BROOKE GLADSTONE On this week's On the Media, we remember the mass shooting at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, from the day of...
SELENE SAN FELICE I mean, I remember I was working at my desk when I heard the shots.
PHIL DAVIS I immediately knew something once I heard that first loud crash, and I just immediately hit the deck.
JOSHUA MCKERROW This is going to change everything. Everything is different now.. And I don't want everything to be different.
BROOKE GLADSTONE ...through the aftermath.
RICK HUTZELL My whole purpose in this has been to make the paper survive and it's not the paper it was 2 years ago.
DANIELLE OHL We could bounce back from a mass shooting, but I do not know if we can survive corporate ownership.
BROOKE GLADSTONE On mayhem's third anniversary, an intimate portrait of a newspaper staff, the grievous loss that overcame and the one it may not. Coming up after this.
[END OF BILLBOARD]
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. On Wednesday, jury selection began in the trial for the man who pleaded guilty, but not criminally responsible for reasons of insanity, to killing 5 people at a newspaper in Maryland 3 years ago. This coming week also marks the anniversary of that terrible day.
ANDERSON COOPER The breaking news tonight in America is once again heartbreaking. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE It was on June 28th, 2018, when the scourge of mass shooting found its way inside a newsroom.
NEWS REPORT A shooting this afternoon in Annapolis, Maryland, with multiple people reported shot in the building that houses the Annapolis Capital Gazette. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE For a few days, the news was filled with the images we've come to expect after this kind of crime. The shocked survivors, the candlelight vigils, the calls for tighter gun controls, but then, of course, the news cycle turns to the next thing, and the next...and those who were at the center of the tragedy are forgotten. Chris Benderev, a reporter for the NPR podcast Embedded wanted their stories told. So he went to the Capital Gazette and he stayed there, getting to know the staff of the paper and recording what happened in the aftermath of the shooting and beyond. The story starts in the early hours of the 28th. Photographer Joshua McKerrow had spent the morning at the Naval Academy's induction day. Every year, the people of Annapolis like seeing photos of the young men and women saying goodbye to their parents getting their mandatory haircuts. After getting those shots, McKerrow, a 14-year veteran at the paper, headed home to sift through them.
JOSHUA MCKERROW So I'm driving north on 97, and I see my phone ring and I see that it's Rick.
CHRIS BENDEREV Rick Hutzell is Josh's boss, basically the editor-in-chief of the Capital Gazette.
JOSHUA MCKERROW And he's like, OK, it's probably not true, but I'm hearing word that there was a shooting at Bestgate.
CHRIS BENDEREV Bestgate road, where the newsroom was.
JOSHUA MCKERROW And I can't get a hold of anyone in the office and, at about the exact same moment I'm going north on the highway and roaring south is dozens of emergency vehicles. They must have been going 100 miles an hour like an armada of cars. I could see instantly that this, this was the real thing.
CHRIS BENDEREV They hung up and Josh began driving toward the Capital Gazette's newsroom. When he was at a stoplight, he posted on Twitter: "I'm safe. I wasn't there. I'm on my way." Twitter was starting to fill with little scraps of information. One of the reporters inside the newsroom tweeted: "Active shooter, 888 Bestgate. Please help us." And the person who wrote that tweet, Selene San Felice.
SELENE SAN FELICE I mean, I remember I was working at my desk when I heard the shots.
CHRIS BENDEREV Here's what happened. Around 2:30 in the afternoon, a man with a shotgun fired into and exploded a huge glass door at the entrance of the Capital Gazette newsroom, and then he stepped inside.
PHIL DAVIS I immediately knew something once I heard that first loud crash and I just immediately hit the deck.
CHRIS BENDEREV Phil Davis, a reporter at the paper, hid under his desk. He heard the gunman make his way through the reception area and down the main hallway that ran through the middle of the office, shooting over and over. At one point, the gunman was so close that Phil could hear him reload. But then he kept walking past Phil's desk towards the back of the newsroom where Selene was. She'd been trying to figure out what to do.
SELENE SAN FELICE I said, I'm getting out of here, and I grabbed my purse and I went to the back door, which I was only a couple of steps away from. It was locked.
CHRIS BENDEREV The back door, which was the only other way out of the office, wouldn't open because the gunman had already barricaded it. So, Selene got under a desk next to the intern. They huddled together and tried to keep quiet. Another colleague, Rachael, started running, tripped and fell and then hid behind a filing cabinet. Then another colleague was shot right in front of Selene. But soon after that, the shooting just stopped. Everything got quiet. After the police arrived, they escorted Seline and the others out and told them, Keep your eyes on the deputy in front of you. Do not look around. Nineteen minutes after the shooting started, the cops finally found the gunman and arrested him. He'd been hiding under a desk in the middle of the newsroom. When Josh arrived on the scene, he did what he does when he arrives for any crime story, started snapping photos. He tweeted them out, some of the first pictures of this story anyone sent out to the world. Then Josh walked across the street to where the media were starting to set up shop in the parking lot of a shopping mall with a J.C. Penny near an Ann Taylor near a Sbarro Pizza. And it was in that mall parking lot that Josh, without knowing it, became part of this thing that has ended up defining the Capital Gazette ever since. Because Josh ran into two other reporters from the paper who hadn't been in the newsroom during the shooting, but had also instinctively rushed there as soon as they'd heard, Chase Cook and Pat Furgurson. Chase had had the day off when he'd heard. Pat had been eating a late lunch in the mall's food court. There were some hugs and then without any fanfare, they all started working, reporting, trying to figure out what was going on. They couldn't go back to their newsroom, but they did have the back of Pat's Toyota pickup truck in the mall's parking garage. It had a cigarette lighter where Chase, who didn't even have a laptop on him, could charge his phone. And there were some plastic crates where Josh could prop up his computer to go through photos.
