Media Musings: Young Pope Grows From Hurricanes Fan to Hawks Beat Writer


by R.L. Bynum

Raleigh’s Pope gets major professional beat right out of college

Ben Pope had just graduated from Northwestern and was about four hours into a 13-hour drive back home to Raleigh when he got a call that would start his post-college sports writing career on an uncommon trajectory.

A three-month “residency” covering high school sports for the Chicago Sun-Times finished in March, and was the last requirement to earn his journalism degree. He didn’t know what his first job out of college would be, and he already had turned down the chance to cover preps for a Texas newspaper.

As Pope was driving through Indianapolis, Chris De Luca, the Sun-Times’ deputy managing editor for news and sports called. De Luca told Pope that he would likely be interested in hiring Pope to be the newspaper’s Chicago Blackhawks beat writer.

“It really was a dream come true,” said Pope, who continued his April 4 drive to North Carolina after the call. He had an extended visit home since it took a few weeks for everything to get finalized, and he didn’t start until May 20. 

The 22-year-old Leesville Road High School graduate is the youngest writer on the Sun-Times’ 14-person sports staff.

It was perfect for Pope because he not only had grown to love the Chicago area while attending college, but he had cultivated a love for hockey ever since the Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup when he was 9 years old in 2006.

“I just remember, the next three hours or so of the drive, I just couldn’t stop thinking about how awesome it would be if that did come to fruition because, certainly, I followed the Hurricanes really closely for a large part of my life,” said Pope, whose first location choice was Chicago and his second choice was Raleigh.

He lives north of Chicago in an apartment in Edgewater, about a 20-mile drive south of the Northwestern campus.

The opening Pope filled is one example of The Athletic’s domino effect on many newspapers around the country. 

Adam Jahns, one of the Sun-Times’ three Chicago Bears reporters, left for The Athletic in April and Jason Leiser, who covered the Hawks last season, filled that job on the Bears beat.

“I think I’m not alone in that,” Pope said of benefitting from The Athletic luring writers away from newspapers. “The Athletic has hired a few straight-out-of-college writers, but not many. I think the big impact for young, aspiring sports writers like me has been the back-hirings, not just here but at a ton of other places, too. It’s made certainly a big impact on creating more jobs and suddenly a lot of papers that have been raided by The Athletic have openings that may not have existed four years ago.”

Leiser came to the Sun-Times from The Palm Beach Post (where he covered the Miami Dolphins) last summer after Mark Lazerus, who had covered the Hawks for six seasons, left for The Athletic.

“Hockey is probably my favorite sport, but I didn’t really expect to be covering it right off the bat,” Pope said. “I was mainly applying for jobs covering high school or college basketball or football.”

Even though he was only covering preps during his internship at the Sun-Times, he planted the seed by mentioning to his editors a few times that he really liked hockey.

“It seems like they had a difficult time finding a qualified hockey writer just because there is a much smaller pool of people who are intensely knowledgeable about the sport than others,” Pope said. “I think that the fact the sports editor knew I knew a lot about hockey was part of why he was willing to turn to me because he knew that was more of a rare treat than knowing a lot about football.”

Pope is just glad that he turned down that Texas job.

“I didn’t really want to move to Texas and, talking to my advisers, they said I could probably get a better opportunity at some point,” he said. “I strongly considered that, but ended up turning it down and just hoping something better would come along.”

He’s written about hockey in some form for much of his life, beginning with his first blog post about the Canes for Bleacher Report at age 13. He’s quick to point out that, in 2010, Bleacher Report was “a totally irrelevant blog, basically, and they let anybody sign up. So, I used a pen name (Mark Jones) and wrote some really terrible articles. Really bad.”

He didn’t have to fill out any forms or submit a Social Security number and assumed that they didn’t realize he wasn’t an adult. He used the pen name to make sure that they wouldn’t figure that out. 

“I was lucky to know from a young age that I wanted to go into sports journalism,” Pope said. “Certainly, it’s not an easy industry to get into. Once I knew I got into Northwestern, I was pretty confident I would be able to do it, to some extent because the name carries a lot of weight and I knew I’d get good experience here.”

Pope wrote about the Canes for Bleacher Report for more than seven years, then was a Canes columnist for a little over a year for Today’s Slapshot before that website folded.

“By the time I was in high school, I was better than most high schoolers at writing, and I had been doing it for a while, so I had some experience,” Pope said. “But I wasn’t covering anything live. I didn’t have a credential or anything. I was just blogging, basically. I loved writing at that point, but I didn’t really know the full scope of journalism. That really came about my first few years at Northwestern.”

He didn’t write about the Canes as a credentialed reporter until 2015, the summer after his freshman year at Northwestern, when he wrote a few Canes stories during a sports writing internship with The News & Observer. The Mark Jones name also was on his Twitter account until he started that internship.

He was the editor-in-chief of the summer version of The Daily Northwestern after his sophomore year and was a sports writing intern at The Philadelphia Inquirer after his junior year. During school years, he had various roles with the school newspaper: Gameday editor in fall 2018, sports editor in spring 2018 and managing editor in winter 2018. He covered football, men’s basketball and women’s lacrosse.

Since starting full time at the Sun-Times, there have been a couple of intersections between the team he grew up following closely and the team he now covers.

During his N&O internship, he wrote about a goalie prospect Alex Nedeljkovic, who was the winning goalie when Pope covered the Charlotte Checkers’ title-clinching Game 5 victory in the Calder Cup Finals over the Chicago Wolves. The second Hawks trade after he took over the beat was the deal that sent the Calvin de Haan from the Canes to Chicago

“It was a little weird. But it also helped in that I was able to give de Haan analysis without needing to do research,” Pope said.

In a story Pope wrote last weekend on de Haan, he highlighted how de Haan is a fan of Twitter and has fun with it when users criticize him, including Islanders fans during the Canes’ second-round sweep.

He was only able to cover the Checkers’ game because the freelancer who would have been there had to fill in on the Chicago Cubs beat that day. Pope also had asked if he could cover one game in the series. 

“That was a very interesting convergence there,” Pope said. “It was fun, and I managed to get to some of the Checkers’ postgame interviews too even though they were of absolutely no use for my coverage.”

Pope still has the Twitter account @CanesReport, which he started when he began writing for Bleacher Report, and he continues to use it to occasionally tweet about the Hurricanes. During that Calder Cup game, he tweeted from the perspective of the Canes/Checkers from that account and from the Wolves’ perspective from @BenPopeCST, his main account. 

Pope took over in the offseason but he’s stayed busy, from keeping track of trades to traveling to Vancouver for the NHL draft to tracking free agency.

He was somewhat familiar with the always-on-call nature of being a newspaper beat writer from his time covering Northwestern teams. There was a quick reminder when Chicago acquired defenseman Olli  Maatta from the Pittsburgh Penguins: He was at Chicago Botanic Gardens with his girlfriend’s parents when he got word of the trade.

Pope doesn’t know the old days of the newspaper business from personal experience. But he knows that a beat writer’s role has changed, including the importance of social media.

“There’s probably more asks in terms of coming up with daily content and coming up with content quickly,” Pope said. “When news comes out at 2 p.m., you don’t have until the 10 p.m. deadline to write something. You have an hour maybe to get something up online or your editor will be upset.”

The Sun-Times’ print edition is in the tabloid format. Although there is sometimes more flexibility, particularly with its “Sports Saturday” editions, nearly every story is contained to one page. That means the word count can be limited depending on the art that goes with the story. Most newspapers try to limit story length, but there seems to be a more pressing need to do it at the Sun-Times.

The creativity of the page designs at the Sun-Times, or from its competitor, the Chicago Tribune, is far superior to newspapers in our area. 

Most newspapers, including The N&O/Herald-Sun, these days expect reporters (although sometimes it’s a photographer) to record video comments from coaches and players. Although the Chicago Tribune requires that of its reporters, Sun-Times reporters aren’t asked to produce many videos. The newspaper has a full-time video producer.

The season will be busy as well since the Sun-Times is one of a dwindling number of newspapers that covers every game for an NHL team. Its prime competition, the Chicago Tribune, didn’t cover every Blackhawks road trip and, unlike the Sun-Times, didn’t have a dedicated Chicago White Sox beat writer until late last month.

A staffing issue early last season forced the Sun-Times to miss one Hawks road game, but the paper intends to cover every game next season. Pope will likely cover around 78 of the 82 games, with somebody else covering a home game right before or after a road game.

While covering the Blackhawks, you can bet that Pope will also keep a close eye on the Hurricanes.

McClatchy hires N.C. senior sports editor

McClatchy has filled one of the two North Carolina sports editor positions it created after Steve Ruinsky, who was N&O/H-S sports editor, and Mike Persinger, who was The Charlotte Observer’s sports editor, took early-retirement buyouts in February.

Matt Stephens, the deputy sports editor of The Denver Post since 2017, will be the senior sports editor, based in Charlotte. The yet-to-be-filled second sports editor position will be based in Raleigh.

“We’re waiting for Matt to get started in a few weeks before nailing down the Raleigh lead position. We want him to be involved in the process,” Robyn Tomlin, the executive editor of The N&O and Herald-Sun and the Carolinas regional editor, said via email.

Stephens, who starts July 22, has no North Carolina ties. A 2010 Colorado State graduate, he was sports editor of The Rocky Mountain Collegian student newspaper.

