'They're irreplaceable': Former Capital Gazette journalists reminisce

Kathy Flynn was in a meeting Thursday when the alerts began to light up her phone. Someone was asking if she was OK, and mentioned The Capital, the newspaper in Annapolis she served as an editor for more than two decades.

“I haven’t worked at The Capital for many years,” said Flynn, who left the newspaper in 2010. But when something like that happens, she said, “Your Spidey senses go off — something big is up.”

Flynn learned that five staff members of the Capital Gazette — four of whom she knew — had been shot and killed.

The victims were identified as Rob Hiaasen, 59, an assistant editor and columnist; Wendi Winters, 65, a community correspondent who headed special publications; Gerald Fischman, 61, the editorial page editor; John McNamara, 56, a staff writer who had covered sports for decades; and Rebecca Smith, 34, a sales assistant hired in November.

Journalists, many of them alumni of the newspaper, turned to social media to mourn and to reminisce.

New York Times reporter Ivan Penn credits his 1990 internship at the “feisty newspaper” with giving him a leg up on the competition. Editors allowed interns to write a lot, he said, and helped him form narratives and dial up the drama in his stories.

He later worked with Hiaasen at The Baltimore Sun, and received a recommendation from the editor that led to a journalism fellowship at Stanford University.

“That fellowship changed my life and my family’s life,” Penn said.

The Capital left similar imprints on other alumni, who have formed a network called the Rolling Donut Society — its name inspired by late owner Philip Merrill, who allegedly told a politician to “take a flying [expletive] at a rolling donut.”

“It’s hard to explain to other people how unique a newsroom environment it is, and what an endlessly entertaining place it is to be,” Flynn said.

The newsroom was always challenging, she said, and filled with characters who were funny, sarcastic and smart.

An email chain started by the society was going strong Thursday. Alumni, who call themselves “rolling donuts,” reached out for updates and offered messages of support.

Flynn said she often discussed sports with McNamara, who had an “encyclopedic” knowledge of the subject. Winters was dependable and dedicated, the go-to when the paper needed coverage. Hiaasen was a “tremendous listener,” passionate about mentoring new reporters and helping seasoned veterans tell big stories effectively.

And though Fischman looked timid — often walking around the newsroom with his head down — he was funny, delivering “zingers” while editors proofread the paper.

“They’re irreplaceable, but I know The Capital will do its best to muddle through,” she said.

The Capital was where many young journalists cut their teeth, covering council and planning meetings that were often scarcely attended. But they took it seriously, Flynn said, “because that’s the job.”

Los Angeles Times reporter Phil Willon described his two years at The Capital in the 1980s — when the paper was headquartered in a converted bowling alley in downtown Annapolis — as the best times of his life.

“There was a newsroom full of young hungry reporters from [around] the country,” Willon said. “We weren't paid that much, so we made our own fun.”

There was an editor who wore red cowboy boots as he walked up and down the reporter row, Willon said. The Crabwrappers — the company softball team — threw Midwestern-themed parties and tossed around endearing nicknames.

“We were so tight,” said Heather Dinich, a senior writer and studio analyst at ESPN. “We would go out to dinner together, karaoke. We were all in our 20s. It feels like it was a lifetime ago.”

“We were proud of what we did,” she said, through tears. “And I’m proud of what they did yesterday. I can’t believe they put that paper out. … They’re so much stronger than I ever could have been.”

Willon said hearing about a mass shooting in a place where he had so many fond memories was terrifying.

“We write stories that make people upset and angry sometimes,” he said, and covering workplace violence and mass shootings has been a part of his job. “But this one kind of really brings it home.”

The Capital journalists and alumni will never be the same, Flynn said.

“I just hope nobody loses their edge,” Flynn said. “I don’t think they will. That’s not who journalists are.”

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