JOSHUA MCKERROW Who was safe? We were making phone calls and checking Twitter and like, oh, you know, Phil's on Twitter, so feels OK. And, you know, somebody sent me a text. I saw Paul here – so OK, Paul's OK.
CHRIS BENDEREV Josh tweeted out the names of some of the coworkers they confirmed were alive, but some of their coworkers hadn't been heard from and had not tweeted. At first, Josh found himself trying to explain it away. Gerald Fischman, the cardigan-wearing editor in his 60s, who liked to communicate with his colleagues by leaving sticky notes on their desks. He had eight followers on Twitter. He wasn't going to tweet about this, Josh told himself. And the same went for 3 other older editors, Rob Hiaasen, Wendi Winters and John McNamara. They wouldn't be rushing to Twitter, Josh thought. But then one of the other reporters working with Josh in that parking lot, Chase Cook, took Josh to the side...
JOSHUA MCKERROW He's like, I talked to Rick. Rick has some names of who's gone. Do you want me to tell you?
CHRIS BENDEREV Rick, the editor-in-chief, had gotten confirmation from the police.
JOSHUA MCKERROW I had one of those moments and it wasn't the first time I had it that day, where I could see the marking line between my old life and my new life. I said, yeah, you know, tell me. And he told me, you know, John and Rob and Gerald and Wendi were gone. I didn't really have time to, like, process it at all because we were, you know, we still had stuff to do.
CHRIS BENDEREV And the stuff they had to do was help out with obituaries about their colleagues, their friends. Josh began scouring his hard drive, trying to pull candid photos that he'd taken over the years of John, Rob, Gerald and Wendi. He didn't want their obits to have those canned picture day photos you can find in the staff section of the company website. Meanwhile, Chase learned something else. In fact, a fifth person had been shot and later died. Rebecca Smith, sales assistant, the friendly face of the front desk. And more was slowly coming out about the suspected gunman, the man police had arrested. He was in his 30s. He lived nearby and he'd had a vendetta against the paper for years. Ever since it had reported on the fact that he was convicted for harassing a woman. He'd sued the Capital Gazette for defamation, then lost the case. In other words, this attack was not random. This was targeted. So, Chase and Pat and Josh had been gathering up some facts, some quotes, some photos, but that begged the question, where would the stuff go? Would there even be an edition to the Capital Gazette tomorrow? And would it include their work? Now, there is a thing you need to know here. The Capital Gazette is actually owned by a bigger paper up the road, the Baltimore Sun. The Sun drops its own stories into the Capitol from time to time. And by now, Sun reporters were in Annapolis covering the story. So tomorrow's Capital could easily be filled with Baltimore Sun stories. They didn't need Chase's or Pat's reporting, or Josh's photos. Still, all 3 of them kept working, uploading whatever they got to the shared server with Baltimore, just like they do with any story. At another point that afternoon, Josh called up a photo editor in Baltimore who worked for both The Sun and the Capital.
JOSHUA MCKERROW I was like, confirm you got the larger sizes for those pictures? He's like, yeah, we got 'em. And I think I said: "I want them to be my photos lead."
CHRIS BENDEREV As lead, meaning the big photo on the front page.
JOSHUA MCKERROW And he was like, absolutely. And I was like, OK. And, and then we hung up the phone and I kind of realized in the back of my head that we had just confirmed that there was going to be a paper.
CHRIS BENDEREV A little later, Chase asked Josh the question outright.
JOSHUA MCKERROW And I remember saying it like a little defensively and like it just a little angrily. I was like, yes, we are putting out a paper tomorrow.
CHRIS BENDEREV After this, Chase sent out a tweet. A tweet that would go on to make him momentarily famous. It read, quote, "I can tell you this, we are putting out a damn paper tomorrow." Survivors of mass shootings often talk about experiencing a devastating lack of control. And it was the same for the Capital Gazette. People told me they felt helpless in the moment. Doing journalism, documenting what was happening to them, even in small ways, that was the first chance to get a little bit of control back. And it wasn't just Josh and Chase and Pat who were doing it. Their boss, Rick Hutzell, proofread stories on his phone from the back of a police car being driven to an interview with detectives. Phil Davis, the courts and crime reporter who survived the shooting, he wanted to report, but he knew he couldn't because he was now a witness to the crime. So, he figured he'd do whatever he could to help other reporters. He went to the courthouse's website, which he knew well, and tweeted out details of the bail review for the suspect. Tomorrow morning, Annapolis District Court, 10:30 a.m. And then there was Rachael Pacella. She was another young reporter who'd survived the shooting. She was the one who fell and hit her head while Selene and the intern hid under a desk. Rachael was taken to a nearby hospital, she didn't have her phone, it was still on her desk back at work. So, Rachael asked someone for a sheet of paper and a pen. And then, almost like a reflex, she began writing. I had no information, so I gathered my own, she later explained. She wrote down her doctor's name, first name in the last initial of the police officer, whom she'd asked not to leave her alone in that hospital room. She wrote down that she remembered that the office had, quote, smelled like gunpowder. And when she finally learned the names of her five coworkers who'd been killed, she wrote down their names too. Back in the mall parking lot, Josh saw the people around him starting to figure out dinner or talking about heading home. Basically, they were figuring out what's next. But Josh had a very different feeling.
