Saturday, December 22, 2007


Battle of Alberta Interviews David Staples

***Two weeks ago, Matt and I sent off a series of ten questions to Edmonton Journal writer and blogger David Staples. David was kind enough to take time out of his schedule to answer those questions, and they are provided below (Christmas preparation and our general slothfulness prevented them from being posted sooner). The transcript has been formatted for this blog, and a few editorial changes concerning spelling and/or grammar were made with David's approval. Matt and I have some follow-up questions for David, which we will ask in the comments section. We encourage others to ask David questions, or to make comments of their own. Thanks again to David for doing this with us.***

1) First off, please tell us a bit about yourself.

a) Were you born and raised in Edmonton?
I'm from Devon, Alberta. I moved to Edmonton in 1985.

b) What is your educational background?
Devon High School, grad 1980; Carleton School of Journalism, grad 1984; Southam Fellow at the University of Toronto, 1996.

c) How long have you been a reporter?
Since I started writing for the Carleton student paper in 1981. So that's 26 years.

d) How long have you been with the Edmonton Journal?
I started in May 1985, but did a short stint at the National Post in 1998.

e) What do you usually write about/cover?
From 1992-2004, I was a general interest columnist. As a reporter, I've covered major crimes stories, done investigative work on social issues and done numerous personality profiles.

I co-wrote a book on the 1992 mass murder at Yellowknife's Giant Mine and wrote a book on anti-smoking zealot Barb Tarbox.

I've explored the criminal mind through numerous court cases and profiles of murderers and serial killers, including Clifford Sleigh, the Sand brothers, James Roszko, and Michael White. I've also profiled admirable people, artists, architects, politicians and sports figures, including major profiles on Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Barry Fraser, John Muckler, 'Badger' Bob Johnson, Valery and Sasha Kharlamov, Jari Kurri, Esa Tikkanen, Paul Coffey, Cal Nichols, Kevin Lowe, Patrick Laforge and Craig MacTavish.

f) What are your favorite sports?
NHL, NBA, English soccer.

g) What are your favorite teams?
The Oilers and Manchester United.

h) How long have you been an Oilers fan?
Since 1972. I was there on opening day at the Coliseum in 74 or 75, whenever that was.

i) How much have you written about the Oilers, and hockey in general?
I've written about hockey mainly through major features on personalities, but have also done work on player-owner relations. I do this kind of story once or twice a year. Also, along with Tom Barrett and Cam Cole, I investigated and wrote the story on Grant Fuhr's cocaine addiction. I've never covered the Oilers as a beat reporter.

j) What sports sites do you read daily?
The Journal's Oil Country; Red Rants, a Manchester United blog; Hoopshype, the top NBA site; and, more recently, Oilogosphere blogs and boards.

2) You have been writing about the Oilogosphere for a couple months now, both on your blog and in the Edmonton Journal. What got you interested in the Oilogosphere?

I did a blog last year, The Cult of Pop, which was extremely wide-ranging. I found myself having to write about too many areas, and it was taking a lot of time to become expert enough to write well on so many topics (as light as they were), so I dropped it. In that blog, I wrote now and then about hockey, and this September, I found myself wondering what it meant that Sam Gagner had made the team at age 18 and was doing OK. What was the career trajectory for this kind of player? This isn't the kind of story our regular sports department does right now, so I started The Cult of Hockey with the idea I would post once or twice a week. Being an obsessive person, though, I'm blogging every day, and have permission to devote roughly one hour each morning of my actual work day to work on the blog.

I found out about the Oilogosphere last year when I did a piece on Chris Pronger. I had a Google Alert on Pronger and started to get reaction pieces on my Pronger piece from some Oilogosphere writers--mainly comments about my utter lack of worth as a journalist for not being hard enough on Cal Nichols, that kind of thing.

What are the things that you like about it? What are the things you dislike about it?

I like the strong writing and thoughtfulness on Battle of Alberta, the critical insights of Tyler Dellow at mc79, the wisdom and depth of knowledge of Lowetide, the wit of Hot-Oil and Covered in Oil, and the inventive use of stats at Irreverent Oiler Fans. Now, I've yet to fully comprehend all the new statistical information about hockey I've been discovering at sites like Behind the Net. Much of this information is compelling, but, so far as I can tell, it has yet to be stated in a way that is useful to most hockey fans.

