The Blog War for Press Credentials Rages Beyond Sports

Win McNamee

Sports blogs aren't the only online media outlets still fighting for insider access to the subjects they cover. The fight by SCOTUSblog to maintain its access to the U.S. Supreme Court occupies another front in the war for press credentials.

If you’ve been involved in sports blogging for any significant amount of time, either as a writer or a reader, you’re probably aware of the never-ending battle for press credentials with professional sports teams. Credentials, those magical passes which grant access to locker rooms, post-game conferences, and press booths, have been sought by web-based reporters for years with varying levels of success.

That success often depends on the team. As far back as 2006, NBA teams like the now-defunct Seattle SuperSonics began opening their doors to members of "non-traditional" media outlets. In the NHL, forward-thinking (and business savvy) teams like the New York Islanders welcomed bloggers into the press fold around the same time.

Others weren’t so quick to embrace online media upstarts. In a 2010 New York Times piece on proposed NHL blogger restrictions, the Colorado Avalanche was specifically listed as a team which was "less than thrilled by some of the fan-based bloggers who opine about the team and the people who run it," and therefore had no interest in granting credentials to sites like Mile High Hockey. Efforts by MHH to gain the kind of access to the team already enjoyed by traditional outlets like the Denver Post have been routinely rejected over the years. This policy has caused much consternation both here and among other Avalanche bloggers like James Gralian (aka Tapeleg).

This battle for blogger validation is more than just mere team access, however. Six or seven years ago, when sports blogs like Deadspin were seeing exponential increases in both web traffic and in "traditional" media scrutiny, a major backlash against new media sports coverage erupted. You may recall a contentious roundtable interview on Costas Now in which stalwart establishment reporters Bob Costas and Buzz Bissinger ambushed Deadpsin founder Will Leitch in 2008. And the zombie insult of "losers in their underwear blogging from their mothers’ basements" somehow persists even today. (Full disclosure: I'm currently at my office wearing a shirt, tie, jacket, and pants, for whatever that's worth.)

It is now 2014, and the blogger battle rages on. In fact, a new front has opened, this time in the far more serious world of the United States Supreme Court.

The biggest, most comprehensive web site covering the Supreme Court is not run by a major, traditional media outlet like the New York Times or the Washington Post. It’s an independent site called SCOTUSblog.com. Yes, it actually has "blog" in its name! Founded in 2002 by attorney Tom Goldstein, SCOTUSblog now employs over twenty people who cover the workings and opinions of the Highest Court in the Land around the clock. Major cases, such as the challenge to the Affordable Care Act in the case of National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, have spiked daily traffic above 1 million page views. SCOTUSblog has also received awards from the American Bar Association, the National Press Club, and the Society of Professional Journalists, along with a Peabody Award in 2013. No other blog has ever won a Peabody.

All this popularity and journalistic credibility hasn’t helped SCOTUSblog maintain its Supreme Court press credentials, however. Recently, the U.S. Senate (in charge of such decisions) stripped the site of its access to the Court. Only through the credentials of reporter Lyle Denniston, who has credentials from another media outlet, has SCOTUSblog maintained its presence in the Court’s press room when arguments are heard and opinions announced. Without Denniston, the site would have no such access at all.

SCOTUSblog has vigorously protested their loss of credentials, and filed an appeal with the Senate’s Standing Committee of Correspondents. However, today the Committee denied that appeal, affirming its decision to revoke the pass on numerous grounds, including what it claims is a lack of "editorial independence" from Goldstein, who practices before the court and is therefore – in the Committee’s view – a government lobbyist whom SCOTUSblog must distance itself in order to be a legitimate media outlet. Goldstein posted a response to the Committee’s decision this morning titled "The Walls Erected by Traditional Media." A post with that title could easily be written by independent bloggers in all kinds of fields, including sports.

There is significant crossover between the struggles of SCOTUSblog and sites like Mile High Hockey. Issues of perception and editorial oversight are consistently contentious. Perhaps SCOTUSblog insists it is a serious journalistic outlet more forcefully and convincingly than fan-oriented sports blogs like Mile High Hockey, but the result is no different – both are squeezed out of the coverage game in favor of more "traditional" outlets.

Even if the U.S. Senate is right to exclude SCOTUSblog from the Supreme Court press room, sports teams barring high quality fan and community blogs from stadium press boxes makes less sense. The Supreme Court is an important government institution. Press access to the Court may theoretically, if not in practice, be limited to those who embrace strict journalistic standards and are employed by truly unbiased organizations.

But though they often insist otherwise, sports teams, which rely on marketing and fandom to generate and maintain revenues, don’t occupy the same space. They are private businesses who are more often sullied internally than they are by the unwashed masses of the sports blogosphere. Giving sites like MHH access to press boxes, post-game conferences, and even locker rooms, poses no threat at all to the long-term success and popularity of sports teams like the Colorado Avalanche. In fact, it would enable people who are already helping teams sell their product to increase exposure beyond the limited audiences of regional newspapers. And that can’t be a bad thing.

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