written by R.L. Bynum
Pelletier brings deep hockey knowledge, award-winning career to McClatchy
In the turbulent newspaper industry that even cuts loose award-winning journalists because of downsizing, there are always plenty of outstanding candidates when jobs open.
Justin Pelletier was sports editor of the Boston Herald when he dealt with the painful front end of that equation last April. That was to McClatchy’s advantage on the back end when he became one of three Southeast deputy regional sports editors late last month.
He is the assigning editor for high school sports and Carolina Hurricanes coverage and will be based in Raleigh when he moves down from his native Maine. He’ll work with N&O sports editor Jessaca Giglio, who also is a deputy regional sports editor.
“It hit me kind of out of the blue. But at the same time, it was not entirely a shock when I look at the industry as a whole,” said Pelletier, who knew MediaNews Group, the Herald’s parent company, was going through a transition when he took the job in May 2018.
Pelletier, 41, came to the Herald after more than 18 years at the Sun Journal in Lewiston, Maine, where he was sports editor and then night managing editor. There, he won 24 Maine Press Association awards (11 of those first place), 13 Associated Press Sports Editors awards and three New England Newspaper and Press Association awards.
The Alden Global Capital hedge fund owns the chain, which laid off much of its staff in several rounds of layoffs. Pelletier was one of around a dozen at the Herald laid off in April. There is now one person overseeing four outlets as Northeast regional sports director.
There were moments of reflection after he was laid off. But, ultimately, his love for the business outweighed concerns about the state of the industry.
“It was really hard for me, and it still would be really hard for me, to try to reconcile not doing that anymore after living it for more than 20 years,” said Pelletier, who didn’t want to change careers. “I was prepared to do it if I had to. But, at the same time, I didn’t want to leave the profession.”
Pelletier, who filled the opening Todd Adams left in November, doesn’t think his layoff was pandemic-related and knows it wasn’t performance-related. It’s just a sad reality of the industry.
But being laid off during a pandemic isn’t all bad.
“The fact that it was during a pandemic made it a little bit easier to be a little bit more choosy,” said Pelletier, who is lucky to live in Maine, where he says COVID-19 exposure was at one of the lowest rates in the country. “My wife is a teacher and we were able to spend a full summer with our family, with the girls and myself and not have to necessarily worry about too much, given an ability to be patient with that. I started to get antsy again in the fall. At that point, it was shopping for the right fit because I didn’t want to just jump into the first job that was available.”
Another bonus of the pandemic is that he’s been able to do his job remotely while still living in Maine. He won’t move to Raleigh until the summer so that his twin 7-year-old girls can first finish the school year before moving.
Pelletier was just a few years older than his girls, at age 13, when his Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup and he decided that he wanted to be a sports journalist.
“I knew I wasn’t gonna be there on the ice as a player. And I always said I kind of want to be doing what they’re doing on the ice in terms of covering it, whether it was TV or the guys following them around, taking notes and things of that nature. So, I always wanted to be there doing that.”
He took to writing around that age as much as he loved sports.
“I’ve always been a writer at heart and I’ve always had that knack to write,” Pelletier said. “When I was younger, I did a report in eighth grade on the effect of the Beatles and 60s pop culture. My papers were always longer than the assignment when a lot of kids are trying to go shorter.”
He got his first steadily freelance journalism job at age 19 during his sophomore year at Boston University, thanks to pitching one story to the Lewiston newspaper. The school was going to retire the number of Maine native Travis Roy, the hockey player who was paralyzed after a hit against the boards.
“I called up the sports editor at the Sun Journal at the time and said, ‘Look, I’m going to be there. I’m a BU season ticket holder. I can get you 400 words on this Thursday retirement ceremony. Do you want it?’ ” said Pelletier, who was in some classes with Roy. “I called him up and he said sure. And then, after that, when University of Maine would come down to play BU or Northeastern or BC — anywhere I could get to on the subway or on the trolley — they would throw me a few bucks and I would throw them some stories and that lasted through college.”
Not long after college, he joined the Sun Journal as a staff writer. After five years, he became online assistant sports editor. Five years later, he became sports editor and 3½ years after that, he became night managing editor. He held that job until becoming the Boston Herald’s sports editor.
His media experience is much more diverse than most veterans of the newspaper business.
He took both the print and broadcast tracks in earning his journalism degree at Boston University in 2001 and has been a host for public-access cable television sports talk shows as well as working in radio. Pelletier was a Sunday morning DJ for the campus radio station, playing pop music from the Billboard charts.
He started doing hockey play by play when the Sun Journal got streaming rights to the Maine high school boys and girls hockey championships. (He’s in the above photo at the left doing a broadcast eight years ago.) This season, he’s done radio for high school basketball and hockey coverage.
