Future of hockey media? More NHL teams add full-time independent beat reporters

In Sept. 2009, the Los Angeles Kings weren’t happy with the level of coverage the team was receiving from local media, so they decided to create their own press corps.

Rich Hammond, who covered the Kings for the Los Angeles Daily News, was hired as the team’s own beat reporter – writing about the Kings and traveling with the team, while on their payroll. The goal was to make it an independent outlet – Hammond’s work wouldn’t be subject to any editing or approval from the team. It was akin to what the New York Islanders had with former VP of media relations Chris Botta, who is now with Sports Business Journal, before his NYI Point Blank gig ended due to a lack of sponsorship from the team.

In Oct. 2012, Hammond’s tenure with the Kings ended abruptly after the NHL pushed back hard following an interview Hammond did with locked-out Kings forward Kevin Westgarth. Hired by the Orange Country Register to cover USC athletics, Hammond’s 3-year run with the Kings ended when it appeared his editorial control and independence were being challenged.

But that cautionary tale hasn’t stopped other beat writers from forging their own gigs with NHL teams.

“I saw that. It was a concern,” said Mark Stepneski, who left ESPN Dallas to become a beat writer for the Dallas Stars this season. “When that happened, you start thinking about things. I wouldn’t say I’m overly concerned about it, but it’s in the back of my mind.”

NHL teams have had official writers through the years for their websites – Bill Roose with the Detroit Red Wings, Mike Vogel with the Washington Capitals, Mike Ulmer of the Toronto Maple Leafs among them. The Kings upped the ante by framing Hammond as an independent voice covering the team despite being on the team’s payroll – more in line with how some Major League Baseball teams view their in-house writers.

The Stars are one of the teams that have hired in-house beat writers for this season. The Philadelphia Flyers hired Anthony SanFilippo from the Delaware County Daily Times for Flyers Inside Out, a blog on the official site that features game coverage and player interviews.

“I had been dropping hints about the possibility of something like this for a couple of seasons, but the Flyers and I never discussed this in earnest until last March,” said SanFilippo. “I met privately with Flyers President Peter Luukko and Senior Vice President of Business Operations Shawn Tilger. We had several meetings and phone calls over the course of a few months where we formulated the outline of the job and its description and I started with the team on July 1.”

So what does the job entail? It's “ever-evolving” said SanFilippo, whose duties range from writing to video projects to in-arena work on game nights to color analysis on Flyers and Phantoms broadcasts.

“We have metrics to measure the effectiveness of what I do, and based on that information, we can adjust accordingly to better suit the fans. That is my primary goal - to be that conduit between the team and its fans. I am very active on social media and I will use the blog as a forum to address fan concerns, offer opinion, and discuss rumors, all with a bit more of an informed opinion than I had as a beat writer,” he said.

Stepneski’s blog has its own URL, www.starsinsideedge.com, and hosts his reporting and Stars video features. Said CEO Jim Lites: “Based on his strong journalism background, his knowledge of our team and his overall professionalism, we're confident that our fans will turn to DallasStars.com and his blog, StarsInsideEdge.com, as the 'go-to' places for team news and analysis."

Stepneski is a different breed of journalist-turned-team-writer, in the sense that he started his hockey writer career as a fan.

Andrew’s Stars Page”, named for his son, was one of the first regularly-published team blogs, beginning its run in 1996. He worked for KXAD in Dallas as a writer/editor/producer, and transitioned to a beat writing gig for ESPN Dallas.

“I’m going to cover the team as I always have. I see myself as a relayer of information, about what’s going on with the team,” said Stepneski. “We’ve talked about it. They don’t expect me to be a mouthpiece for the organization, or state-run media. That doesn’t mean I don’t expect bumps along the way.”

The bumps may involve how two journalists handle the insider access they’ll be afforded in the job; i.e. the ability to get information before anyone else does about player transactions, lineup decisions and other breaking news.

“I'm not digging for scoops per se, but I do stay in touch with the decision-makers in the organization regularly so I can stay on top of what's going on, and if there's something to break, I'll break it,” said SanFilippo. “But I will be doing so much more. I will be writing daily stories -- both of the human interest variety and the usual daily beat coverage variety. I will be growing my blog to make it a regular stop online for Flyers fans.”

Said Stepneski: “I assume I’ll break some news, and I imagine I’ll get a heads up on some things. But I don’t expect them to spoon-feed me.”

Some might cast a cautious eye to teams covering themselves with in-house talent. Both Stepneski and SanFilippo maintain that it’s the quality of the work, rather than the signature on the paycheck, that should be judged.

Stepneski sees more traditional media members signing up with NHL teams.

“I would think so, with cutbacks in newspapers. I don’t think it’s a bad idea as long as the coverage is pretty straight forward and as unbiased as it can be,” he said.

“I would think a lot of teams are going to end up doing this.”