When reports first surfaced Thursday afternoon about the mass shooting at the Capital Gazette, a newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, dozens of thoughts crossed my mind simultaneously. I’m an old newspaper guy after all and even though I left the business in November of 2016, there’s no such thing as a former journalist, especially for someone like me who spent three decades-plus in the business. After 34 years a person is pretty much a journalist for life, no matter what they do thereafter.
It’s like a personality tattoo, only not so easy to remove.
As news from Maryland unfolded about the deaths of five newspaper employees, including four from the newsroom, I thought about dozens of things like the times in newsrooms where I worked in Reidsville, Burlington and Jacksonville (N.C.) where angry people wrote anonymous threatening notes or left terrifying phone messages. In Jacksonville some barged right into the newsroom, which was easily accessible almost immediately after entering the front door. Many were yelling and screaming for the publisher, editor or reporter they felt harmed or offended by. Some complaints were large matters. Others were so trivial the anger defied belief. I thought about how slow people in the building were to react during those occasions — as if it didn’t really involve them at all. They went about their business but had dozens of questions later.
And I thought about the terror the people trapped inside the Capital Gazette building must have felt and so vividly described by a police reporter and intern tweeting the news as they hid from the shotgun-wielding gunman who had a personal gripe with the newspaper over its reporting of his harassment of a woman on social media, something that landed him in court. A defamation lawsuit he filed against the newspaper was found by a judge to be without merit whatsoever. Newspapers have historically reported public record items from the legal system but people still want to complain about coverage when they’re involved. It’s a primary source of hatred for reporters and editors — circumstances that sometimes led to threats that were previously never realized, until now.
And I thought about all the times in Burlington I personally spoke to agitated people on the phone, the hate mail I sometimes received (I once got one on Christmas morning) or the folks who took the additional step of coming to our office for a confrontation. I remembered the times I was summoned to the lobby to see a visitor not knowing what to expect and the two or three times I had to ask someone to leave the premises for abusive behavior, backed by the threat of having our receptionist call the police for backup.
And I thought about Times-News receptionist Vicky Davis, the person on the front lines when it comes to dealing with the angry public in Alamance County. People who visit the Times-News — where all the doors but the front one (during business hours) have a combination lock — aren’t allowed to freely roam the building. They must check in with the receptionist — most often Vicky — who then summons someone down to deal with the visitor, good bad or indifferent. I think security needs to be improved, especially in the collective state of hostility America finds itself emotionally these days.
And I thought about all those occasions where I interacted with the bizarre, the weird or the sketchy elements of the public and all of those times when I walked away muttering: “Well that guy was lunatic.” “What a friggin’ psycho.” “You don’t meet many people like that, thankfully.” “Whoa, she was crazy.” Or my personal go-to, “People are off their medication today.”
And I thought about a real threat I received face to face from an irate person on June 3, 2011, an event that terrified my spouse, who was working at the Times-News as a reporter back then. This is how I described it in a blog post from last year.
He was well into a boiling point when he arrived at the office and demanded to speak to the editor. We had published a story that morning about the murder case and his name figured in the story. He was listed in search warrants and other documents. He was also on the pretrial witness list (and did ultimately testify). He had called our reporter the night before after the story was posted online demanding his name be removed. We did not. He felt being named put him in danger, even though all the suspects were in jail awaiting trial.
My first mistake was inviting him back to my office rather than speaking to him in the newspaper lobby. I never made that error again. I asked then-city editor Brent Lancaster to join us for the discussion. I let the guy vent for a while and explained our position. This didn’t cool him off even a little bit. He demanded that we never use his name in another story, including his testimony during the trial.
I told him we couldn’t make that promise. If his testimony was important to writing about the trial it would certainly be published. That’s when he said, “You’re just trying to sell papers.”
And couldn’t suppress an involuntary smile. Second mistake. It’s a typical thing angry people say and one that’s hardly true.
That’s when he exploded, calling me a “motherf**cker” and a “son of a bitch.” At this point I told him he needed to leave and escorted him to the front door — a long walk in which he berated and threatened me the entire way.
After he left the building, he remained across the street ranting and raving. Ultimately my wife called the police who finally talked him into leaving. Thankfully, I never heard from the guy again.
And we did use his name in our coverage of the murder trial.
And I thought about the slain newspaper staff members, all dedicated professionals, and their families. Newspaper life is tough on marriages, family relationships and raising children. The hours are long, way long. There are a lot of missed birthdays, anniversaries, family reunions and other important events most take for granted. Newspaper work is demanding under the best of circumstances and the pay is low. But it’s damned rewarding and important work most of the time. For those involved it’s a calling. They stay because they have to. They stand up to power because it needs to be done. They work through threats because if they don’t, who will. Newspaper people can be tough when necessary.
And I thought about the staff members who survived the shooting. They will be forever haunted by the grim sights and sounds from the day their colleagues were slain only a few feet away. Not a single one will ever be the same again. Not a one will view a newsroom as a haven — if it ever was. Because the question all newspaper journalists have asked themselves for decades is “when something like this might happen — not if.”
And I thought about how those scarred surviving staff members rose off the floor after the gunman left and began the process of producing stories for digital readers and a full newspaper report of their own horrific event for print customers. They began while the acrid smell of gunsmoke lingered in the air and the cries of the victims echoed off the newsroom walls. It’s what people in newsrooms do. They accomplish their work when confronted by trying circumstances, even their own. The Gazette staff told the story about what happened and allowed the world to share their grief and learn about their slain co-workers and friends.
And I thought about all those occasions when a caller involved in a family tragedy reported by the newspaper criticized how we reported it or why we reported it. Most of the stories were about wrecks, fires, murders and other fatal accidents. The kind of stuff all newspapers write about. They would invariably ask, “How would you feel if this were your family?”
The actions by the surviving staff members of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, provide an answer. They are still reporting the news for their community and still writing about an unspeakable tragedy that struck so close to home for the staff and all journalists.
Peace to all my newspaper brothers and sisters.