JOSHUA MCKERROW I just didn't want it to end.
CHRIS BENDEREV Why didn't you want it to end?
JOSHUA MCKERROW I didn't want the rest of my life to start. This is going to change everything, everything is different now, and I don't want everything to be different here. I mean, like if I leave here, then I have to deal with everything else that's going to happen after. Someone had said "we're going to have to go to five funerals next week, aren't we?" Their plans are being made and the world is moving to the next step, and I don't want to move to the next step. I don't want, you know, I don't want to go to Wendi's funeral. I don't want to. But it was time. I mean, there was nothing else to do. And I was so tired.
CHRIS BENDEREV News outlets were already beginning to talk about the heroism of putting out the paper from the back of a pickup truck, but in the parking lot that evening, things didn't exactly feel heroic. Yeah, it was nice that a lot of people found the whole pickup truck thing inspiring, but was that really doing anything to help the people they were the most worried about? The friends, the coworkers who survived. Would those people even care about the next day's paper?
SELENE SAN FELICE I mean, when we got taken out of the office, I was like, the paper's dead.
CHRIS BENDEREV This is Selene San Felice again.
SELENE SAN FELICE I thought the whole operation was dead. I mean, all the f*cking editors are dead, so how are we going to do it? I didn't know that Chase and Josh and Pat were like out just in the parking lot of the mall reporting. I thought at that moment we were all going to give up. So then when I saw Pat on TV and I realized we were still reporting and then I got the call that like they were writing a story and that they had been reporting. Then it was amazing, and I knew that we were going to have a paper and that if we're going to have paper the next day, we were going to keep having a paper. So I wanted to be part of it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, how to cover the trial of the man who killed your colleagues. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. It was one thing to get the paper out the day after the shooting. Getting back to a sense of business as usual was quite another. Eventually, they moved into a new office with reinforced bulletproof walls, but for a while, the Capital Gazette staff was housed in a cramped, temporary newsroom. There wasn't any privacy, but at least there was some accommodation to make the staff feel safe. Reporter Selene San Felice.
SELENE SAN FELICE Meeting lawn and being like, this is the security guard, he's going to be here with you. And I was like, OK, we have a security guard that makes me feel better. This guy's massive and I think he has a gun. So. So I was like, all right, that that seems safe.
CHRIS BENDEREV She did this thing that a lot of the other people who'd been in the room for the shooting did. She made sure to pick a desk where she could have her back up against a wall. But the clear view of the front door.
SELENE SAN FELICE Because when people would come in, it would make this noise and you didn't know who was coming in. And then if somebody didn't have the code, there was like a doorbell and that was like, so scary. So, I was like, I just want to see who's coming in the room.
CHRIS BENDEREV So those first couple of weeks, Selene couldn't actually do much work. But about a month after the shooting, she did go out on a story. Selene did an article where she checked in with people who'd survived a big tornado one year earlier. But she says even though she was there to talk about their tragedy, they'd often end up talking about hers.
SELENE SAN FELICE People would tell you about where they were when they heard that the shooting was happening. "I was in Wal-Mart," "I was camping," and then you get on with your job and your story.
CHRIS BENDEREV Selene knows they didn't mean to, but these people's stories would often end up making her relive the shooting, too, which was upsetting. Every stage of putting together a newspaper story was different now for Selene. Like after she finally wrote up a draft of her tornado story, it was time for an edit, but that was another reminder of the shooting. Because her editor used to be Rob Hiaasen. She'd loved Rob. Everybody loved Rob because he wasn't just a good editor, he was a teacher. Someone who taught reporters how to fit more humanity into the writing. Selene had a new editor, a nice guy who'd come to Annapolis to help fill in during the summer.
SELENE SAN FELICE I remember I had my first meeting with him. It was really great, but it felt so bad to get that from somebody that wasn't Rob, and then I just went out in the hallway and cried.
CHRIS BENDEREV Selene did get used to churning out more stories. Especially when she took over the entertainment section of the paper, but that meant filling big shoes, because entertainment used to be Wendi Winters' job before she was killed in the shooting. And Wendi had been prolific. She did write ups for what seemed like every concert and play and restaurant and charity fundraiser in the Annapolis area. Plus, she did weekly profiles that readers loved, like Home of the Week. Wendi actually prewrote so many stories that her byline kept appearing in the paper for weeks after the shooting. And at first Selene had been game to pick up Wendi's beat, but by early December, she was struggling to publish even half the number of stories that Wendi had. And lately, people in Annapolis have been asking if she, as Wendi's replacement, would be covering their holiday event this year, you know, like Wendi always did. Oh, they'd add and why hasn't there been a Home of the Week every week anymore? One day after work, Selene recorded a voice memo for me about all this. And in it it was like she was longing for the days when people had brought up the shooting too much.
