Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Growing Pains of Blogging

It was bound to happen sooner or later. If you’re not aware, the New York Islanders, in partnership with, have what is called the “NYI Blog Box.” In it, the Islanders have chosen 13 bloggers to be contributors. At last Saturday’s home opener the Islanders, as Richard Deitsch of reports, gave limited locker room access to members of the Blog Box. And it is here where two of the blogging community’s heavyweights weigh in.

The opinion of Eric McErlain of Off Wing Opinion and AOL Fanhouse seems rather clearly expressed in the title of his entry, “The Blog Box Fails the New Media Test.” James Mirtle takes issue with that assessment in his entry, “Blogs in a Box.” The multiple meanings in that title are not subtle, as a reading of the article makes clear. Both are thought-provoking arguments that speak as much to the role and place of blogs and bloggers as much as they do about the Islanders' experiment.

As arguments in sports go, this is rather civilized, especially compared to the screeching one finds in sports talk radio (another, more unruly branch of the sports journalism tree). As I read them, McErlain sees the Islanders’ effort as a little too transparent an attempt to both sequester bloggers and to make them mere extensions of the marketing offices of the Islanders (or, in his words, “a glorified fan club”).

On the other hand, Mirtle seems to view the Islanders' dip into the waters of credentialing as not a bad idea, that is it can serve as the basis for a blogger to “become someone just like Eric by starting out under this new arrangement,” while permitting “others [to] enjoy the experience as hockey fans, whoop it up and pump out whatever they want on their blogs.” Mirtle goes on to offer, in the context of whether McErlain finds himself in an all-that-objective blogging community himself, a none-to-subtle jab at Caps bloggers, noting that, “for all of the coverage we're seeing piped out of the Capitals' press box these days, how critical a voice are we getting? Here was a team that was a bottom feeder last season that offered plenty of opportunities to be dumped on, but did we really see that from Ted Leonsis's new legion of blogglings?” That’s a topic for an entirely different day.

I think both are right…and both are wrong (how’s that for a journalistic stand?). Blogging, from my modest position in the blogging firmament, seems to be an evolving medium and one in its early evolution at that. It does not yet enjoy the benefits traditional media that have had decades to hone methods and manners and standards by which events are chronicled and commented on. More to the point, blogging seems resistant to such devices. It might be that there is no “box” to be had here, whether of Charles Wang’s tangible creation or anyone else's virtual one.

On the other hand, there is the matter of credibility. If a blogger desires to be viewed in such fashion, the wearing of team colors and openly cheering the home club doesn’t strike us as lending credibility to the blogger in question as an objective observer. A fan with a press badge might be a blogger, but let’s not confuse him with being a member of the media, alternative or otherwise. He or she is still a fan.

Can bloggers be fans? Well, yeah. That’s among the biggest “duh’s” in the conversation. Why did we get into this thing in the first place, to practice creative writing skills? We’ll wager that a substantial majority of bloggers started down this road precisely because he or she was a fan – either of the sport in general or of a particular team.

Similarly, do team bloggers have a responsibility to be objective with respect to the team upon which they focus their attention? Although there is nothing to prevent bloggers from practicing “good journalism, we don’t think that an “obligation” exists to be objective. That's entirely different from practicing journalistic etiquette in the press box and locker room -- it is a matter of conduct (whether wearing a jersey is a good idea, for instance) and the product. The reader will judge whether they want objectivity or not, and if they do…well, then those bloggers who serve merely to lead cheers won’t be read. On the other side, we don’t think bloggers have a responsibility to be unpaid marketing staff for hockey teams, either.

I don’t think the Islanders “failed” any new media test, as if there is an objective “test” upon which the club can be graded. By the same token, I’m not sure this is such a hot idea that signals anything in particular, that is isn’t merely two steps removed from, say, the “Dawg Pound” in Cleveland. Having a keyboard and wireless access might make it more civilized, but maybe it’s still just a fan group.

I don’t have a problem with what the Islanders are practicing, as long as one looks at it with their eyes open. The Islanders have started down their own road of combining blogging, credentialing and marketing. It might not be what the Caps have done (although it might be pretty similar, too, in the desired effect), but that makes it neither wrong nor right, neither better nor worse. At the moment, it is merely different. I don’t know that it can be fairly said that it is breaking new ground in journalism any more than it can be fairly said that it failed any journalistic test. Just the same, I don’t think that one can conclude definitively that this is a good idea any more than one can say it’s a hare-brained scheme.

I don’t think blogging is so far along that it can be friendly to even the most well-intentioned efforts to define and apply standards to it, and I don’t think it has developed enough so that it is clear what is or is not a good idea in its advancement. Let’s see where it goes and stop trying to put this thing in a box.