Newsroom attack feels like home invasion

7/5/2018, 6:35 p.m.
When news broke that a man with a shotgun had killed five employees in the Annapolis, Md., Capital Gazette newsroom, ...
Clarence Page

Clarence Page

When news broke that a man with a shotgun had killed five employees in the Annapolis, Md., Capital Gazette newsroom, recent 24/7 media chatter about “civility” suddenly got real.

A lone gunman, reportedly carrying smoke grenades, opened fire with a shotgun in the Capital Gazette’s newsroom in a suburban industrial park. Witnesses describe a scene of total chaos, with staff members diving under desks—and tweeting their own story to the world outside.

Police arrested suspect Jarrod Ramos, who reportedly had a long-running grudge against the paper, and charged him with five counts of murder.

The deceased—described by colleagues as old-school newspaper people—sound like the sort of creative, dedicated folks who are familiar to just about every newsroom. You can hear echoes of the staff’s resilient spirit in a late announcement on the newspaper’s Twitter account where a defiant late-night tweet announced, “Yes, we’re putting out a damn paper tomorrow.”

And they did, which comes as little surprise to me. Newspeople tend to live for their next opportunity to report or comment on the news. We just don’t expect the news to be about us.

Yet ever since the terrorist attack on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo left a dozen people dead and 11 injured in Paris in 2015, I know I am not alone among news workers in pushing the possibility of a similar attack here to the back of my mind. The perseverance of the Capital Gazette staff should be an inspiration to us all — and not just in the news business.

It didn’t take long for news by reporters and editors who were covering their own story on social networks to be flooded with dispatches from the rest of the Twitterverse. Many chimed in with accusations, assumptions and conspiracy theories about who was responsible for the tragedy.

Many predictably try to fit the story into the national “incivility” debate that welled up earlier in the week after aides to President Donald Trump were verbally attacked while dining out after hours by opponents of the administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy.

But this episode doesn’t easily fit into the national left-versus-right political narratives. The Capital Gazette is a classic example of the backbone of the news business: Local news.

It is here at the sort of midsize newspapers where so many of us journalists begin our careers and sometimes spend our entire careers, building a level of trust with the local community that enables local media to help local government better serve the public.

But “fake news”? It’s not so easy to make that charge against papers and other media in a community small enough for people to hold local journalists as accountable as next door neighbors. Reporters know it, too. You want to be sure to get the story right and spell all the names correctly when you know you might well run into the people involved at a local church or supermarket.

With that, my heart goes out to the Capital Gazette staff, their families and to the community that knows them best, just as the newspaper knows the community.