November 18, 2010
If you're a web-savvy puckhead, the name Christopher Botta should be well known. He's a senior NHL writer for AOL FanHouse and runs one of the most popular team-specific independent hockey blogs around in NYI Point Blank, focusing on the New York Islanders.
Botta's a different animal than most bloggers in that he used to be part of Islanders management, serving as media relations VP for two decades. (The team, in fact, sponsored Point Blank when it began, before pulling out in 2009.) His professional history with the Islanders gives his coverage context and insight, his criticism extra bite.
The Islanders, however, have attempted to undermine that coverage by taking away his access and pulling his credential.
The ensuing controversy speaks to the unique nature of Botta's relationship with the team; and, as the NHL and the Professional Hockey Writers Association get involved in the dispute, to the rights of the media when it offers less-than-flattering coverage of teams and executives.
Botta dropped a note on Point Blank on Nov. 17 that the blog would be "closed indefinitely." This came after the Islanders informed him that they would no longer credential him.
Why? From what we've learned, there wasn't a specific instance that sparked the move, although Botta was a go-to source for other hockey media after the firing of coach Scott Gordon. Neil Best of Newsday attempting to find out more (subscription required):
The reasons behind the action are not entirely clear. Team spokesman Kimber Auerbach said, "We funded his blog for the first year. When that changed he went from reporting the news to making the news.''
Auerbach added, "We have not stopped his blog. There are lots of bloggers out there who write from their homes, their couch, outside the arena. He just won't have access.''
Botta's is a special case for several reasons. First, he's a professional blogger, and restricted access could affect that livelihood. Second, his blog was an essential part of Islanders coverage for many fans, especially after Newsday placed its online content behind a pay wall. But most of all, because his relationship with GM Garth Snow goes beyond the norm, having worked with him when Snow was a player and having had a friendship away from the rink.
What Auerbach is referring to by "making the news" is Point Blank's penchant for "advocacy blogging," leading the charge on issues for Islanders fans, and Botta's occasional moments in which he becomes the story.
For example, Snow and Botta had a conflict last trade deadline when Botta showed up at the rink and was denied access to the general manager while other writers had an audience with Snow. Botta then blogged about the snub on Point Blank in candid terms:
After today, of course, I will not request an audience with Garth. Contrary to what he may believe, an interview with him or any general manager is not a privilege for the writer. Far from it. An interview is simply a way to provide information to the readers -- the team's consumers. Not being able to speak with Garth did not prevent this blog from properly setting the stage for today's trade deadline three weeks ago. Not being able to speak with Garth does not prevent me from being able to present fair judgments on the development of team prospects.
All I miss out on is presenting his quotes straight to you. Judging by what I read today, again I did not miss much.
Unfortunately, that's the Islanders point: That Botta can still blog, opine and do this gig without the team providing access. And the NHL has enabled them to make that call.
The NHL has left it up to the teams to determine their own policies on bloggers, and the Islanders are using that wide breadth of a policy to make a determination on Botta. The other problem for Botta, or any writer in the Nassau press box that runs afoul of team management, is that the Islanders' press credentials clearly indicate the team has the right to pull them at its discretion.
The PHWA argument to that first issue is that Botta is part of its membership, having been accepted by the New York chapter, and that should supersede any blogger policy.
The second issue is a matter of professional courtesy between NHL teams and those who cover them. No, they're not going to like everything written about them. But pulling a credential is a nuclear option; if you don't like what's being written, no one is forcing you to talk with this journalist. It happens in every locker room, in every sport.
And Botta is a journalist, in the estimation of the PHWA, which has gone to bat for him in this dispute. Sure, there may have been complaints about Botta by the Islanders that go beyond content and speak to behavior or some violation of decorum. (We've heard Botta's speaking to players outside of designated interview areas was an issue raised, which is by no means a credential-losing sin.)
Those problems are minor, and could be hashed out without a "nuclear option." So this is essentially an issue of censorship, of undermining an important voice in the Islanders media and fan communities.
We're optimistic that with the NHL's involvement, this gets resolved. That Botta will be back on the beat, offering his unique brand of coverage to Islanders fans.
The irony here is that, under Botta, the Islanders created a "Blog Box" that was the first real attempt by an NHL team to bring alt-media into game-night coverage.
Two years later, their media relations department is telling one of the most respected bloggers in the web to write from his couch.
And the fans, the ones that still care about this mess of a franchise, are the ones that lose out.