SELENE SAN FELICE People don't even say sorry. Like people have stopped saying, like, hey, I'm sorry, Wendi used to do this, but who will do it? Now, it's just Wendi used to do it? Who's going to do it? And it just feels like everyone else is back to normal. Feels like a lot of people have forgotten what that day was like. I'm still really sad and I just really want is for Rob to read my stories again. And for Wendi to do, the sh*t she used to do because everybody loved it and I can't do it the way that she did it. [SIGH].
DANIELLE OHL When it first happened, like I wasn't even, I wasn't there, I wasn't in the state.
CHRIS BENDEREV This is Danielle Ohl, the city government reporter. She was on vacation when the shooting happened, so her experience of jumping back into work was very different from Selene's.
DANIELLE OHL When I got back to work, I think I was almost like, yes, like, OK, like I'm here. And, you know, that was fine for a while.
CHRIS BENDEREV But then one night that fall, Danielle was sitting in the back of the Annapolis City Council chambers to cover the biweekly meeting like she always did. And this local businessman walked up to her. He was angry. He didn't like how Danielle had quoted him in a recent story about a controversial bike lane. The two of them went back and forth about this for a minute, and then...
DANIELLE OHL He said something along the lines of, I understand freedom of the press, but you see what happened to you guys. And I don't think I said anything. Then he said, oh, I'm not threatening you.
CHRIS BENDEREV Danielle began to shake. His comment wasn't just upsetting because it referenced the shooting, it was upsetting because the gunman who killed five of her colleagues had also been mad about how her newspaper had written about him. We should say that we talked to the businessman and he denied using the exact words Danielle remembered, but he did say that he referenced the shooting. Danielle eventually had to leave the room.
DANIELLE OHL I was really hot. I was hyperventilating. I couldn't get it together. And I opened my laptop again and I tried to start taking notes. And then I just couldn't.
CHRIS BENDEREV As she was sitting there shaking and realizing she couldn't do her job and cover the meeting, she wrote to someone, her boss, Rick.
DANIELLE OHL He came, and he sat at the back of the city council chambers with me, which is really weird. Like he's never there. He's the editor-in-chief, like, there's no reason for him to be there. I told him, I was like ‘Rick. I think I have to leave." and he was just like, "Done. Go."
RICK HUTZELL And she went home and I, for the first time in decades, covered a city council meeting.
CHRIS BENDEREV This is Rick Hutzell. Before Danielle left for the night, she says that she told Rick that he didn't have to say anything to the businessman, no need to create a scene. Rick disagreed. He told her, quote, "People can't talk to my reporters like that."
RICK HUTZELL I did go talk to the guy. And I did point out that I felt that he had harassed my reporter.
CHRIS BENDEREV The man later apologized. Danielle. She says he told her that he felt really bad about what had happened. Rick had spent decades of his career climbing the ranks of the Capital Gazette, but by the time they were attacked, he'd only been its top editor for three years. One time he told me that he hated the fact that he'd always be remembered as the editor of the era of the shooting. But he also told me that his wife was always trying to reassure him. He'd also be remembered as the editor who pulled them through it, and as part of that, he also made some hard decisions about the paper. Remember how Selene was struggling to replicate Wendi Winters's output? Rick realized it was impossible for Selene, maybe for anyone. So, he pulled back on the number of Wendi style stories that they do. And he discontinued one of the paper's longest running and most beloved features: Home of the Week.
RICK HUTZELL I got a letter from one reader and she was really angry with the fact that we weren't doing Home of the Week anymore because that was her favorite part of the paper. It's hard to judge someone's character from just one letter. Her letter seemed to indicate a complete obliviousness to what was going on. That was the reason she bought the paper. And if you take that away from them, yeah, you may get an angry letter from someone who may not recognize the fact that you're just trying to figure out how to show up for work every day.
CHRIS BENDEREV There's just one more story I want to tell you about what it was like to be back at work at the Capital Gazette. It starts right after the attack, when there was this vigil that city leaders in Annapolis had organized. On a lawn outside a historic building downtown. At one point, some of the Capital Gazette staff got on stage to say a few words.
PHIL DAVIS For those who don't know who we are, this is Selene San Felice, Rachael Pacella, Danielle Ohl, and I'm Phil Davis. We all work at the Capital currently. Yeah.
CHRIS BENDEREV Josh McKerrow, the photographer who'd worked on the day of the shooting out of the pickup truck, he was down in the crowd. He wanted to be up on stage with his friends that he'd known for years, but most of the people up there had been in the room during the shooting. They were the real survivors, Josh felt.
JOSHUA MCKERROW I didn't go up with the staff. I already felt like – I don't know if I should go out there. My instinct was to stay back.
CHRIS BENDEREV For Josh an invisible divide had formed between the out of the room people like himself, and the in the room people. And it was all wrapped up with Josh, his own guilt about not having gone into the office on the day of the shooting. Ever since, he hadn't been able to shake this one thought.
JOSHUA MCKERROW I should have been there. It was my newsroom. By all rights, I should have been there. The feeling is that if you have been there, maybe you could have done something. Maybe you would have been going to the bathroom and he would have seen something in the hallway and you could have done something.
