Kanalley, who played basketball at Cardinal O'Hara, grew up in an athletic family in the City of Tonawanda. His sister, Melissa, scored 1,355 points at O'Hara, which was a school record when she graduated in 2006. She went on to play college ball at St. John Fisher and D'Youville. Their dad, Pat, coached both of them at various times and is now the JV basketball coach at Mount St. Mary Academy.
Craig Kanalley, 27, also attended St. John Fisher, with a slightly ulterior motive.
“One of the reasons I went to St. John Fisher was actually because the Bills' training camp was there,” Kanalley said by phone last week from his apartment in Brooklyn. “It really did factor into my decision, which is sometimes funny to say. I knew there could be opportunities to ... even just to stay in the dorms that they stay in. That was kind of cool. Sometimes the Bills players would leave little notes and things for the students. That never happened to me, but you never know.”
Kanalley was sports editor of St. John Fisher's student newspaper for one year. He also had various stints covering high school and college sports for the Bee newspapers, the Tonawanda News and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. When he decided to apply to graduate school, again it was his love of sports that helped guide his decision.
“I went to graduate school in Chicago at DePaul University, for online journalism,” he said. “I went to Chicago partly because it was a big sports town. And it was funny because Patrick Kane had just gone there, so that was kind of cool.”
While at DePaul, Kanalley became interested in Twitter, which was just starting to take off. Through Twitter he found a website in Chicago called the Windy Citizen, which was run by journalism students at Northwestern University. He wrote to the site's editors and they offered him an internship, part of which involved writing a blog about the Chicago Blackhawks.
“They gave me complete freedom,” Kanalley recalled. “They said, 'We just want you to learn the Web and Web journalism, [search engine optimization], tweaking headlines and writing live blogs. I would do live blogs during the games. Yeah, it was really fun.”
Kanalley soon got the idea for starting a blog of his own. It was not about sports, but it would prove to be a game changer in his career.
The blog was called Breaking Tweets. It focused on the way that breaking news stories were covered, analyzed and reacted to on Twitter.
“I did it like seven days a week,” he said. “I was obsessed with it. I had to get up at least three posts a day. And I really pushed myself. I told myself there's going to be something good coming out of this. And the site's traffic kept growing.”
The Poynter Institute, a journalism school, took notice of Kanalley's site and published a feature story about it. CNN and other media outlets soon did the same.
“It was a really cool experience, but it wasn't making any money for me,” he said. “I tried to put up like Google ads, but they make like pennies, a couple of dollars a month. …
When it was time to graduate from DePaul, Kanalley said he faced a bit of a professional crisis.
“I wanted to keep Breaking Tweets going but it wasn't making money. I really didn't know what to do.”
A conversation with an entrepreneur that he knew convinced Kanalley to persevere.
“He said to me, 'Who are the news organizations you respect the most?' He said you should write to them and see if they want to do a partnership and help you reach a larger audience. ... I started writing like blind emails to places. And one of them I wrote was to Arianna Huffington – I Googled her email address. I couldn't believe when she responded. She CC'd the CEO of Huffington Post and said let's set up a call.
“So I told them about the site and they were really impressed. They said, 'We want to do more with Twitter at the Huffington Post.' And they said, 'How would you like to come to New York?' I was like, what are you talking about? They offered me a job like on the spot.”
Kanalley's first email to Huffington, the publisher of Huffington Post, was sent on Sept. 28, 2009. In November of that year he started working for them remotely, then he moved to New York on Dec. 1.
“The funny thing is, I was not looking for a job. I was looking for a partnership with my site or a way to grow its audience with HuffPost, perhaps.”
His first job there involved covering social media.
“I would monitor the Web for what's trending and what conversation is about on the Web. I would really provide context as to why something was a big topic in the news.”
In the past year his title became “senior editor for big news and live events.” He also writes a blog for the site about social media.
Being at the center of breaking news events is the fuel that drives many journalists, along with coffee, of course.
“The most exciting night working at the Huffington Post is always election night,” Kanalley said. “We have a tradition where some of our editors go down to D.C. that night, and I was lucky enough to do so in 2010 and 2012. I helped with our live blog both nights.”
A major news story that stands out for Kanalley is the rescue of 33 miners who were trapped underground in Chile in October 2010.
“I started and operated our live blog in marathon fashion for nearly 24 hours, with colleagues sending me updates. I couldn't have done it without the larger team in our newsroom and their support. It was incredible, for instance, to be in contact with one of our tech developers in Chile who helped us translate and share local news coverage that I was able to incorporate in the live blog.
“The great thing about this story is it had a happy ending, which we don't see enough in news – all 33 miners were successfully rescued.”