Already, a museum exhibit tells the story of the mass shooting of five Capital Gazette employees, and how their surviving co-workers put out a damn newspaper the following day. Time magazine, recognizing their role in protecting freedom of the press at a time that is under threat worldwide, included the staff among its 2018 Person of the Year honorees.
Next year, students will attend journalism school on scholarships created in honor of the victims, and community members are working on a permanent memorial to replace the candles, flowers and notes left outside the office building that housed the now shattered newsroom.
In the six months since a shotgun-wielding man stormed the Capital’s newsroom in Annapolis, the legacy of the horrific crime has begun to take shape even as it continues to unfold. But for family and friends of the victims, for Annapolis, where the Capital Gazette’s roots date to 1727, and for the news industry as a whole, the horrific attack on June 28 had the immediate effect of splitting time into a before and an after.
“That is a line of demarcation in my life,” said Maria Hiaasen.
Her husband Rob, a Capital columnist and editor known for a witty writing style and mentoring young reporters, was killed alongside his coworkers: Gerald Fischman, an erudite editorial writer; John McNamara, a longtime sportswriter and fan, news reporter and editor; Wendi Winters, a prolific community-oriented writer, and Rebecca Smith, an advertising aide known for her kindness and helpfulness.
A Laurel man who had a one-sided feud against The Capital, Jarrod W. Ramos, was arrested after he was found hiding under a desk in the newsroom when the shooting stopped and ultimately charged with murder, assault and other violations. He is scheduled to go to trial in June.
That Ramos has a history of threats and harassment, and yet still was able to purchase firearms, prompted Maria Hiaasen to channel at least some of her grief into speaking out on behalf of advocacy groups such as the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
“In the frustration of losing Rob, I felt this need to do something,” she said. “I can’t spin the clock back in time, but I can do this one thing.”
The sorrow and anger over the shooting quickly rippled through Annapolis and beyond. Vigils, marches and a concert were organized, and funds to benefit the families and establish a scholarship had collected close to $2 million as the year ended. There were also gifts of time: Dozens of journalists from across the country, some of whom are alumni of either the Capital Gazette papers or others also owned by its parent company, The Baltimore Sun Media Group, spent a week or two reporting and editing for the decimated newsroom. And the Newseum in Washington last month opened an exhibit featuring artifacts from the shooting and its aftermath.
“In the frustration of losing Rob, I felt this need to do something,” she said. “I can’t spin the clock back in time, but I can do this one thing.”— Maria Hiassen
The embrace of the Capital Gazette, from near and far, came as no surprise to Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley.
“It’s all very personal for us,” he said. “It’s a small town, we’re a lot closer to the journalists here.
“The uniqueness of our situation is this was an attack on free speech,” Buckley said. “As a city with one of the oldest papers in the country, what we have to do is defend that. We won’t stop talking about it.”
Buckley said his immediate goal is “not to let this break us, but to make us stronger as a community.
“My long term goal,” he said, “is for it not to make us numb.”
It has been a traumatic time for the survivors. Six other staff members were in the newsroom as the gunman killed their co-workers, and either dove for cover — the back door had been jammed shut to prevent escape — or were able to flee the office on the first floor of 888 Bestgate Road. (Other tenants of the building have since returned, but the newsroom has relocated.) Some credited Winters, who they say grabbed trash and recycling containers and charged the gunman, with distracting him long enough for them to get out.
Several staff members who were away from the newsroom at the time set up shop in a nearby parking garage to put out, in the memorable tweet of reporter Chase Cook, “a damn paper tomorrow.” Which they did, and every day since.
Phil Davis, who covers crime for The Capital, hid under his desk until the shooting stopped and police arrived. He took a week off, returning “clearly” too soon, and took more time away. His first story back was about a murder.
“The dynamics have certainly changed,” Davis said. “But the people here have really pulled together.”
The Capital has and will continue to cover the case as it goes through the court system. The journalists, along with those at other community papers owned by The Sun media group, recently formed a union to represent them in contract negotiations in the hopes of increasing their wages.
The November elections brought a change to the states attorney’s office that is prosecuting Ramos, with Anne Colt Leitess beating Wes Adams. Ramos’ public defender has left open the possibility that he may change his not guilty plea to an insanity defense. Circuit Judge Laura Ripken has given him until Feb. 12 to decide, in advance of a trial that is slated to begin June 3.
Donations continue to come into the Community Foundation of Anne Arundel County, which is managing family and scholarship funds in honor of the victims. The families will share about $1.5 million, and a scholarship has been endowed at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. Co-workers, both those who were in the newsroom at the time and those who weren’t, will also share in some of the donations, said Amy Francis, the foundation’s development director. Donations received after the end of the year will go toward broader community efforts.
“Certainly this doesn’t bring anyone back,” Francis said, “but we hope it provides some comfort.”
The foundation had never been in a similar situation, Francis said, having to develop a formula for how funds would be distributed among survivors of a traumatic event. They benefited from work done in previous cases, most prominently, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York, she said.
And now, the Anne Arundel foundation could itself become a resource for groups in other communities as mass shootings have continued, Francis said. Just to name three subsequent incidents, shooters have killed three workers at the Rite Aid distribution center near Aberdeen on Sept. 20; 11 worshipers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, and 11 revelers at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, Calif., plus a sheriff’s sergeant who died in friendly fire, on Nov. 7.
Several of the memorials to the newsroom shootings are based at the University of Maryland College Park, where the journalism school is named after Philip Merrill, the onetime owner and publisher of the Capital.
The Merrill College of Journalism, which counts Fischman and McNamara as alums and where Hiaasen taught one semester, dedicated the Capital Gazette Memorial Seminar Room earlier this month. Funds raised in the aftermath of the shooting will endow a scholarship for journalism students, and McNamara’s window, Andrea Chamblee, created a sports journalism scholarship in his honor as well.
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Lucy Dalglish, dean of the Merrill college, views the shooting in the context of a broader attack on journalism in a year in which President Trump has repeatedly called the media the “enemy of the people.”
“Is the rhetoric inflaming things?” she said. “It absolutely is.”
She said the outpouring of support for the Capital staff and family shows that people realize local journalists are not enemies but valuable members of their communities.
“Wendi Winters,” she said of the writer of “Teen of the Week” and “Home of the Week” features, “she was out there trying to connect her community every single day.
“Without local journalism, you don’t have a community,” Dalglish said. “This is how people develop a civilization, how they develop a civil society.”
She remembers when her hometown paper, the Grand Forks Herald, managed to publish after the city flooded and burned in 1997 and convey vital information, such as messages evacuated residents posted to let their loved ones know where they were.
“That was the glue that kept the community together,” she said. “That is what a good community newspaper does.”