How do your colleagues at the paper feel about your interaction with the blogging community?

Many reporters here love my blog and many come up through the day to talk Oilers with me. It's like they think I am some kind of expert, rather than an obsessed fan who likes to shout out his opinions, which is what I am.

I don't know what the sports guys think of my blog, other than John Mackinnon, who is a blog-savvy fellow himself, and interested in many of the same questions about sports as I am. John thinks I'm way, way too obsessed with the 1980s Oilers, which is true enough, but who asked him anyway?

I'm an early adopter here when it comes to the Internet. Frankly, I'm convinced it's not just the future, it's a big part of the present. This paper is making strides to get with the program, but not everyone here is aware of the imperative to strike out, as soon as possible, on the 'Net and to learn the new set of skills it takes to be relevant here. That said, I'm more convinced than ever that there's a place for the Journal and other media outlets on the Net. Our research, writing and news judgment skills apply directly to this world.

3) The Edmonton Journal is one of the owners of the Edmonton Oilers. This raises questions as to how the newspaper and its staff can truly be an independent, objective body reporting on issues relating to the franchise. Is there a conflict of interest? If not, why? What has the Journal done to eliminate any potential conflict? Can you please explain the set-up the Journal has as it relates to the Edmonton Investors Group, in particular the EIG’s Board of Directors and the voting procedures? [ed. this question was posed prior to the most recent offer by Daryl Katz to buy the Oilers]

I've not talked to our former publisher Linda Hughes about this, but my understanding is that when Cal Nichols was working hard to get investors, he put a lot of pressure on the Journal, just like he did every other business with money, to do its civic duty and buy into the Oilers.

In the newsroom, when we heard this had happened, we all hoped we might get the odd scoop from being part owners, but so far as I know, this has never happened. That's because Linda was smart enough to completely separate the Oilers stuff from the newsroom, just as most business matters are separated from the newsroom.

So a bigwig fellow in our business department, I'm not sure who, is our contact with the Oilers. Once a year, he goes to general meetings. He is not on the 10-person boards, so he is no insider. He abstains from all votes, as I understand it, as a nod to the Journal being impartial. He gets the chairman's message from Cal Nichols, whatever that is, and no one in the newsroom, so far as I know, hears about it. I suspect he doesn't find out much from Nichols, save for the general direction of the team. Nichols himself isn't much involved with day-to-day operations of the team, and we have nothing, zilch, zero, to do with that.

The Journal has been part owner of the team for a decade now, but in the newsroom, this never comes up. No one talks about it, thinks about it. It's a non-issue, and we report on the team as we would if our parent company, now Canwest, didn't own any stake in it at all.

4) Edmonton has a reputation for being a difficult place to play hockey. Part of that reputation comes out of a belief that the players face tough media scrutiny here. Yet to many, the hockey media in Edmonton do very little in terms or scrutinizing or criticizing the team, management and ownership. Do you think it’s the media’s job to hold the team and the organization to account?

The mass media here must treat the Oilers as an entertainment, as a political player, and as a civic obsession. So, yes, we have to ask questions about the team in regards to business and political matters, everything from ticket prices to arena-building issues. The Oilers are a uniquely public business, the beneficiaries of indirect public subsidy and the holders of a public trust, this hockey team being the single biggest part of Edmonton entertainment culture.

If so, do you believe the hockey media in this city do so?

On some issues we could do a better job, but this doesn't come down to our intent so much as it comes down to our own competency. For instance, I was rating Lowe's skill as a GM earlier this year, and made a passing comment that he signed a top player in Souray. This was my own incompetence at work, as I hadn't yet studied the Souray signing in depth. Now that I've had a chance to do that, I'm more critical of the signing.

Of course, it's not our job to ask every single tough question that every fan wants asked, and we're not suck-ups, jerks and cowards if we fail to do that. If anyone reading this thinks the media should ask the tough questions to Lowe, I'd tell them to stop whining, pick up the phone and call Lowe, or e-mail him, and ask him their tough questions on their own.

We're not doctors or lawyers here in the media. We're not professionals. You don't need a license to ask anyone questions in this society.