He didn’t see the same talent for those high school games as he covered during eight years on the beat for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Lewiston Maineiacs. He covered a young Sidney Crosby as well as Kris Letang, Brad Marchand and David Perron when they played in that league.
During the 2013–14 season, the Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League played in Lewiston because of an arena dispute. Pelletier covered that team, which included the Canes’ Jordan Martinook.
He’s an analyst on hockey coverage, drawing from his years as a player, mostly as a defenseman, starting at age four. He still plays some pickup games and in men’s leagues.
These days, his top athletic skill shows up on miniature golf courses. He started playing on the Maine Mini-Golf Tour. If not for the pandemic, he planned to play in the Masters in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and the U.S. Open in Pennsylvania. He’s shot rounds in the 20s a couple of times.
Through his journalism career, he’s most proud of the project work he’s done on many topics that have garnered awards, including projects on the surge of interest in mixed martial arts, gambling in sports, auto racing and the immigration population surge in Lewiston.
“We now have 7,000-plus Somali immigrants,” he said of the Lewiston area. “And it changed the face of high school sports here. It created this whole soccer subculture that didn’t previously exist, and all of a sudden there’s a lot of power regionally.”
Even though he’s never lived outside of New England, don’t expect to hear a strong Boston accent from Pelletier, who speaks French fluently. To the contrary, his wife noticed a shift in his accent since he started the McClatchy job.
“Tonight at dinner, she even remarked, ‘are you speaking with a southern accent already?’ She’s like, ‘we haven’t moved there yet,’ ” Pelletier said. “I tend to subconsciously adapt to wherever I go.”
He’s looking forward to winters in North Carolina that don’t include four-degree mornings. It won’t take any adjustments overseeing high school and hockey coverage considering he’s been a hockey beat writer and has also covered high school sports.
“I’m a big believer in preps sports in terms of its value to the region, no matter how big the market is,” Pelletier said. “I think it’s an important piece of the local identity of a news outlet. There’s always a need for that. You’ve got to figure out the best way to get that to the people who want it the most while also satisfying every other metric you have to satisfy. It’s a challenge for sure but it’s something I’ll certainly want to look at.”
There will be challenges with preps coverage because McClatchy hasn’t had a Triangle-based full-time high school sports writer since Jonas Pope IV left that beat to be the N.C. State beat writer last summer.
Matt Stephens, the regional sports editor, says it’s possible that one will be hired but not before the fall because he hasn’t received approval to post the job. The N&O has depended on Langston Wertz Jr. and Jay Edwards of The Charlotte Observer, as well as a network of stringers, to fill the void.
With a deep knowledge of hockey and, unlike many in North Carolina, someone who grew up closely following the sport, he’ll bring a fresh perspective to The N&O’s hockey coverage.
“One of the great things about hockey fans in general — but also people who follow hockey, even on a cursory level — people love the history of things. But hockey fans are very loyal,” Pelletier said. “And I think one of the things that we have to remember is the fact that, from the very beginning, The N&O was first on the scene when it came to that. And I’m really looking forward to re-establishing that coverage for the region because it is the region’s team, and there’s so much that can be done in the world of hockey to connect the team with its fan base if we can be that conduit and really get people back interested in the ins and outs of the team but also the distinct personalities in the sport. In general, I think there’s certainly an avenue to do that.”
Given how well the Canes are playing so far this season, there should be plenty of stories to tell.
Carter leads state winners with three APSE awards
Andrew Carter of The News & Observer won three Associated Press Sports Editors awards in results announced March 8 to lead North Carolina winners.
Winning two individual awards were Alex Andrejev and Scott Fowler of The Charlotte Observer, Jeff Mills, who got laid off from the News & Record of Greensboro last year, and The Winston-Salem Journal’s Ethan Joyce.
Media outlets are divided into four divisions, with the largest 25% in Division A and the smallest 25% in Division D. The N&O competed in Division A; the Observer in Division B; the News & Record and Winston-Salem Journal in Division C; and The Herald-Sun and the Fayetteville Observer in Division D.
All winners were part of a group of 10 winners in each category.
Carter won in Division A for explanatory, long feature and breaking news stories. In Division B, Andrejev won for beat reporting (five stories were submitted) and a short feature. Scott Fowler won for columns (four submitted) and a long feature.
In Division C, Conor O’Neill, laid off last year, won for beat writing at the Winston-Salem Journal (five stories submitted).
In Division D with The Herald-Sun, Jonas Pope IV won for an explanatory story as did Emily Leiker, an intern last summer. Madeline Coleman, a 2020 UNC journalism graduate and former N&O/H-S correspondent now with Sports Illustrated, won for a short feature.