CHRIS BENDEREV Josh didn't know what to do with those feelings. And then one day he noticed his colleague, Rachael Pacella, had shown up. She is the one who tripped and fell while trying to escape. Josh thought about how she'd been through so much more than he had. And in that moment, he decided he did know how to bridge this invisible divide. He'd go check in with her. Put his own emotions aside and focus on trying to see if there was anything she needed.
JOSHUA MCKERROW I was like, How are you doing, Rachael? And she she said something like, I'm OK. I'm just really glad to be here and I'm really glad to be alive. And it just hit me. And I just started crying and then she's, like, comforting me. Are you upset because you weren't there? Because she's clever. I was like, yes, of course, I'm upset that I wasn't there. She was like it's OK. It's OK that you weren't there. I'm glad you weren't there. And you just like, look, let me write you a note. And she got a notepad out. She wrote me a note, and I think I have it on my wall. Let me read it. I probably do. Here it is. It says: The office of Rachael Pacella. Joshua McKerrow has permission and validation for whatever he feels for forever. Additionally, Josh should not feel guilty for not being there. Josh has a kind heart for which I prescribed at least one hug a day, the occasional cry, but mostly as many laughs as possible, signed Rachael Pacella, BD. And then in parentheses, Bullsh*t Doctor.
RACHAEL PACELLA You know, I guess I just wanted Josh if he was ever feeling guilty, to have something that he could always, like, take out of his pocket, you know, and look at.
JOSHUA MCKERROW It was one of the kindest things anyone's ever done for me. Because Rachael was there, and so having her say it's OK. I desperately needed somebody to say that.
RICK HUTZELL I don't think it'd be a surprise to anybody that I feel pretty guilty about what happened.
CHRIS BENDEREV Rick, as the boss didn't just feel bad about not having been there the day of the shooting. He also kept thinking about how in the years leading up to the attack, he'd convinced two of the journalists who'd been killed not to leave the paper. Rick says, just like Josh, there were moments where his colleagues told him to go easy on himself.
RICK HUTZELL A lot of it was about looking each other in the eye and saying, it's OK, that we're [CLEARS THROAT] It's OK that we're alive.
CHRIS BENDEREV Fast forward to September 2019. It's been well over a year since the shooting. Trial of the shooter was supposed to be over by this point, but it still hasn't happened. It'd been delayed twice and now it's coming up in less than two months.
RICK HUTZELL All right. So, this is a meeting to discuss trial – can we shut the door. So first off, I just want to...
CHRIS BENDEREV Rick's called a meeting in his office to talk about trial coverage. There are a few Capital Gazette staffers around a long wooden table.
RICK HUTZELL OK, so just a reminder, as we get closer to this, so we have one, two, three, four people in the newsroom who will be witnesses in the trial.
CHRIS BENDEREV If you'd peered out from Rick's office, you could have seen all four of those people, Paul, Janel, Selene, Rachael, working at their desks.
RICK HUTZELL So the general rule is, don't talk about this story in the newsroom. My office is available for conferences. That's partially because, you know, issues of trauma and also because these people are witnesses. It's an unusual thing to do...
CHRIS BENDEREV One of the people listening to Rick is the person that he'd hired to be the lead reporter on the trial story, Alex Mann. Before this, Alex had been at his first job out of college at a tiny paper. So this was a great step up for him, plus a return to a paper that he'd loved. He'd been an intern here before the shooting, but covering the shooting case, it also threw this young reporter into lots of unusual situations. Like this one day early on in his new job, when Alex was doing his daily check of the court website for any updates in the case,
ALEX MANN I called Rick. I was like, Rick, listen, they've moved to subpoena four people and you are one of them. And he said, "Okay."
CHRIS BENDEREV The subpoena was asking Rick to provide any old emails, notes, any records that he had related to the shooter from before the attack when the shooter had been suing the Capital for defamation. When Alex got back from the courthouse, Rick only had a few words to say to him about the subpoena story.
ALEX MANN He told me he's like, I'm not editing this. And not only am I not editing this, I can't really talk to you about it, which is a very weird thing for a reporter and editor. That's who I would be going to to ask questions, you know, so that day I couldn't.
CHRIS BENDEREV It's easy to forget that many mass shootings don't end in a trial. The gunman often takes his own life or is killed by authorities. But now, after a year and a half of waiting and preparing, the Capital Gazette survivors were finally going to get a chance to testify against their attacker. And then one week before the trial was set to begin, the case changed in a way that no one had been expecting.
ANCHOR 1 We start with breaking news out of Annapolis. The Capital Gazette shooter pleads guilty to all charges.
ANCHOR 2 Let's go to Annapolis right now... [END CLIP]
CHRIS BENDEREV After nearly a year and a half of claiming he was not guilty, the shooter did a surprise 180. He switched his plea to guilty.
NEWS REPORT Well, there were definitely some tears inside that courtroom this afternoon and also a sense of relief among many of the victims’ family members and survivors. [END CLIP]
CHRIS BENDEREV After the guilty plea, Alex and some other reporters have been allowed 20 minutes to look over boxes and boxes of evidence against the shooter. It was hundreds of documents and photos that were normally under seal. And later, when Alex and Rick met up, Rick wanted to know, had Alex seen anything in there that might shed light on one of the biggest questions of this case: Why had the shooter waited years and years until Thursday, June 28th, 2018 to attack?
