Tuesday, October 23, 2007

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.

The Caps’ pro-bloggers stance has led to a proliferation of blogs unseen in all but some of the most hockey-crazed cities. There are at least 20 active blogs devoted to the Capitals, and two — Off Wing Opinion and Japer’s Rink — were recently ranked among the top 10 hockey blogs by Sports Media Challenge. Several of the top sites report tens of thousands of unique visitors each month.

That Leonsis would reach out to a bloggers is not surprising. The former AOL executive is viewed as one of the most tech-savvy owners in sports and routinely communicates with fans by e-mail and through his own blog, “Ted’s Take.” But Leonsis said his goal is to find a way to direct that apparent online appetite into improved attendance. (The Caps ranked 27th out of 30 teams in attendance last season.)

“There’s more hockey in the city that isn’t translating to butts in the seats,” he said. “The trick is getting those people converted into the arena.”

So far, there has been little outward backlash from full-time reporters who cover the Caps, though some have suggested that bloggers have received good treatment from the team because their coverage skews positive.

Indeed, many of the bloggers are unabashed supporters of the team, and several are season ticket holders. The perception of a cozy blogger-team relationship only grew in June when Leonsis paid $40,000 of his own money to send Keeley and fellow On Frozen Blog writer Mike Rucki to join Caps employees in covering the IIHF World Championships in Moscow.

Some competing blogs have suggested Keeley was chosen because his coverage of the team is less critical than others. And traditional reporters said their own publications’ rules forbid them from accepting trips.

Leonsis, however, said he wasn’t looking for favorable coverage from the bloggers but simply any coverage at all.

“Around the world, the world championships is a big event,” he said. “But the Times and the Post and NBC won’t cover it. So I sent some of our bloggers and some of our employees and said, ‘You write on an ongoing basis and publish it not only on our Web site but — kind of as a show of good will — syndicate it for free.’ I paid for it, but I didn’t want an exclusive. And we didn’t tell them what to write.”

Robert Cox, president of the Media Bloggers Association, which has advised bloggers on legal and ethics issues, said transparency is the key.

“If one of the teams wants to offer them a trip, that’s fine,” Cox said. “If they want to accept it, that’s fine. But they have to disclose it. I wouldn’t tell them to not take the trip, but they should fully disclose what’s exactly happening so that people know that what they’re reading could be influenced.”

Keeley declined to talk on the record about any criticism he has received but insisted the team has never influenced his writing. (For the record, Keeley was up front in explaining to readers he was traveling to Russia at the team’s request.)

“The blogs help [Leonsis’] team,” Keeley acknowledged. “But I think he genuinely believes that the electronic media is the future for a lot of media in general and particularly this sport. And I do believe his outreach to us is in that spirit.”

No team in professional sports offers as much unfettered access to bloggers as the Caps, though several teams have rolled out special accommodations. The New York Islanders, for instance, created a special “blog box” separate from traditional media members, and other teams have provided credentials on a game-by-game basis. The growing number of bloggers has captured the attention of NHL officials, who are exploring whether a league-wide policy toward bloggers is needed.

“The NHL is looking closely at it,” said Caps chief communications officer Kurt Kehl, who served on a special committee to address the issue at a recent league meeting. “There is some fear of the unknown.”

Caps officials acknowledged embracing bloggers is easy when the traditional media isn’t filling the press box like in Calgary, New York or Edmonton. But what happens if the Caps make a deep playoff run?

“Then they can come sit in the owners box,” Leonsis said. “I’ll find them a place to sit. I hope we have that issue. I’d like to be looked at as the most new media-savvy, blog-centric of the teams. If we win, that network just helps you to keep that momentum going.”


Blog: On Frozen Blog

URL: onfrozenblog.com

Operator: John Keeley

Screen name: pucksandbooks

Day Job: Public Relations Rep for the Nuclear Energy Institute

Sample: “I awoke at 4:30 this morning, two hours earlier than my alarm. I”m awake at the same time as Elliot Segal, and like Elliot today, my head is crammed full of thoughts about a new hockey season in Washington.”

Blog: Off Wing Opinion

URL: offwing.com

Operator: Eric McErlain

Screen name: Eric

Day Job: Web Manager for Nuclear Energy Institute

Sample: “This team is as different from last season as you can imagine. The power play hasn’t looked this good since the days of Oates, Bondra and Gonchar. Not only is the team controlling the zone on the power play, they’re generating chance after chance — something we didn’t see a lot of last season.”

Blog: Japer’s Rink

URL: japersrink.blogspot.com

Operator: Jon Press

Screen name: JP

Day Job: Attorney

Sample: “Hey, Cox customers who are petitioning to get more Caps games televised: Maybe you should be sending your cable provider “thank you” notes this morning for sparing you from having to watch last night’s blowout.”

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