Pope, along with Parth Upadhyaya (now with the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pa.), Patrick Obley and Chapel Fowler (now with the Fayetteville Observer) won for projects for a package on ACC football records.
Former N&O writers winning Division A awards were Barry Svrluga, along with Dave Sheinin, of The Washington Post for an explanatory story and Steve Politi of NJ Advanced Media for columns.
UNC alum Mike Waters of The Post-Standard in Syracuse won in Division C for a game story. Unrelated to APSE, Waters also won the U.S. Basketball Writers Association’s Jim O’Connell Award for Excellence in Beat Reporting.
Seven win multiple NCPA first-place sports honors
Baxley, Paul Durham of The Wilson Times, Chapel Fowler, Ken Blevins of the Wilmington StarNews, C. Jamal Horton of the Independent Tribune of Concord and Shawn Krest of the North State Journal each won two first-place North Carolina Press Association awards. NSJ’s Brett Friedlander won four first-place honors.
Winners were announced Feb. 26.
In Division E (daily newspapers with circulation between 12,500 and 35,000), Baxley’s first-place honors came for sports columns and sports feature writing. Baxley also earned a third-place award for sports news reporting. His former Fayetteville Observer colleague Sammy Batten, who retired last year, won second place for enterprise reporting.
In Division E, Blevins won first-place honors for sports photography and sports feature photography in addition to a third-place award for sports photography.
Durham won in Division D (daily newspapers under 12,500 circulation) for sports enterprise reporting and sports feature reporting in addition to winning second place for sports columns.
In Division C (community newspapers with over 10,000 circulation), Horton won first-place awards for sports columns and sports coverage in addition to a third-place honor for sports feature reporting.
Chapel Fowler won for his work at the Chatham News + Record in Division B (community newspapers with circulations between 3,500 and 10,000) with first-place awards for sports feature writing and ledes. He also won second place for sports enterprise reporting and third-place honors for sports enterprise reporting and sports news reporting. In addition, he won third place for his work with The Herald-Sun in Division E for sports feature writing.
In Division A (community newspapers under 3,500 circulation), Krest got first-place awards for sports features and election/political reporting and Friedlander earned his for news enterprise reporting, sports enterprise reporting (both for the 100 in 100 series), sports columns and ledes. Krest also won second-place awards for best feature reporting and a profile feature and third place for ledes. Friedlander took home a second-place award for sports feature writing.
At The N&O in Division F (daily newspapers with more than 35,000 circulation), DeCock won first place for sports columns and third place for lighter columns. Earning second-place honors were Carter (for non-sports stories in the feature writing, news enterprise reporting and news feature writing categories), Ethan Hyman (Hugh Morton Photographer of the Year) and Robert Willett (for general news photography and for spot photography). Hyman earned third-place honors for sports photography and sports feature photography.
The Charlotte Observer in Division F won first place for sports coverage. Individual winners were Siner (first place, sports photography), Andrejev (first place, sports news reporting), Langston Wertz Jr. (second place, sports feature writing), Theoden Janes (third place, sports feature writing) and Scott Fowler (third place, serious columns),
At the News & Record of Greensboro in Division F, Woody Marshall won first place for sports feature photography. Winning second-place awards were two writers who were laid off last year: Ed Hardin for sports columns and Mills for sports news reporting. Third-place awards went to the staff for sports coverage and Joe Sirera for sports news reporting.
At the Winston-Salem Journal in Division F, it won second place for sports coverage. John Dell won first place for sports feature writing and third place for email newsletter. O’Neill won first place for sports enterprise reporting and third place for sports enterprise reporting. Winning second-place honors were Andrew Dye (sports photography), Allison Lee Isley (sports feature photography) and Patrick Ferlise (sports enterprise reporting). Ferlise was among the journalists laid off last year.
At The Herald-Sun, in Division E, Willett won second place for video.
At the Wilmington StarNews in Division E, it won first place for sports coverage. Other individual winners were Jackson Fuller (first place, sports news reporting), Joey Chandler (second place, sports feature writing), Dan Spears (third place, sports enterprise reporting), and Matt Born (second place, sports photography; second place, sports feature photography).
Other Division E winners included David Thompson (Asheville Citizen-Times, first place, sports enterprise reporting) and the Salisbury Post (third place, sports coverage)
At the Times-News of Burlington in Division D, Adam Smith won second place for sports feature writing.
Other Division D winners included Michael Lindsay (High Point Enterprise, third place, sports feature reporting), Drew C. Wilson (The Wilson Times, third place, sports feature photography) and Joe Hughes (The Gaston Gazette, first place, sports news reporting).