RICK HUTZELL So the question that's...
ALEX MANN Why June 28th?
RICK HUTZELL Why June 28th? Was there any indication in there of why June 28th?
ALEX MANN Nothing.
CHRIS BENDEREV What about the lead prosecutor?
RICK HUTZELL Was there anything that she said that happened close to June 28? What was the last thing? She said there was something that happened.
CHRIS BENDEREV Rick kept going. Did Alexander anything more about exactly where the shooter had bought his gun from? "No." Alex said. These were the questions of an editor who wants all the facts and someone trying to make sense of the day that changed his life.
RICK HUTZELL You need to take time off.
CHRIS BENDEREV Now, there is something else I have to explain. This guilty plea was not actually the end of the shooter's legal saga because he also entered a plea of not criminally responsible by reason of insanity. Maryland's version of an insanity plea, which meant there would be a full trial, after all, to determine whether or not he had been mentally stable enough to understand the criminality of his actions. And so the paper would keep reporting this story and Rick knew who he wanted covering it.
RICK HUTZELL I mean, Alex has demonstrated that he understands the issues involved in this trial. He has been covering it more than anyone and has written more on it than anyone. And it is his story to tell.
CHRIS BENDEREV But around this time, something else started happening. Rick began having a lot more meetings with his bosses at the Baltimore Sun. I noticed this because I was kept out of those meetings. They weren't OK with me recording. So Rick had to keep me on the other side of the door.
RICK HUTZELL It's going to have to be no, I'm sorry.
CHRIS BENDEREV OK.
RICK HUTZELL I'm sorry.
CHRIS BENDEREV That's fine. I'll talk to you.
CHRIS BENDEREV Before the Sun purchased the Capital, these two papers actually used to be bitter rivals for decades. But as the newspaper industry shrunk, bigger papers began buying up smaller ones. And in 2014, the Sun bought the Capital. Rick told me they'd been good owners, very supportive after the shooting, too. But then in early 2020, I learned about something involving The Sun that had been upsetting Rick. He asked me not to record, it wasn’t public yet, and then he told me that the Baltimore Sun wanted to hire Alex away. It scheduled an interview with Alex for next week. To be clear, Rick totally wanted Alex to advance in his career. He was used to reporters leaving for bigger papers. But the insanity plea trial was just around the corner, and Alex knew this complex legal case better than any reporter anywhere. So Rick, losing Alex would mean losing what he'd spent a year and a half building. His paper, becoming the authority on one of the biggest stories that's ever happened in or near Annapolis. I asked Rick if that was what he was upset about. No, he said, and he gave me a much more personal reason that he'd held on to this story. I mean, this guy f*cking tried to kill us. Rick told me. He was looking for me. Prosecutors had revealed that the shooter had kept a list of, quote, high value targets, and Rick was on that list. What's important, Rick told me, is that it be a reporter at this paper doing the best coverage. That would show that the Capital Gazette had truly survived, not just in that first famous edition, the morning after the shooting, but every day since. One night in his office in January 2020, Rick said something that and all the time I've been talking to him, I never heard him say before.
RICK HUTZELL It's just a lot, you know, I need it to be over.
CHRIS BENDEREV This trial coverage and all this stuff?
ANDERSON COOPER I need the whole thing to be over. I need to be doing something else. Would it be easier to do something else? I don't know. I haven't done anything else in 32 years.
CHRIS BENDEREV I'd never seen this version of Rick. The editor who loves his job so much that his staff calls him the news tornado, who will spin and skip out of his office into the newsroom to celebrate when they get a good tip or scoop. But today, he looked and sounded exhausted. He hadn't taken a real vacation since the shooting. And it was like the idea of losing Alex and losing his edge on this one story made him remember all the other losses.
RICK HUTZELL My whole purpose in this has been to make the paper survive. To make this as an entity to survive, you know, and it's not the paper it was two years ago. It's – it never will be, you know, and it's, sometimes the realization is tougher than others. You know, is it because of the pressures on us that are different now because we're part of a bigger company? Is it because of what happened? Is it because I'm tired? Yeah, all of it. But, at this moment, you know, ask me again in six months, and I'm sure I'll be like, dancing to the newsroom, but I am not very happy in my job – right now.
CHRIS BENDEREV When you say you're not happy with it. What is that?
RICK HUTZELL Five people I know died here. I have won a Pulitzer. What else am I hanging around for? You know, do I really have to rub my nose in it every day?
CHRIS BENDEREV It being?
RICK HUTZELL The death of my friends. You know, wherever I go, it's going to follow me. Think about it every day, think about them every day, but it's right here, it's right freakin where is it? It's in the paper, you know.
CHRIS BENDEREV Rick was talking about that spot along the bottom of every day's opinion page with the names and photos of his five former colleagues, even though he told his staff many months earlier that he might get rid of the photos and just leave the names. He still hadn't. Wasn't ready yet.
RICK HUTZELL You know, it's a lot of ghosts. A lot of ghosts.
CHRIS BENDEREV From what happened?
RICK HUTZELL Yeah. [LONG SIGH, PICKS UP RECEIVER] Rick Hutzell. Hi, Catherine, thanks for calling, what's up?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, can the Capital Gazette survive the existential threat facing the newspaper business? This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. We rejoin the staff of the Capital Gazette in early 2020 when the newspaper had returned to some of its old rhythms. Here's Chris Benderev.
CHRIS BENDEREV Every Wednesday afternoon at the Capital Gazette, Rick would stroll out to this open space near the copier and hold the weekly stand up meeting. He ticked through any agenda items and then he'd always end things the same way. He'd hand it over for weekly awards.
RICK HUTZELL Let's go to weekly awards.
JOSHUA MCKERROW OK, thank you for the nominations, everybody.
CHRIS BENDEREV Weekly awards are a tradition that was started by Wendi Winters, who was killed in the shooting. And the way it works is everyone nominate someone for great work over the past week. The person with the most nominations gets a five-dollar gift card for coffee. But honestly, the most endearing part of this tradition is how every single nomination gets a shout out.
JOSHUA MCKERROW Brooks for steady coverage of the short-term rentals bill. Catherine for North County Story. Danielle for the law library scoop.
CHRIS BENDEREV Josh McKerrow, the photographer you've heard before who worked out of the pickup truck on the day of the shooting.
JOSHUA MCKERROW Olivia's follow up on the canine story.
CHRIS BENDEREV He's who usually reads out the nominations. In his 40s, he's actually one of the more senior people at the paper.
JOSHUA MCKERROW But the winner this week is Alex Mann for breaking the story about lawyers sealing documents without a judge's orders. It was a big, big story.
CHRIS BENDEREV Josh once told me that the newsroom was the only place in the world where he felt like people understood what he was going through because they were going through it, too. Plus, he loved his job. It didn't matter much that the pay wasn't great, thirty five thousand a year, or that he hadn't had a raise in six years. But then, around the start of 2020, a couple of things happened that forced Josh to totally rethink how long he could stay here. First, it was widely reported that Tribune Publishing, the big newspaper chain that owned the Capital Gazette, was likely to be bought by a Wall Street hedge fund called Alden Global Capital. Sure, Tribune had done a lot of buyouts, but it at least said journalism was part of its mission. Alden, on the other hand, was known for what many analysts called vulture capitalism. It had been buying up distressed newspaper chains across the U.S. and making deep cuts. Massive layoffs were just one example, to squeeze more profit out of those papers. The Washington Post reported that the founder of Alden has said that newspapers have to be cut to be saved. Alden, by the way, did not respond to our request for comment. And the second thing that happened was Tribune Publishing announced a new round of buyouts, which presented Josh with a choice. On the one hand, if he took a buyout, he'd get seven months continued pay and health insurance. He could start photographing weddings or corporate events which paid better. On the other hand, Josh did not want to walk away from this job.
JOSHUA MCKERROW I really, really don't want to. This is my life. This is my identity.
CHRIS BENDEREV So he set up a meeting over the phone with his boss's bosses. It was a long shot, but maybe they could show him some tiny gesture that would give him an excuse to stay.
JOSHUA MCKERROW I'm going be taking an extra vacation time, you know what I mean? I don't know. I don't know what I would have said yes to. I'm desperate to be talked into staying.
CHRIS BENDEREV But the company said no. There wasn't anything they could offer. That wasn't the only disappointing part of Josh's phone call with upper management, though. While they were talking, the manager compared Josh's job to another employee's job. The jobs were different, just as the manager explained, because that other employee was,
JOSHUA MCKERROW Production critical. I think I said, how am I not production critical? And he kind of caught himself. But then, you know, basically said that if they don't have a photographer, they'll ask the reporters to ground your cell phone to take pictures of cell phones. What I heard on the phone yesterday was I'm humiliated. I feel like a fool. Like what game did I think I was playing, what team did I think I was on?
CHRIS BENDEREV Of course, it's never easy to be told that you're replaceable, but for Josh, it was different. A year and a half earlier, he could have died doing this job. And now the company was saying that that job could be accomplished by a print reporter with an iPhone.
JOSHUA MCKERROW I mean, that's pretty much where I made my decision like right then.
RACHAEL PACELLA Today is Josh McKerrow's, last day,
CHRIS BENDEREV Rachael Pacella began things at Josh's sendoff.
RACHAEL PACELLA We got to go around and each say a nice thing about Josh and there's ice cream.
CHRIS BENDEREV And then everyone gave their speeches.
REPORTER 1 Any time we went on an assignment together. You've had a great eye for, oh, maybe go talk to that person or maybe go do that.
REPORTER 2 We did a story about a pony one time and then because Josh is nice, he got pictures of me with the pony.
REPORTER 3 Y'all are like family, but he's been here as long as I've been at the paper. So, you know, we're going to miss ya brother.
JOSHUA MCKERROW I'll miss you too. So funeral. I'm not dying – I'm going to be in town!
CHRIS BENDEREV Before this goodbye party, a handful of the younger employees had told me that watching what had happened to Josh with the no raise and the plan to replace him with cell phones after all that he'd done for the paper, it had made them worry for their own futures.
SELENE SAN FELICE What's going to happen to me if he deserves it so much more than I do and he can't get anything? It feels like if Josh is leaving, that's when things are really bad, like we're crumbling.
