How a sportswriter became one of Chicago's go-to sources for protest and looting information

Ben Pope of the Sun-Times usually covers the Blackhawks. But with no hockey, he's become a valuable part of the paper's news desk.

Good morning, frents …

Sometimes I think it’s been a bit weird I’ve been writing a sports newsletter when there have been no sports for almost three months now.

Then I write an issue like today’s story about a Sun-Times sportswriter who’s helping write the first draft of history and I’m reminded what an incredible and historic time we’re living through. My tiny Chicago sports newsletter likely won’t be mined in the future by historians, but I still think there’s incredible value in trying to sift through this confusing time and make the best sense of it that we can as it happens.

Hopefully you see it that way, too. Thank you for continuing to join me on this ride.

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The first rule of journalism: Versatility is key

Reporters report.

Doesn’t matter the subject. Throw a real journalist into the middle of a court case, a playoff game or a church bake sale and they’ll come out with the goods. The skills always translate, no matter how big or small the story.

Which brings me to Ben Pope.

You might know Ben from his work on the Blackhawks beat at the Sun-Times. He wrote this great story on the team’s final game before the lockdown. Covering hockey and a team like the Blackhawks is his dream job. He can’t wait to get back to covering the sports when the Hawks face Edmonton in a best-of-five series later this summer.

In the meantime, he’s covering one of the most important stories in Chicago history.  With little hockey news to cover and the news department down two reporters, Pope’s editors put him out on loan to the news desk in mid-April.

“It was pretty mundane at first,” Pope told me on Wednesday. “It was mostly working from home and calling people on the phone.

“Obviously things have been a little different the past week.”

Pope’s story isn’t a unique one. Ever since the world shut down in mid-March, reporters from non-essential beats (think sports and entertainment) have been pressed into other duties like writing public health stories and obituaries.

But Pope’s profile in this city took a major leap this past weekend as he found himself in the middle of the protests and looting across Chicago. His Twitter account became a vital source of information for people who were following the news in real time. In a rapidly-developing scene, Pope somehow found himself in the middle of it all.

His weekend started on Saturday morning when he signed into the paper’s Slack chat and was told he’d be covering the city’s George Floyd protests later that afternoon. He was told to live-tweet as much as he could, talk to anyone who seemed interesting and to stay near the frontlines where the protestors met police.

“It was basically me just having to use my instinct to run around to what were hopefully the most newsworthy locations,” he said.

Pope started the day on the Wabash bridge near Trump Tower. Police had formed a line across the protestors and there was some shoving. It eventually died down, though, so Pope took a tip that looters had broken into Macy’s.

He started making his way over to Water Tower.

“Once I got north of the river, that’s when things started to get more interesting,” Pope  said. “At that point, there was something crazy on every corner I turned.”

You can go follow along on his timeline to see what he’s talking about. An overturned cop car on Kinzie. A large fight between protestors and police. A police vehicle ablaze on Ohio and Rush. Protestors smashing Neiman-Marcus for several minutes before finally getting in.

Pope’s video of the Nike store being looted has been viewed more than 8.1 million times — just a tad more traffic than his usual tweets about a fourth-line forward being activated from Rockford.

I asked Pope what it’s like to cover a scene like that and if he felt safe. After all, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker reports there were more than 100 incidents of journalists being “attacked, harassed, injured or arrested” by protestors or police in American cities between May 29 and 31.

“Honestly, I was just filled with adrenaline and doing my job, which I love to do,” Pope said. “There was obviously a lot of urgency with trying to video everything and tweet it out with my phone. I wasn’t really thinking that much about safety.

“Looking back, maybe I should have felt some danger, but I didn’t at the time.”

Pope was back at it Sunday night. He was paired with photographer Victor Hilitski, who had a car that allowed them to hit several spots in the city from a march in Bronzeville to looting in Wicker Park. The next morning he was in bond court to cover the hearings of those who’d been arrested over the weekend and then back on the protest beat Wednesday night.

The grind is a lot different and carries more consequences than a NHL game and Pope said he appreciates the opportunity to broaden his journalism skills. Still relatively fresh out of Northwestern’s Medill journalism school, Pope has valued seeing how the news desk operates in an all-hands-on-deck situation like this.

“I’m really proud and thrilled to work at this newspaper,” Pope said. “They just do everything right, in my opinion, give balanced and thorough coverage of everyone.  I think we’re doing a really great job of keeping Chicago informed on all aspects of this.”

Readers and social media users would seem to agree. When Pope left his apartment in Lakeview on Saturday afternoon, he had 5,500 followers on Twitter. Less than a week later, he’s about to cross the 10,000-follower mark.

“We’ll see how many of those stick around once I’m back on hockey,” he laughed.

Pope said he hasn’t had time to really pause and reflect on the historic weight of the story he’s been pressed into covering. There’s simply been too much to do.

Yet there was one moment on Sunday night that still sticks out to him. He and Hilitski briefly went into the closed Loop to see if there was anything worth reporting on. The duo had to show their media credentials to the national guard to gain access “like it was a war zone in a foreign country,” Pope said.

Once inside the perimeter, they found nothing, which allowed Pope the time for some perspective.

“To drive around The Loop and see absolutely no cars and no humans in sight in the middle of downtown in the third biggest city in the country … that was the most surreal part of the experience to me,” Pope said. “It was at that moment I was really able to soak it all in and think about just how strange this all is.”

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We’re close to an official ending for the 2019-20 Chicago Bulls. The NBA’s 22-team resumption plan in Orlando is expected to be approved today and the Bulls are one of the eight teams that won’t be playing any more games this year.

I assume everyone is fine with this. I certainly am, even if eight additional games with Jim Boylen at the helm might have given me a newsletter lead or two.

The reality, though, is that the Bulls were 11th in the Eastern Conference with no shot at a playoff spot and no reason to put any of their players at risk of either a blown ACL or contracting COVID-19. See you at the draft.

Did baseball’s owners and players come to an agreement yesterday?


(If it’s OK with everyone else, this is how I’ll cover these negotiations from now on.)

The Original Bull and Superman?

The late, great Jerry Sloan was good at a lot of things. Acting was not one of them.

Have a link for Midway Minute? Email me!

The Fire is coming back after MLS and the players announced a new CBA on Wednesday. The season will begin with a World Cup-style tournament in Orlando  that will count toward regular season standings. Further details TBA. (Hot Time)

Dan Bernstein says no one wants to hear the Ricketts cry poor right now. Dan Bernstein is right. (The Score)

• Podcast: Adam Hoge and Adam Jahns turned their popular podcast over to the words of  Allen Robinson, Akiem Hicks, Danny Trevathan and Ifeadi Odenigbo. (The Athletic)

• If you don’t have time for the podcast, you should definitely take a minute at least to watch Hicks share what his everyday experience is like.

Mike Oz on MLB risking being permanently relegated to second-thought status among American sports fans. (Yahoo Sports)

What Twitter might’ve looked like during the 2005 World Series. (NBC Sports Chicago)

That’s it for today. Have a great Thursday. Thank you for being a #frentofthenewsletter.