Other Division B winners included Dale Edwards (News of Orange, third place in sports feature reporting), Marty Simpkins (The Wake Weekly, second place, sports news reporting), Aidan Jensen (The Courier-Times of Roxboro, third place, sports coverage) and Amanda Dixon (The Butner-Creedmoor News, second place and third place, sports photography).
Other winners in Division C included Charles Curcio (Stanly News & Press, third place, sports photography) and J.J. Smith (Carteret County News-Times, third place, sports news reporting).
At the Mebane Enterprise in Division A, K. Adam Powell won first place for sports columns.
DTH’s Keyes wins first place NCCMA award
Brian Keyes of The Daily Tar Heel and UNC won the first-place award for sports writing in the larger campuses category (more than 6,800) at the N.C. College Media Association awards in results announced Feb. 27.
Silas Albright of The Appalachian and Appalachian State took home second place, and The DTH’s Macy Meyer earned third place. Honorable mentions went to Rachel Bilenki of the Technician and Ryan Wilcox of The DTH.
In the sports writing category for small campuses (6,800 or fewer) category, Trey Kawugule and Tori Maness of The Guilfordian and Guilford College took first place, with Anne Evans of The Peace Times and Peace University taking second and Colby Cook of the Elon News Network and Elon University winning third. Honorable mentions went to Calley Hall of The Guilfordian and Caitlin Rundle of the Elon News Network.
— For each game in the NCAA men’s and women’s tournaments, only five media credentials will be issued for outlets covering each respective team. In addition to those 10 credentialed reporters, 15 national reporters will be credentialed for each game. Television outlets, who for years haven’t been able to shoot video of games, will have little reason to be on-site since press conferences will be done though Zoom.
— For the fifth consecutive season, Cary native and former N.C. State star Debbie Antonelli (the subject of this column in March 2018) will be an analyst for the NCAA men’s tournament. Antonelli will be paired with play-by-play announcer Carter Blackburn in one of 10 broadcast teams. Lisa Byington will be the first female play-by-play announcer for the NCAA men’s tournament, paired with analyst Steve Smith.
— Dan Dakich, an ESPN analyst and radio talk-show host, doxed Duke lecturing fellow and podcast host Nathan Kalman-Lamb (the subject of this column in October) after the two had a back-and-forth on Twitter in the wake of Jalen Johnson leaving the Blue Devils program. No ESPN discipline has been announced for Dakich, who deleted his Twitter account. The exchange led Kalman-Lamb to receive plenty of hateful tweets and email messages from Dakich supporters.
— The on-air 10–noon Saturday local sports radio offerings have expanded, at least for this month. Since September, the “Inside Carolina Live” radio show with hosts Joey Powell and Tommy Ashley has aired on WCHL. This month, the Capitol Broadcasting Company’s “Culture State” podcast, which has been released each Wednesday since its January debut, will have an additional live Saturday broadcast on WCMC (99.9 the Fan) with co-hosts Chris Lea, WRAL-TV’s lead sports anchor (profiled in this column in February 2020), and Dennis Cox, a radio producer for “The Sports Shop” and “SportsChannel 8: The Radio Show.”
— According to Jon Lewis, both Duke-North Carolina games drew 1.87 million on ESPN, the least-watched games in the rivalry since 2007. The second game had a 1.0 rating after the first matchup produced a 1.1. Of the top-rated regular-season games, Duke-Michigan State on Dec. 1 on ESPN was No. 5 (1.96 million), the second Duke-UNC game was No. 7 and the first game was No. 9.
— Mills has taken a part-time, temporary job writing for UNC Greensboro.
North Carolina-related sports stories of note
McClatchy’s Brian Murphy wrote about Jennifer King, who grew up in Greensboro and has become a trailblazer as an NFL assistant coach in Washington.
In The N&O, Carter wrote that few, if any, teams traveled a longer road to March than Coach Levelle Moton’s N.C. Central squad.
On ACC Network, Kelsey Riggs reported on the bond N.C. State star Elissa Cunane has with her dad, who was severely injured in a bike accident when Elissa was two years old.
In The Daily Tar Heel, Zachary Crain wrote about the journey from the Georgia blacktops to college coaching as the daughter of Nigerian immigrants for North Carolina assistant women’s basketball coach Joanne Aluka-White.
A “Saturday Night Live” “Weekend Update” segment featured Kenan Thompson portraying LaVar Ball that included several Charlotte-area references. In The Charlotte Observer, Scott Fowler talked to “SNL” writer Bryan Tucker, who grew up in North Carolina, and got the backstory on how that segment came together.
In The Athletic, Michael-Shawn Dugar, Mike Sando and Jayson Jenks looked into what was behind the rift between former N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks.