A Q&A with Amalie Benjamin of NHL.com on the state of hockey coverage, sharing a name with an arena and traveling way more than anyone should

Every week we will run a Q&A with a wonderful reporter to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people whose work we really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.

This week, it’s with Amalie Benjamin, a features writer for NHL.com. We haven’t had a hockey writer as a guest yet, and with the start of the season right around the corner, now was the perfect time to have one. And it’s a doozy: Amalie is one of the best in the business, first dominating the Boston Bruins beat and now moving into a national role at the fast-growing NHL website.

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The questions are in bold. The answers are not.

  1. How did you break into journalism and land at the job you hold now?

By begging my way in. Well, sort of. While I was lucky enough to attend Northwestern, a school with an incredible journalism program, I did not actually attend said journalism program. But the wonderful people at Medill were kind enough to spot the fact that I was actually committed to journalism as a career (and probably figured it was the only way to get rid of my pleading), and they made a special exemption to let me apply for the on-campus interviews that Medill holds for journalism internships – back in those days, long ago, they attracted recruiters for every major newspaper in the country.

It was there that I met David Beard, then of the Boston Globe, with whom I thought I had the worst interview of my career. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was wrong, and (despite not getting the Globe’s summer internship), David kept up with me over the next couple of years, eventually bringing me in as a high school sports writer at Globe Northwest, one of the paper’s twice-weekly zoned editions, after I graduated from college and completed an internship at the Washington Post. Eight months later, I was promoted to the main sports section as a general assignment reporter, then on to the Red Sox beat, then features, then the Bruins beat, and then, in April, I left to join NHL.com as a feature writer.

2. Let’s start here: After 12 years at the Boston Globe, you recently accepted a position covering hockey for NHL.com, joining a growing list of well-established hockey writers hired to beef up the site’s coverage. How difficult of a decision was it to leave a place after so long? What about NHL.com appealed to you? Though the NHL is obviously an enormous corporation, to what extent does your job feel like a new venture, considering NHL.com is relatively new to the reported content game, at least in this way.

 It was both incredibly difficult and incredibly easy, if that makes sense. Working at the Globe always felt like working at a family paper to me. I was close to my editors and was always, always treated so well there. It was hard to leave the only place I had really known in my professional career, both scary and intimidating. But it also felt necessary. Newspaper journalism is a shrinking field and, as much as I would love to stay on and not abandon ship, the opportunity to work for the NHL was just too great to pass up.

The NHL is, as you say, an enormous corporation, and that is something I’ve had get used to over the past five months. It’s much more in line with what my husband experienced working at the Wall Street Journal than I ever did at the Globe. There are growing pains in that, but also opportunities. I think what most appealed to me about NHL.com was an opportunity to break out of beat writing and the daily duties that entails, with the ability to write bigger stories and have bigger reach than I could at the Globe. With a shrinking staff at the newspaper, there were going to be fewer chances to do those stories, even as those stories are more necessary than ever to bolster coverage and differentiate oneself and one’s outlet. It also offered the potential for access that no one else might get, something that gives me a few qualms as a former newspaper person, but which I appreciate as the league’s prerogative with a burgeoning staff of actual journalists.

There’s no question that NHL.com is working through the kinks of who we are and what we do. We have gone through a postseason as a staff – which is still growing – but not a full season. So there are still questions about what my day-to-day work life will look like. That was a gamble I was willing to take, not knowing exactly what my job would look like, but open to all the possibilities.

3. You are the first -30- Newsletter guest who primarily covers hockey. Congratulations! Unfortunately, hockey coverage has gone through some tough times across the media landscape, with many outlets seriously cutting back on the resources allocated toward the sport. How would you assess the state of hockey coverage in America today? How frustrating is it to big fans of the sport to see their local papers often covering hockey less than ever before? And how important is it for an in-house outlet like NHL.com to fill that void?

 It’s not great, at least not in the United States. (Canada is a different story.) While I was proud to work at a place that consistently covered the sport the way it should be covered, even there I found it difficult sometimes to beg for the space that the sport required with shrinking news holes and the allure of more clicks on Red Sox and Patriots content. (I don’t have to worry about that now!)

I think it became clear to me how bad it was this season, when I realized that places like the New York Times do not have a full-time hockey writer on staff, despite serving an area with three teams. Late in the season, there was a game between the Bruins and the Carolina Hurricanes in Boston to which no independent media outlet from Carolina traveled. Not one. That’s bad news for hockey fans, but it’s also an opening for us. This is exactly where we can fill the void that you mention, becoming the one-stop shop for NHL fans. Of course, there are pitfalls. We are the league web site and that means that our coverage is never going to be the same as you’d get from a newspaper. But we have resources and we have real journalists now, and there are really good stories to tell. Those are stories that might not be told otherwise, and that can now be shared. I will say that when I moved over to cover hockey, I was welcomed by hockey fans with open arms, despite a lesser knowledge base than might have been optimal. They just want people to cover their sport, preferably good people who understand hockey, but they’re open and willing to embrace anyone who makes the jump.

4. In October 2014, you wrote one the most memorable (and one of Jared’s favorite) off-beat sports stories in recent memory — a glorious first-person account of visiting your namesake arena, the home of the Tampa Bay Lightning, for the first time. To write it, you had to convince an editor at the Boston Globe that it would be worthwhile to let his Bruins beat reporter buy a plane ticket to Florida and spend a night in a hotel to write a piece… about her name. How did you pitch the piece, and how confident were you that it would be green-lit? More generally, what is the value of media outlets publishing quirky, funky pieces beyond their usual coverage area?

 It was actually a joke. Seriously. I sent an email to my boss at the Boston Globe, telling him that now he had to send me down to write about  the newly minted Amalie Arena, never thinking that he would be up for it. But he was, immediately. He emailed me back to say yes, which necessitated me – at that point – figuring out exactly what this would entail. So, no, I didn’t really pitch it as much as I made a joke about it. Which probably should teach me to pitch anything and everything because you never know when your boss will go for it.

But it was one of the most popular pieces I wrote that season, which was my second on the Bruins beat. It’s something that’s easy to lose in the daily struggle of beat writing, how important those quirky, off-the-beaten-path stories are to you, to readers, and how much they might be read and valued. Now, they’re also tremendously hard to pull off. Writing humorously is about the hardest thing you can do, and sometimes it falls flat. But it was great to see the Globe willing to take a chance, and I know that that story was held up later by some of the higher-ups as the kind of stuff we need to be doing more often, not just in sports, the kind of stuff that differentiated us from the other outlets out there. I think the one thing to think about in this arena – no pun intended – is to be judicious about it – write the quirky story when it’s warranted, but not all the time. It’s the perfect once-in-a-while change-of-pace piece in your arsenal as a beat writer.

5. Before covering hockey, you spent time as the beat writer covering the Red Sox. You hear so much about the grind of baseball coverage — we know from experience! But hockey travel has its own challenges: smaller destinations with fewer flights and the constant threat of winter weather causing flight cancellations chief among them. How would you compare to the travel of the two sports? 

 I would never have believed this when I was in the throes of baseball travel, but hockey is worse. That comes with one caveat: spring training. Despite spring training’s reputation as a time when all the baseball writers head down for a boondoggle of beaches and golf, I saw a beach once in four springs in Fort Myers and never once picked up a club, though the latter probably has more to do with the fact that I wouldn’t know what to do with one once I picked it up. But between snow-bound locations (Buffalo! Edmonton! Winnipeg!), all the travel through Canada (Calgary! Edmonton! Winnipeg!), and the fact that you never really stay in one location longer than two – maybe three – days, hockey travel is more difficult. And that doesn’t even take into account the fact that the hockey postseason is two-plus months long, and includes the devil of all set-ups, the 2-2-1-1-1 series in every single round.

Of course, summer is my offseason now. So, maybe the hockey schedule isn’t so bad?

6. Speaking of baseball, your are married to one of Jared’s former colleagues at The Wall Street Journal, Dan Barbarisi, which is awesome, because you guys are both awesome. But here’s what’s not awesome: Before embarking on his exciting new book project, Dan was a full-time baseball beat writer. Based on my calculations, with Dan covering baseball and you covering hockey, you guys were in the same city at the same time for about seven days a year. How difficult was it to have such opposite schedules?

 Oh, those glorious seven days a year! It’s been quite an about-face for the two of us in the last eight months, going from opposite schedules (baseball/hockey) and different states (New York/Massachusetts) to living in the same apartment in the same city and working from home. Yes, both of us now work out of the same 850-square foot apartment.

I think, ultimately, you get through what you need to get through, but it surely wasn’t fun. We made do by joining each other on road trips – Chicago was always my favorite to tag along on – and carving out weekends here and there in the other’s city during the offseason. But our lives are vastly improved now that we’re both in Boston, with the ability to really enjoy being in the same space without the three-to-four hour drives or train rides preceding time together. Plus I still get to have him tag along on road trips occasionally.