CHRIS BENDEREV When Tribune took over the capital six years earlier, there had been about 14 reporters in the newsroom. Now it was down to roughly half that.
SELENE SAN FELICE And it feels like everyone who's staying is going down with the ship.
DANIELLE OHL The thing that makes me just so angry,
CHRIS BENDEREV Reporter, Danielle Ohl.
DANIELLE OHL is that we could bounce back from a mass shooting, but I do not know if we can bounce back and survive corporate ownership.
CHRIS BENDEREV Then the pandemic hit. And six months later in August, Rick was in that Zoom call telling everybody the Tribune Publishing was going to permanently close their newsroom.
RICK HUTZELL At 1 o'clock, I believe the note has come out that the company has decided to close a lot of its remote locations. Annapolis is on that list. That does not mean that they are closing the paper. Let's be clear. We will continue as an organization that uses this format as our newsroom. You know, I know this is probably disappointing news for a lot of you. And when I first heard it, I got to admit my stomach was on the floor as well. I've been working in newsrooms since I was 24 years old. It is my environment. I am a product of the newsroom.
CHRIS BENDEREV Rick assured them that their parent paper, The Baltimore Sun, would make room for them at its offices after the pandemic. But Rick's reporters had questions like, how was the desk 45 minutes away in Baltimore going to help them cover Annapolis?
SELENE SAN FELICE I would not feel comfortable filing from my car after a town hall at a high school, like in a parking lot alone...
RICK HUTZELL Agree, I agree.
CHRIS BENDEREV A Tribune spokesperson said that the company was, quote, sensitive to how challenging the decision to close the Capital's office is for our Annapolis based employees, especially in the wake of the tragedy 2 years ago. In any case, over the next couple weeks, each employee came by one at a time to empty their desks permanently from the Capital Gazette's offices. I talked to Selene on her move out day. She said the worst part for her was when she walked into the conference room.
SELENE SAN FELICE That's where those five portraits of them hang.
CHRIS BENDEREV After the shooting, a local artist had made pencil drawn portraits of Gerald and Rebecca and John and Wendi and Rob.
SELENE SAN FELICE And I just don't know what's going to happen to them. I mean, what am I going to do? Take Rob home? Like, take Wendi home? And like, I can't take all five of them. I can't take just one of them. Like, people sent so many portraits and paintings and all this stuff. We can hang on a wall and now there's no wall to hang it on. Like having a place to put that meant something. And nobody thought about where we would put it before they just sent an email saying, your office is gone.
CHRIS BENDEREV As the year wore on, staff told me that morale continued to decline. A few people left for other jobs in the fall and winter, and it seemed like those positions weren't going to be filled. The ship, they said, felt like it was sinking deeper and deeper. And then in February 2021, the hedge fund that had been called the Grim Reaper of American newspapers finally made its move.
NEWS REPORT Tribune Publishing, which owns nine major daily Metro newspapers, announced that it was turning over complete control to Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund widely seen as gutting editorial coverage at newspapers. [END CLIP]
CHRIS BENDEREV But in that same announcement, there was another really surprising piece of news about Tribune. One that affected the Capital Gazette.
So wait, what just happened?
DANIELLE OHL I mean, yeah, we got what we wanted, which is a really rare thing. I don't think I actually ever thought that it would happen.
CHRIS BENDEREV Reporter Danielle Ohl sounded giddy here because incredibly, it seemed her paper had been spared from Alden. Stewart Bainum, this wealthy Maryland businessman had announced that he was going to buy the Baltimore Sun and all its subsidiaries, including the Capital Gazette, and he turned them into a nonprofit. The Capital staff were elated. But then over the next few months, the deal began to unravel. First, it was reported that Bainum began to distrust Alden after they changed some of the terms of the deal. And then Bainum changed his plan. He decided he'd gather other investors and buy not just the Baltimore Sun, but all of Tribune. He'd outbid Alden. But in the end, he reportedly couldn't assemble enough investors. And so, in late May, Alden did purchase all of Tribune's papers, including the Capital Gazette. I checked in again with Danielle Ohl, who, as the chair of the Capital’s Union, had been holding rallies to try to court local owners like Bainum.
DANIELLE OHL You go into it, and you're like, I'm just going to do my job the best I can and cover my community. And, and you do that, and it still kind of comes down to whether or not, like, one rich guy can outmaneuver another rich guy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Two days after Alden's purchase was approved by Tribune's board, the paper offered a new round of buyouts. At least 3 people who were at the Capital at the time of the shooting took it. Editor Chase Cook, the one who tweeted, "We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow." Reporter Danielle Ohl, who you just heard. And finally, editor-in-chief Rick Hutzell, who'd been at the paper for more than three decades. Rick's departure worried a lot of staff, but in his final daily editorial, he wrote that he had confidence the paper would be fine. He also said he'd see his family more, use the kayak he'd ignored for years, and pretty soon he'd start looking for a new job. He joked to reporter Chris Benderev, If NPR can use an editor who knows a lot about one small town, let me know.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This week's show was excerpted from the four-part series reported by Chris Benderev for NPR's Embedded podcast. Thanks to the whole Embedded team for making the series and for allowing us to air it. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jennifer Munson is our technical director. On the Media, is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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