We in the media are just gadflies, and anyone can do that job--me, you, anyone--and if people aren’t happy with the way we're doing the job of asking tough questions, then I encourage them to do it on their own. And, of course, some of you guys are doing that, but many of you could do more, such as starting to interview people directly rather than relying on mass media types to do this work.

There’s a bit too much passive aggressive whining on the Oilogosphere about the mass media. So, again, before anyone complains about the mass media again, why not try to contact the Oilers directly and see if you can get an answer?

Do you believe they ask the tough questions? Do you think the hockey media in Edmonton get an unfair ride from critics, in particular critics throughout the Oilogosphere (including BoA)?

I used to be really critical of beat reporters myself, but I'm not so much any more, not now that I've seen up close the big entertainment machine that the NHL is, how tough all the travel is, how tough all the deadlines are, how tough it is just to crank out that copy on a daily basis and deal with the players and the coach and the Oiler bosses.

You go to the press box, it appears like those guys don't even get to watch the game they are so busy writing throughout the action. It is a quiet, serious place, that press area.

This is a difficult job, not a dream job, certainly not my dream job. So, yes, I think there is way too much uniformed criticism of beat hockey writers. That said, reporters can get too tight with their subjects in all aspects of journalism, and that can happen covering a hockey team, too. So it's important for reporters to be aware of all aspects of the various issues out there and find out all they can about these issues.

Sometimes beat reporters don't do this, but sometimes they don't have the time to do it, either, so I always keep that in mind when I'm tempted to judge them. They live their lives at a terribly difficult pace.

5) More and more teams are posting transcripts, podcasts, and videos on their own sites; put another way, teams are providing fans what they want them to know directly. The logical niche for a reporter who spends a lot of time around the team, then, would seem to be providing fans with the other information; the stuff the team might not be keen to have the fans know. However, there are some issues there too: traditionally reporters have been pretty discreet about this stuff, as the "price of access". Is there a future for the team beat reporter, and if so, what kind of value will they be providing to their readers?

The future of beat reporting is going to be inside information, talking to sources, finding out things other don't know. The future is aggressively making calls and getting answers. Whoever does this best will get the most readers.

The future will also be to sift though all the information out there and put together a package of information that the average fan can digest in about five or ten minutes.

And the future will be to get close enough to the athletes to write about them in a moving and human manner, because we all have a hunger to understand more about the human experience, especially as it is distorted and changed by the experience of big time NHL hockey.

6) Who are the unnamed "sources close to the team" that journalists like Jim Matheson use? I'm not asking you to give away the game here, but if you were to take Matty's equivalent in another NHL city, who is he getting his information from? Is it the GM? The guy who empties the GM's garbage? Someone in between, like an assistant GM?

I don't know who Matty's sources are. I will let you in on one trick, though. Say you are reading a story about a player wanting to be traded, and the main thrust of the story is attributed to "sources say." My advice is to check down further in the story, see if the player's agent is quoted. It could well be that part of the interview with the agent was off-the-record, and this is the "sources say" part, while the rest was on the record.

And regarding "leaks" in general: are leaks from an NHL team generally info that the GM actually wants to keep secret, or is it info that the GM wants the public to know, but wishes to pretend is confidential (for whatever reason)? This I don't know.

7) Kevin Allen, president of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, has repeatedly informed us that professional journalists are accountable in a way that bloggers are not. However, major daily newspapers in NHL cities print rumours and speculation all the time that end up being false.

Well, since we work for publications which are more easily the targets of lawsuits, we are accountable in that very important way. We have to be careful about what we write because it could cost tens of thousands of dollars if we defame someone. This is not a small issue, and I'm sure the first time a blogger on the Oilogosphere is sued -- and this could easily happen as people write unsubstantiated defamatory stuff here all the time -- then bloggers will realize just how accountable they are as well.

But, from bitter experience, newspaper reporters already know all about this issue.

We are also accountable to our editors, many of whom believe strongly in responsible journalism. Now, some of you guys also believe in responsible journalism, but that's not imposed upon you from above, that would be an admirable personal trait that you have somehow acquired. Many, many reporters also believe in responsible journalism, too. So, if they reported a trade rumour, they would present it as a rumour, not something to put much weight on. From experience, I know if Matty starts writing about a trade rumour, that is smoke that is worth paying attention to, because Matty is close to the fire (NHL managers and agents). Otherwise, I disregard trade rumours.

