  The point is, the slope really isn't all that slippery after all - the footing's pretty good.  And for a team like the Clippers, with at most a handful of reporters in press row for any given game, the common sensical line might be drawn at a different point than it is for the Lakers.  But the fact remains that there are reasonable measures by which to make the decision without resorting to arbitrary distinctions about the medium where the words will be published.

One last point - there are also concerns that sports bloggers, also being fans, will not know how to behave properly; that they will not comport themselves well, in the tradition of the impartial media.  That remains to be seen.  I highly doubt that the revered institution of the press is going to suffer irrevocable damage if someone shows up to cover the game wearing a Clippers T-shirt or even (god forbid) allows himself an ever-so-slightly external cheer when the team makes a big play.  We've been discussing in class this week (among other things) the myth of impartiality.  Most team bloggers are ardent fans, and make no pretense otherwise.  And as it happens, many fans would like to get their coverage from like minded people.  And what's wrong with that?  On the political beat, there are certainly some far reaching implications of reporters with agendas.  But in the realm of sports, it seems natural that the reporter/blogger should have a rooting interest. 

It will be interesting to see what happens with me and credentials this season.  To this point, the Clippers have been much more amenable to my requests for access.  I've attended two media events related to the draft in the last month, and have applied for a credential to cover Summer League games.  It's clear that things are moving on this issue - it remains to be seen how far and how fast.