EDITORIAL: On the anniversary of the Annapolis Capital Gazette shooting, one reporter’s view of the state of local journalism

Two years ago today, the reporters and editors of the Maryland Independent were wrapping up another routine weekly staff meeting — probably in the midst of someone telling a funny story, I don’t remember — when one of our ad reps interrupted us to say that she was hearing reports that there had just been a shooting in the newsroom of the Annapolis Capital Gazette.

It’s one of those moments that’s seared into my memory, like the space shuttle Challenger explosion and 9/11. After a moment of stunned disbelief, we immediately swung our chairs around, woke up our computers, and went to work. We shared the latest info from social media, CNN, the Baltimore Sun — and the Capital’s own website. We all stayed late that night, bound by some sense of kindred trauma. This wasn’t people like us. This was us.

Aside from the initial shock, the memory that is strongest for me from that day was how hard it was for us to leave. We had all worked together, but we may not have known each other really well. It was ordinary for people to leave without saying goodbye — not out of ill-will, but just out of courtesy for our colleagues who were still head-down banging out their own stories. That night, we all made eye contact with each other and made a point of saying goodbye. We nodded soberly in silent acknowledgment of each other’s lives and the vulnerability we all suddenly shared. After that day, we weren’t just reporters, we were a team.

As of this week, the last member of that team will be leaving the paper.

And one of the biggest reasons for that, I believe, is because the company that owns the Maryland Independent — and her sister papers the Calvert Recorder and the St. Mary’s Enterprise — is not investing in local journalism.

You may have heard of GateHouse Media (which recently changed its name to Gannett after buying out that legendary newspaper chain) or Alden Global Capital, but probably not Adams Publishing Group. All three are private equity firms that have been buying newspapers across the country. But Adams Publishing Group, through its regional subsidies like APG Media of Chesapeake, has been able to fly below the media watchdogs’ radars.

I believe there are two reasons for that. One, it’s almost impossible to find out anything about APG. Second, the papers the APG subsidiaries are buying tend to be small papers like the Indy that serve small communities, and their acquisition tends not to generate regional or state attention.

Private equity firms buy inexpensive media assets in bulk and generate profits by reducing expenses — including reporters, editors, and photographers who report the news; ad reps who generate the advertising revenue that keep papers running; and graphic designers who lay out visually engaging print editions.

They shrink staff and consolidate them across multiple papers, resulting in less local news. They fill the papers with free, unverified content like press releases and also with wire stories that can be used in multiple papers to reduce costs. Salaries tend to be very low, and during my time at least, promises of raises were never fulfilled.

The corrosive effect on morale was there to see every day. Veteran news people were being fired suddenly and seemingly at random. One reporter left after the company declined to stand behind their investigative reporting. Young reporters with a passion for news were burning out and leaving journalism altogether. It was untenable, and people left one by one as their personal thresholds were exceeded.

To be fair, not everybody left because they were burned out or fired. But the people who hung on because they believed in what they were doing sacrificed a lot to bring you the news. With each departure, they shouldered more of the burden, working longer and harder for the same salary and with no recognition or job security.

Now, replicate that experience across countless other small community papers around the country. At a time when knowing what’s going on in your community matters perhaps more than ever, there are fewer and fewer people every day who are there to bring it to you. The latest estimate is that over 2,100 papers, most of them small-town weeklies, have closed their doors since 2004. And should the Indy and her sisters no longer be profitable, there is a risk that they could follow suit.

There are options. Many community newspapers are switching to a nonprofit structure. There’s the traditional family ownership model that saw papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post rise to global reputation. There’s corporate ownership like AOL’s Patch, and the model of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting which supports the superlative journalism of the PBS NewsHour. There’s local business underwriting. A coalition of local businesses and nonprofits are trying to buy back the Baltimore Sun from the Tribune Group, which is likely to be absorbed by Alden. And volunteer-run news blogs, like TLR, try to plug the gaps where they can.

My proudest memories from working at the Indy are of people’s reactions when I asked them if I could take their photo or interview them for a story. Even in the 21st century, in a world of mobile devices and instant global access, the thought of being “in the paper” — to be made forever and indelibly a part of our community’s history — still carries a moral weight that is unlike anything else in our communal life.

Today, journalists are again being targeted for doing their jobs. Reporters are being intimidated, beaten, and even shot for documenting the momentous and overdue changes surging forth in their communities. There is a photo of a sign taken at a Black Lives Matter march that sums it up for a lot of us: “First they came for the journalists. We don’t know what happened after that.”

Following the shooting at 888 Bestgate, the reporters of the Capital Gazette worked out of the back of a pickup truck, from a coffee shop, or wherever they could set down their computers in order to continue doing their jobs. In the middle of that, assistant editor Chase Cook wrote a tweet that will forever be immortal among journalists:

“I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.”

Chase Cook, Annapolis Capital Gazette

Today, as you reflect on the irreplaceable loss of Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters, please think also about the spirit of Chase Cook.

Charles County needs to care about whether, and for how long, the Maryland Independent will be able to continue putting out a damn paper tomorrow.

photo: WTOP