Are you aware of any professional hockey journalists or editors who have been fired, demoted, reassigned, or otherwise reprimanded for printing false information?

No. Not at the Journal. I've heard of Canadian journalists fired for plagiarism, though.

An outsider's impression is that since two or more people are people are involved in printing false information in the MSM (Main Stream Media), that absolves the individuals involved from suffering consequences. Is this impression wrong, and if so, why?

I'm not sure what kind of false information you mean. I'd need an example to answer this.

8) I know of only one hockey blog that made a name for itself by printing dubious and uncorroborated speculation, and even it has evolved a lot, away from straight rumour-mongering. Given the blogs truly are free to publish whatever speculation they please, without the constraints of an official editorial policy, why do you think this is?

Well, I think that blogs that publish rumours quickly lose their appeal. In the end, we all only have so much time, and we're not going to waste our time on useless information that never goes anywhere. I started to read Eklund, for instance, and even wrote a blog post about one Eklund rumour. I will not do that again, I suspect, and I never read Eklund anymore. Why would I waste my time on rumours he himself admits are almost never true? So if people want to write about rumours and such stuff, that's their business, but their business will dry up unless they become credible sources of real news.

9) Name five things you would change about the NHL if you were the league’s Commissioner. Changing nothing or less than five things is acceptable.

• Shrink goalie equipment back to 1980s levels.
• Go back to each team playing the other teams at home and away at least once per season.
• Get rid of the point for a shootout or overtime loss. If you lose, you lose.
• Commit to the Olympics into infinity.
• Institute mandatory drug testing where the testers show up unannounced, even in the off-season.
• Crack down on boarding, the least called offence in the NHL right now.

10) And finally, some more general questions.

a) Who is your favorite current Oiler?
Ladislav Smid.

b) Who is your favorite current non-Oiler?
Sidney Crosby.

c) Who is your all-time favorite Oiler?
Wayne Gretzky

d)Who is your all-time favorite non-Oiler?
Yvan Cournoyer

e)What is your greatest hockey memory?
Henderson scores!

f) What is your worst hockey memory?
I was in on a breakaway on my supposedly no-contact senior league team, got slashed from behind in the face, had my front tooth knocked down my throat. And I got the penalty when I attempted to take revenge.

g) Who is your favorite sports writer?
New York columnist Jimmy Cannon of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, who, according to Ernest Hemingway, wrote to end writing.

h) Who is your favorite non-sports writer?
Fyodor Dostoyevsky.


I have a lot of problems with the statements in #4. There's no way any of us could just call up Kevin Lowe and ask him some questions. You may not need a license to ask questions, but you need a press pass to get access. Nor do I think we should have to. It's not our job, literally. We don't get paid to ask questions. Journalists do. It's an abdication to say, "well, why don't you call them and ask them things?"

Agreed. Although whenever I'm about to suggest that local media is in cahoots with EIG, there will be one article that goes against the grain and criticizes EIG (usually Dan Barnes) or a somewhat begrudging editorial.

Local media has been soft on the Oilers. Way too soft. But then, I think an equally important factor has been the mistake of deciding that the details behind team finances and new arenas are simply boring to readers. Look around the web: thousands of giant nerds want to read about this stuff, but the business side of the Oilers is mostly untouched (which explains why we seem to find out whether, say, the Oilers made a profit in 2002 anecdotally rather than a story in itself) or worse, talked about and debated when it's far too late (read: the new arena).

PS: Matheson's secret source is a shoeshine boy outside the Journal's offices on 101 Street. He is wise beyond his years.

Tip of the cap to Staples for answering all of this. Guys like Grabia and myself, at the very least, are media junkies and it's fun to get a peak behind the curtain.

As for his responses...

On some issues we could do a better job, but this doesn't come down to our intent so much as it comes down to our own competency. or instance, I was rating Lowe's skill as a GM earlier this year, and made a passing comment that he signed a top player in Souray. This was my own incompetence at work, as I hadn't yet studied the Souray signing in depth.

