We are all the Capital Gazette
Thursday, June 28, was a dark day for newspapers, for journalism.
A troubled man went into the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, and, using a shotgun, murdered five people. The shooter was bent on vengeance toward the paper for accurately reporting on his twisted story of harassing a woman, then failing in efforts in a lawsuit against the paper.
This could have happened anywhere in the United States. Every day, newspapers report similar stories of similarly twisted people. Tragically for the five at the Maryland newspaper, it happened to them. Frankly, it could have happened just as easily here. I worry about it often, have for most of my 30-plus years in the business, more so recently as mass shootings have become so common in America that they're almost ignored, soon forgotten after the current news cycle burns out.
For followers of news, culture and the politics of America, it's somewhat surprising that this was the first occurrence of a mass shooting at a newspaper. For merely shining a light, attempting to bring truth to the forefront, journalists get killed all over the globe. It's relatively rare, though, for such atrocities against journalists to occur in America, the land of freedom of speech. Hopefully that won't change after Annapolis. Forgive me, though, if my confidence wavers. Such violent acts seems to just bring similar violent acts.
The potential of it happening in our office consistently hovers. It can be argued that reporters and staffs from larger newspapers are more apt to draw the still, thankfully, rare violent response. The larger circulations, the vast web traffic, it stands to reason that those working for large dailies have a larger risk for targeted response. More people, more stories, higher chances.
Maybe, but for other reasons, those working in smaller, community papers might stand even greater risk. The dailies are often located in large buildings, in compounds, often with security. The towns where small community newspapers are, well, small, anonymity is harder to maintain, for both the subject of stories and the writers of the stories. Security? We lock the doors at night, but other than that, nonexistent, just like nearly every other business in our small communities.
The lack of anonymity, that may be what is most concerning for small-town reporters. Many times those we report on know us. That can be our best asset to getting people to talk to us as reporters, but also a big negative when we have to tackle a story that can be explosive. Reporters from big dailies are often faceless to their sources and readers. In our smaller towns, that isn't the case. It's often more personal, and that can be more dangerous.
The papers I work with, Prineville and Madras, are full of employees who were raised in the towns, or have lived here for years. Nearly all of us who have worked our jobs for much time at all have gotten calls from people we grew up with, wondering why we put so-and-so's name in the police log, or connected them with a negative story.
Their pleas usually boil down to the same question: "How can you do that? You know me."
But reporting, that's what newspapers do, and nearly everyone rational realizes that. Chronicling the history of our communities, as it happens, is a vital part of our reason for being. Celebrated good news or tragic bad news, we have to do our best to professionally present it. Thankfully the vast majority of those who care, or give it a thought, realize that, and they support us.
It may be the worst part of the job, publishing stories on people who mess up, who did something stupid on the worst night of their lives, or made bad decisions; writing negative stories on people we know, people we may like, people whose families we know, whose innocent children we dread bringing any further pain. We're going to mess up, maybe over-sensationalize. We're just people trying to do our best, to do an honest job, trying to be true to our profession and standards of fairness. All on a deadline.
We can never be sure what story might stir an irrational response that puts us in danger, but I can't help but have a tinge of worry every time we run a mugshot of someone charged with a violent crime. Most stupid things happen when people are drunk or on drugs. Outside of being behind bars, what's not to keep that individual from getting crazy again and "taking out vengeance" on what they unrealistically believe to have caused all the embarrassment and pain: the local newspaper.
But for the honor of being small beacons to freedom of speech; for the gift of being the public venue to share the thoughts, plans and hopes of people and communities; for the responsibility of chronicling the times and history of where we live; for the simple importance of presenting stories, basic to mind-blowing, that show us who we are, both at our best and, yes, at our worst … it's all worth it.
You can bet the Capital Gazette won't stop doing it. Neither will we.
Tony Ahern, publisher