7. With your new position, you have become a frequent contributor to the NHL Network. Before that, you were a hockey insider for Fox Sports 1. What has the transition to television work been like for you? What do you like and dislike about TV? And how important is it in this day and age for print reporters to be comfortable being on-air?

 It’s funny that you ask this, because I’m currently typing this from the NHL Network/MLB Network studios in glorious Secaucus, New Jersey!

There is certainly a lot more makeup in my new/old world of television reporting than in my old one. (Amusing note: I did not normally wear makeup in my everyday life before my first TV appearance, in 2005 for NESN. I had to raid the makeup counter at my local Bloomingdale’s the night before my debut.) It’s been an interesting one in other ways, too. I first started doing TV back in 2005, then started appearing regularly on the NESN pregame show from 2006-2010, doing a segment before every Red Sox game. Because the Globe sponsored the show at that point, it was mandatory, so I didn’t really have a choice in the matter. But it got better every time I went on, which enabled me to have increasing confidence on camera, and which made it easier every time. It really is crucial for reporters now to able to do on-air work, for so many reasons, and I’m glad I got to start so early on in my career. I never liked having to worry about what I was wearing to the park or how my hair looked or how much the wind was blowing, but it was and has been a big piece that I’ve been able to have in my toolbox.

I came into the business to tell stories, to write, and I know that I’m able to express myself much more cleanly with the written word, so it’s frustrating sometimes to feel like I’m far less eloquent on air. But you can also have fun with on-air work in ways you can’t with printed stories. They are very, very different ways of expressing our reporting and what we do, and it is nice to have both as avenues for telling the story. Right now, for instance, I’m at the studio taping two pieces, one on a few subjects coming up, including the World Cup of Hockey and the Bruins upcoming season, and another piece that will run when a bigger project of mine drops on NHL.com soon. The latter is great, in that it’s an additional outlet to discuss something that I’ve put a lot of work into – perhaps people might hear me talk about it on the NHL Network and go seek out my piece on NHL.com, which is the best combination of my worlds!

 8. What are three stories that you read recently that you loved?

 I might be biased, but I just got to finally read the latest chapters of my husband’s forthcoming book – and the reason he got to move to Boston! – and I can honestly say I loved it. (You will too! Buy it!) Not sure if that’s exactly what you were getting at, but I’m going to count it. It’s a great story and a lot of fun. Details to come soon!

I’m going to stay on the book train and throw out another book, even though this probably isn’t the spirit of the question. But at heart, I’m still a recovering English major. So, Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River was fantastic, and was actually recommended to me by ESPN’s Craig Custance, so it counts.

Just about everything that Eli Saslow writes is incredible – I mean, he did win a Pulitzer – and his latest (“How’s Amanda?”) is another masterful look at the country’s opiate addition writ small.

 0. For a long time, you’ve been associated with the city of Boston. You’ve been a “Boston writer.” In your new job, you’ll have some more national reach. What have you liked about being part of the sports fabric of a single city, especially one as intense as Boston? How crucial is it for journalists’ careers to be “national” these days?

 I think we lose a lot in the constant quest to be national these days. I always liked being a Boston writer, part of the sports section I grew up reading, working with the journalists I grew up idolizing. I liked that there was a connection, a focus, a sense of history with one city and one team and all that entails. There were a lot of readers I connected with over the years, a lot of people who would show up in my inbox and my Twitter mentions, most of whom embraced me and my reporting. They watched me grow up in the industry, in a way, given that I started just out of college. And I’m definitely sad to not have that anymore, or at least in the same way. I keep reassuring people that I’ll still be around a bit, that I’ll still be in and out of the Bruins locker room, but it won’t be the same and I know that. Ultimately, though, national is where there are opportunities, a lot of the time, where you can spread your wings and have a larger focus and better stories to cherry pick. It’s one of the reasons I decided to leave, the ability to expand beyond the micro-focus. But there’s definitely something to say for that relationship with one city, something that guys like Dan Shaughnessy have built most of a career on.

10. According to your Twitter bio, you hate mascots — even great ones like Youppi! or Otto the Orange. How could you possibly hate mascots? Which ones do you particularly hate? Is there any mascot you actually like? It’s OK, you can admit it. 

 You can’t hate Youppi! It’s impossible.

As for ones I particularly hate? I do have a long-running feud with the Los Angeles Kings mascot, Bailey. It’s alternately funny and creepy, which really gets down to my issue with mascots. They’re creepy. And if you happen to have one – yes, I’m talking about Bailey – surreptitiously take photos of you and post them to Twitter, well, you might end up sharing my feelings about mascots.

 

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