I give David a bit of a pass on this one. As he said in this post, he's not a beat reporter or one of the local big opinion guns on the Oilers. That's not his role. Truth be told though, his answer probably applies equally well to a lot of people whose primary purpose IS covering the Oilers. I don't think that they should get off the hook quite so easily.

And, of course, some of you guys are doing that, but many of you could do more, such as starting to interview people directly rather than relying on mass media types to do this work.

As always when talking about this in the context of the Oilers, it bears mention that Alan Watt told the guys at Japers Rink that he didn't talk to bloggers.

We're not doctors or lawyers here in the media. We're not professionals. You don't need a license to ask anyone questions in this society.

I'd love to see how this idea would go over in a poll of Staples' media brethren. Many of them have explicitly indicated that they don't feel this to be true.

This is a difficult job, not a dream job, certainly not my dream job. So, yes, I think there is way too much uniformed criticism of beat hockey writers.

I just don't buy this. I mean, I buy the part about it being a difficult job. What I don't buy is that it's that hard to ask the real questions or to get the story proper. I'm cherrypicking when I point to the Jones story on Nichols announcement but I mean, the guy first blows the quote and then comes up with something completely nonsensical as a closer to his article. I think that for most of us, the largest complaint is that the eye cast on Oilers statements isn't doubting enough - there's too much taking things at face value. That, to my mind, has nothing to do with how difficult it is to get answers or the pace of the job but simply thinking things through critically.

This is not a small issue, and I'm sure the first time a blogger on the Oilogosphere is sued -- and this could easily happen as people write unsubstantiated defamatory stuff here all the time -- then bloggers will realize just how accountable they are as well.

I'm not sure that I buy this. Any chance we could have some examples? Personally, I think the use of copyrighted images is a far more likely source of a lawsuit.

AndY: That's a fair comment that media are paid to ask questions, while you guys are not, so we shouldn't easily be let off the hook when we fail. I agree with that. If I fail to ask a tough question in an interview -- and it has happened! -- I beat myself up. You can't write a strong story if you don't have the guts to ask the hard ones.

And it's also a big problem if mass media types write things and don't know what the hell they're talking about, or consistently fail to delve into important aspects of a story. These kind of things happen, as all of you guys know.

I'm not aware of the Oilers attitude towards bloggers, and whether or not you guys could get a press pass. I know that when it gets busy, such as at playoff time, it's not easy for anyone who doesn't regularly cover the Oilers to get a press pass. But it's possible (likely?) if you called up the Oilers PR machine, told them about the readership numbers for your blogs, that you might get their attention, if you had the time or the desire to go that route, and cover a game as a reporter. Believe me, even if this isn't your job to do this, you should do it as an exercise two or three times, get a feel for how it works. I'd be very interested to read what you thought of the whole NHL entertainment machine.

Tyler: I'm not sure I understand your point about getting sued, but, let me assure you, this could come about, not to you, as you are even-handed, but some guys are making comments that are clearly malicious and defamatory, and would fail to a fair comment test in court.

In the newspaper industry, we work hard to avoid any lawsuits, as we are a big target and the laws of this land kick the hell out of journalists. If you get sued, you are in big trouble, as you must prove the truth of your statement in court, an extremely difficult thing to do.

A blogger or poster could very easily be sued, and, let me assure you, it will be far more devastating to them than they might imagine. I've never been sued, but I've had some people damn angry with me and threatening me, and I've had to scramble to prepare a defence, and it's about the worst possible way to spend a few days that you can imagine.

Well, Merry Christmas, gents. I'm enjoying doing this work on the Oilers, learning a helluva lot about hockey, and, most of all, thinking a lot harder about how statistics might help us understand the game better.

great read. keep up the good posting, all of you :)

We're not professionals.

I for one am maintaining my amateur status so I can journalize in the Olympics.


I'm not sure that I buy this. Any chance we could have some examples? Personally, I think the use of copyrighted images is a far more likely source of a lawsuit.

