Caps embrace the blogosphere

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It’s about two hours before the Capitals’ home opener against the Carolina Hurricanes, and John Keeley already is typing furiously. He’s writing about the weather. He’s writing about the size of the Verizon Center scoreboard. He’s commenting on the unusual number of Swedish people he has seen.

It’s not Yeatsian copy, but in the blogging community there is such a thing as feeding the beast. And in this case, Keeley is feeding it high up in the Verizon Center press box, a domain normally reserved for people who work full-time for newspapers, magazines and television stations.

And Keeley, the publisher of On Frozen Blog, is among friends. Writers from a half-dozen other blogs, including Japers’ Rink, DC Optimist and A View From the Cheap Seats, are on the premises, cranking out posts that analyze everything from the Caps’ new uniforms to the Hurricanes’ power-play defense. They are affectionately called “blogger nation” and are part of a growing — and unique — strategy by the Caps to embrace new media outlets rather than keep them at an arms’ length.

It is a strategy that was born partially out of a nothing-to-lose mentality after the lockout that canceled the 2004-05 NHL season. The Caps languished toward the bottom of the NHL standings and played before some of the smallest crowds. Interest in hockey by traditional media sources had dwindled, and the situation showed no signs of improving as budget cuts hit many news organizations.

“In case anyone hasn’t noticed, the traditional media is struggling,” Caps majority owner Ted Leonsis said in a recent interview. “And I just thought we needed a broader platform for exposure.”

Leonsis first reached out last season to Eric McErlain, publisher of Off Wing Opinion, who had blogged about hockey since the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.

“I got an e-mail from Ted Leonsis, and he said: ‘Hey, I’ve been checking out your writing. It’s really good. Would you like to go to a game?’ ” McErlain said. “And the next night I was in his box watching the Caps play Tampa Bay.”

Over the course of the season, McErlain worked with Leonsis and the Caps’ public relations staff on crafting a “Bloggers Bill of Rights” that would grant access to the most active bloggers while outlining rules of etiquette and professionalism.

Several bloggers now have full-season credentials, giving them front-row seats in the press box and the same access as traditional journalists.

“I never aimed to be a sportswriter,” said McErlain, who also is a lead blogger at AOL Fan House. “I was just out having fun and said, ‘Hey, if anyone wants to come along for the ride, that’s great.’ I do pinch myself and say, ‘Wow this is really cool.’ It’s a lot of fun. I’m not going to deny that.”

But while making no apologies for enjoying themselves, many of the bloggers said they hope to fill a void left by the decline in traditional coverage of hockey and the Caps.

“We want to give them something maybe the mainstream isn’t covering — not so much because they don’t want to but because they may not have the inches to devote to it or the time,” said Jon Press, an attorney and operator of Japer’s Rink.

Keeley said his motivation to blog was more pointed.

“I was watching the traditional coverage, both broadcast and print, and was remarkably underwhelmed,” Keeley said of his decision to begin blogging last year. “The first thing I wrote was a general sense of being frustrated — well, really more than frustrated. Really angry. I started from this premise that Washington is not a sports town, but there’s nothing innate that says it can’t be. But the old media don’t do anything to change that perception. In fact, they perpetuate, in my opinion. So we started this blog, the idea that if you’re interested in hockey and want more coverage, come here.”

Few bloggers run their Web sites as a full-time job. Keeley runs On Frozen Blog when he is not managing the media relations department at the Nuclear Energy Institute. McErlain also works at NEI as a Web communications manager. Nearly all of the most popular Caps blogs employ more than one writer, allowing blogs to cover as many as half of all home games and occasionally even traveling to road games in Philadelphia or New York.

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