The Dallas Stars announced earlier this week that they're hiring Mark Stepneski to cover the team. He'll run a blog, StarsInsideEdge.com, and his work will appear on the club's official site. He's been writing about the Stars since 1996 on his personal blog, and covering them for ESPN Dallas for two years. It's just the latest in a trend of teams and even players hiring their own traditionally trained reporters (Deron Williams has his own beat writer). It makes sense—fans can't get enough coverage, and the team should give Stepneski insider access beyond that of any other reporter. But the symbiosis come with its own set of ethical issues.
Orange County Register readers know Rich Hammond as the USC basketball beat writer. Hockey fans will remember him as the guy who covered the Kings for more than a decade, first at the Daily News, and later for the Kings themselves. When the Kings hired him in 2009, they promised him full editorial independence (the Stars gave Stepneski the same assurances). But they didn't speak for the league.
Early in the lockout, Hammond published an interview with Kevin Westgarth, the Kings' union representative. The NHL pressured Hammond and the Kings to take the story down. Both refused, and Hammond quit in protest. The interview was later scrubbed from the site.
Stepneski told us in an email that he was aware of Hammond's situation, and it weighed on his mind before he took the Stars job. But he's "not overly concerned" about pressure from above.
"The Stars made it clear that they didn't want me to be a mouthpiece for the organization," Stepneski wrote. "They didn't want me to be state-run media. If they hadn't given me those assurances, I would have passed on the opportunity.
"If a situation did arise, how I react would depend on the issue and the circumstances."
A lockout is a unique situation, where NHL employees—including team-paid writers—aren't supposed to have contact with players. Those circumstances won't come up again for a long time. But it's clear that the NHL considers beat writers like Stepneski league employees rather than independent media members. More coverage and more writing jobs are always a good thing, but it's happening within a conflict-prone taxonomy that's increasingly becoming the norm.