My interest in hockey analysis has occasionally extended beyond the ice-level stuff and new stats to the growing battle between so called “new” media and the established main stream stuff.

The business model of classic media and journalism has been irreparably harmed by the rise of self-publishing (blogs) and crowd sourcing (wikis). As Professor Robert Pichard notes in this op-ed:

To comprehend journalistic value creation, we need to focus on the benefits it provides. Journalism creates functional, emotional, and self-expressive benefits for consumers. Functional benefits include providing useful information and ideas…

These benefits used to produce significant economic value. Not today. That’s because producers and providers have less control over the communication space than ever before. In the past, the difficulty and cost of operation, publication, and distribution severely limited the number of content suppliers. This scarcity raised the economic value of content. That additional value is gone today because a far wider range of sources of news and information exist.

The primary value that is created today comes from the basic underlying value of the labor of journalists. Unfortunately, that value is now near zero.

Today, ordinary adults can observe and report news, gather expert knowledge, determine significance, add audio, photography, and video components, and publish this content far and wide (or at least to their social network) with ease. And much of this is done for no pay.

The growing audience for “user created” content isn’t merely an effect of it’s availability via blogs etc. The content itself is not only easily created and accessible but in many ways it’s also fundamentally different relative to the MSM. This point is made by Kevin Carson in this lengthy investigation of the issue of “blogs versus classic journalism”:

Bloggers may well be unoriginal, in the sense that they only link to what’s already out there rather than reporting new information. But they use what’s out there in ways that most traditional newspapers refrain from doing. That is, they put it together. They quote a factual claim from one source, and then immediately provide a hyperlink to information that provides a factual context to the claim. They take bits and pieces of news from different sources, aggregate it, and draw conclusions as to its meaning.

This advantage of networked, online journalism—making better use of traditional journalism’s content than traditional journalism itself does—is only one particular illustration of the more general advantage of networked, open-source culture. Open-source culture is about eliminating proprietary boundaries on content, and leaving anyone and everyone free to build on and improve it without regard to organizational boundaries. The main difference between Windows and Linux lies not in what the primary code-writers do, but in what user and developer communities can do with other people’s code.

What is suggested by both of these articles in aggregate is the shifting locus of power from the news makers to the public at large (ie; the consumers). The walls that were previously erected between the news subjects/events, the media and the rest of us (largely in the form of high costs to publish or distribute content) are rapidly dissolving. Where previously media was a man standing on a hill with a megaphone, it is now a series of linked, interconnected conversations that can be both instigated and joined by an ever growing number of people outside the spheres of power and influence.

Perhaps the final, though eroding barrier between so-called amateur journalism and total convergence with the established methods is “access”. Access or accreditation is a boon both rarely granted and jealously guarded by members of the old guard. Access remains one of the few ways in which the subjects of the media – in our case, NHL teams – can exercise control over the messaging and perception of their brand in the market. Of course, this is also one of the ways that this particular mode of media currently undermines itself.

The discussion in the comment section of this David Staples article illustrates the point. The combatants in question are veteran MSM journalist John MacKinnon and recent blogger celeb and Colin Campbell nemesis Tyler Dellow. MacKinnon argues for the virtues and principles of the classic, team-focused beat reporter while Tyler suggests the compromises required of the man with access render his product bland and of limited value:

Showing up doesn’t just mean being in the press box (where replays are readily available), it means showing up in the locker room after games, at practice on off-days, taking people to lunch (exceedingly rare these days), catching guys coming into the arena pre-game, pre-practice, post-game, calling contacts at home or on cell phones, texting people, whatever keeps you in contact.

It’s reading body language in the locker room, catching the locker-room give-and-take, getting a sense of who’s close with who, and who is disliked.

It’s being there when the coach cusses out an error-prone player at practice, then talking with both of them post-practice

On and on and on.

The reporter’s first responsibility is to the story, actually, to getting as close as possible to the truth under often complicated circumstances and on deadline, day after day. It is not necessarily to the consumer.

As far as getting close goes, closeness comes with a price, which a lot of members of the Edmonton sporting press seem happy to ignore while pretending that the closeness is all important. If what getting as close to the subject as possible gets me, as a media consumer, is media guys who are compromised all over the place, pull punches in opinion pieces and stories peppered with stock quotes and obvious observations from the participants, guys who APOLOGIZE after asking an unexpected question, who cares about it?

Here we see the potential catch-22 for the accredited MSM journalist: to create and maintain the relationships required of access in the NHL means becoming…familiar with the subjects of their reporting. Forget the very human tendency to pull punches for ones acquaintances and friends, the unfortunate truth is NHL players, coaches and management aren’t going to play nice with a reporter or analyst who is perceived as difficult or overly critical. This, of course, results in the lowering of the value of access due to the necessary bowdlerization of the resultant content.

This issue manifested in the recent Chris Botta episode. A former NYI employee and an established, accredited writer, Botta’s access was recently pulled by the club due to some of the criticism he leveled at the organization via his popular blog Islanders Point Blank. A team that has long wandered the wilderness of failure, Botta’s site has stood as an important touchstone for it’s long suffering but loyal fans over the last few years. Unfortunately, the tension between providing the fans with a view and a voice inevitably fell beneath the priority of “controlling the brand message” (or, at the very least, not condoning criticism of the brand) for the Islanders. As such, New York used one of the few weapons remaining in it’s arsenal and shut the door in Botta’s face.

The move will likely backfire. The more teams and leagues resist honesty and criticism in the media that covers them, the more they neutralize the value of access to consumers and therefore it’s relevance and ultimately it’s power. They haven’t neutered Botta with this gesture. They’ve created a martyr. His popularity may well grow after this incident. His critiques may well be more pointed. His posts will just lack the odd sound-bite quote is all.

In the sense that everything that rises must converge, I think that ultimately we’re heading towards a media landscape where access is necessarily de-coupled from maintaining relationships. The schism is taking place now and at some point entities like NHL hockey teams will realize that consumers have other options which they will scatter to en masse if “access” continues to be synonymous with “public relations”.