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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