What about Frank "Vezina" D'Angelo's suing of Neate Sager, exactly for the kind of issues that DS brought up (libel). D'Angelo was angry about Sager ruining his good public reputation. (This of course was back when D'Angelo still had a toy brewery to play with, i.e., before his sugar-daddy Barry Sherman took it away). Here's an html-less link to a bunch of posts from Sager's site, in 2 pieces:

You could argue that Sager's position as copy editor for the Ottawa Sun makes him somewhat more "licensed" as a journalist than most bloggers. But the suit was directly aimed at things published on his blog, and not things published in the Ottawa Sun (or elsewhere in the MSM). But still, it was blogging that got him in hot water with D'Angelo, as the clear boundary b/w blogosphere and MSM was blurred. So maybe DS is right when he suggests that it'll take a lawsuit to further blur the boundary.

Anyway, great blog, great post, really interesting issue!! Thanks to all involved, and happy holidays!

(From a Canucks fan jealous that there aren't quality blogs like this for his team.)

I am aware of the Sager case, as well as a couple others where bloggers have been sued not for what they said, but for what people in the comments said.

Merry Christmas to you as well, Antro. I wouldn't give up on those Canuck blogs, though. There are some great ones out there. I would suggest you consider finding a better team, however. ;)

Are any of those cases Canadian Andy?

Are any of those cases Canadian Andy?

At least one is. I'll send you the links.

Good work guys ... I love the back and forth commentary between the Bloggers and Staples. Thats what males blogs great - the conversational aspect.

I have been reading your blog for almost 2 years now (but not commenting a lot for whatever reason - I have to make a point to leave me 2 cents) and its very interesting to see all this 'come of age' and progress so to speak.

Even moreso interesting that I have been working in Information Technology for over 13 years and am an avid Oiler fan. Its great to see two of my passions 'collide' in a meaningful way.

I know I have always told people to visit the Oilgosphere regularaly for kicks or even if you want to delve deeply into people the 'regular peoples' thoughts on the team and the stats side of hockey.

So, keep up the good work guys!!


Thanks for taking the time. A thoroughly enjoyable interview, even if I'm still deeply suspicious of Gary Lamphier's motives.

Merry Christmas

The Journal has been part owner of the team for a decade now, but in the newsroom, this never comes up. No one talks about it, thinks about it. It's a non-issue...

Let's play "Spot the logical leap." I'm quite convinced that nobody hitting keys at the Journal is influenced by the paper's ownership position. That doesn't really explain why a prevailing norm of full disclosure that would be taken for granted in the newsroom is considered irrelevant on the sports page. It will presumably be a moot point when the Katz deal goes through but, really, someone should have been talking about it and thinking about it.

I also don't think defamation chill has much to do with why many fans are frustrated with the sporting press (though the Pronger affair may be an exception). Nor do I think "The future of beat reporting is going to be inside information," but in this regard I suspect my difference with David boils down to our different roles in the business (world-class investigative reporter vs. lazy, surly dilettante). I feel like the unmet demand is for outside information, ranging from the whimsical or openly subjective to the analytical.

Right now it is scandalously rare for beat writers to contribute useful inside info OR help us understand the game OR amuse us. Are they even enjoying themselves? David makes their harried, exhausted lives sound like one long dentist visit. If there's no time to do anything but transcribe the coach's postgame comments, maybe the poor bastards can be allowed off the treadmill?

Appreciate his answering the questions but why are there journalists (not professionals? huh?) if not to ask questions? I am being a lazy whiner if I don't call Kevin Lowe directly and ask him about the direction the team is taking? I shouldn't rely on paid journalists who have access to these guys to ask critical questions?

Does this logic apply to the arena of government as well?

You admit that you don't have the guts to ask the tough questions and you move on. Hey, he's not alone in this approach but he's part of a corps of reporters who allowed the "EIG are poor" train to run on time for many years and for that, he doesn't get a free pass from me.

That's no surprise but when reporters let the EIG use their forum for their agenda and when no one calls Lowe on the carpet for not knowing the cap was going up, what the fuck do you expect me to say?

You could argue that Sager's position as copy editor for the Ottawa Sun makes him somewhat more "licensed" as a journalist than most bloggers.

Well, that's not how the benevolent employer saw it, judging by how much support — professional and moral — they offered.

FYI and FWIW, it might have been nice if you had pointed out that no libel claim was ever proven, or admitted to. Thanks for understanding.

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