Stephens was with for more than four years, working as a senior analyst and assistant sports editor. He was with the Northwest Arkansas Newspapers, which includes the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, for more than a year, where he was a reporter, columnist and videographer.

Before joining the Post, he was at The Coloradoan in Fort Collins, Colo., for nearly five years, serving as a reporter for nearly two years, a columnist and digital sports manager for nearly two years and the sports editor for a little more than a year.

Stephens won several Associated Press Sports Editors awards at the Fort Collins newspaper, including a first-place award for reporting on the allegations of abuse against Colorado State basketball coach Larry Eustachy.

McClatchy ending Saturday print publication at a fourth newspaper

Not only was last Saturday the first that The Herald-Sun did not publish a Saturday print edition, it also was the last time another McClatchy newspaper, the Centre Daily Times of State College, Pa., published a Saturday print edition.

The State College newspaper became the fourth McClatchy newspaper to take that action, along with The Sun News of Myrtle Beach, S.C. and Bellingham (Wash.) Herald, as part of what the chain calls its Digital Saturday initiative.

“We will get feedback on how the roll out goes in these markets and consider next steps,” Jeanne Segal, McClatchy’s director of PR and communications, said via email.

The N&O isn’t one of the papers currently being considered to be part of this plan, she said 

“There are no plans at the moment to test this approach in Raleigh,” Segal said.

Herald-Sun subscribers could still view an e-edition Saturday with pages as if they had been printed.

As promised, the Friday print edition, which included the dates for Friday and Saturday at the top of each page, expanded. It still was two sections but with 10 pages in each section instead of eight the previous Friday. 

The sports section didn’t benefit from the expansion. In fact, there were only four Friday sports pages compared to five the previous Saturday. There were sports stories on six pages in Friday’s N&O

As with most days, the sports fronts of The N&O and H-S were identical except for the teased story at the top directing readers to different pages. The only other difference between the sections, produced by a consolidated staff, is that Durham always has fewer pages and an earlier deadline.

After the four sports pages, a comics page and a puzzles page, there were three “Uplift” pages that included one local story. After that was a full page of puzzles, featuring two versions of five puzzles that don’t normally appear in the Durham paper.  [editor’s note: the story’s author was a Herald-Sun copy editor from 1998-2005]

Jessaca Giglio triumphantly finishes cancer treatment

Joe Giglio is known for conveying statistical sports breakdowns on Twitter using sheets from a yellow pad. None were as significant and more personal than three yellow pads that laid out the breast cancer treatment of Jessaca Giglio, his wife and the assistant sports editor of The N&O.

Social media was full of joyful tweets reacting to the news, and there was a celebration at The N&O’s office the next day.

Soccer icon, one-time Triangle radio host Charlie Slagle dies

Some listeners to WCMC (99.9 The Fan) may remember Charlie Slagle as the host as the Saturday morning “Back of the Net Soccer Show” for years, but that was only a blip for Slagle, who died Tuesday at age 67.

Slagle, who had worked with the Richmond Kickers since January 2018, was Davidson’s coach for 21 years and the CEO of the Capital Area Soccer League for more than 12 years. He is a member of the North Carolina Soccer Hall of Fame and the Davidson College Athletics Hall of Fame.

North Carolina-related sports stories of note

Writing in The Players’ Tribune, Kemba Walker wrote that he owes the Charlotte Hornets everything and considers their fans family as he leaves the franchise that drafted him and heads to the Boston Celtics.

In the aftermath of Walker’s exit, The Charlotte Observer’s Rick Bonnell wrote about the explanations of Mitch Kupchak and the Hornets general manager’s reluctance to admit that the team is rebuilding. 

In Forbes, Joseph Nardone, after looking at Duke’s incoming freshman men’s basketball class, wonders if Coach Mike Krzyzewski has adjusted his approach by bringing in a more balanced group after last season’s team lacked outside shooting and spacing.

The Charlotte Observer’s Langston Wertz Jr. writes about former Cary High School star and UNC walk-on Laura Barry, who is about to make high school sports history next basketball season: She’ll coach both the boys and girls basketball teams at Watauga High School.

In the News & Record of Greensboro, columnist Ed Hardin, who has done his share of recreation sports coaching over the years, says that it’s time for parents to back off so that youth sports can be fun again.

In The Athletic, Joe Person wrote about Carolina Panthers linebacker Jared Norris and the difficult battle his fiancée Sara McDermott has had with vasculitis.

On, Geoff Hobson wrote about former N.C. State linebacker Germaine Pratt, who will take on a huge role with the departure of Vontaze Burfict. According to Pratt’s mother, who raised Pratt and his two brothers as a single mom in High Point, the former All-ACC selection has always been an “old soul” intent on fulfilling goals.