Teamwork in the midst of tragedy

Journalists from across the country come together to assist the Baltimore Sun newsroom in the days following the Capital Gazette shooting

Watch any relay race, and no matter the speed or level of competition, one thing is universal: the look. The moment a runner hands off the baton, trusting the next person to finish what he or she started, a look of both relief and exhaustion envelops their face. That is how Kalani Gordon looked at me when I checked in at The Baltimore Sun newsroom.

Four days prior, on Thursday, June 28, Jarrod Ramos had entered the offices of the Capital Gazette and killed five people. “Unfortunately it was me who saw it [online] first,” says Gordon, the senior content editor for analytics and digital products at the Sun. “We found out from Twitter, and I actually sprinted upstairs to our publisher’s office. I’ve never run so fast in my life.”

In the moments that followed, she says, a physical and emotional shift was felt in the newsroom as the team gathered to assess the situation. “There was kind of a mix of uncertainty and franticism,” Gordon says. “It was one of the weirdest tensions I’ve ever felt in the newsroom. Because on one hand, this is breaking news, we know how to do this. But also, that sort of chilling realization hits, that this is really real.”

Within hours of the shooting, the Sun had compiled individuals bios of each victim. “There was an instance when I looked up and reporters are making calls to start writing obits, while crying,” Gordon says. One of the greatest gifts as a journalist—or curse, depending on how you look at it—is the ability to compartmentalize things in the midst of chaos. In breaking news situations, when covering stories of loss or sadness, this skill becomes paramount.

But by Monday, reinforcements had arrived.

“We knew we were gonna need help,” says Trif Alatzas, publisher and editor-in-chief of The Baltimore Sun, of the days following the shooting. “Obviously we had lost some people and had a lot of people grieving, and we knew there were going to be funerals and memorials and things, so we started figuring out how do we get people here. Our first wave of help was from within the company.”

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The Capital Gazette is owned by the Baltimore Sun Media Group, of which the Sun is the flagship publication. All of these are owned by Tronc, which also owns the Chicago Tribune. Because of this corporate umbrella of sorts, Tribune staffers were able to help remotely in the hours immediately following the shooting.

On June 28, I walked into the Chicago Tribune newsroom to see every television streaming the press conference from Annapolis. The room was a combination of shock, organized chaos, and despair, along with a realization of how easily it could have been us.

 

There was an instance when I looked up and reporters are making calls to start writing obits, while crying

 

We kept in touch with Baltimore to let them know what the chatter was on the wires and on social media while they updated their stories with local reporting. I and one other person were parsed off and assigned to Baltimore duties. The majority of the day was very much, be ready for whatever is thrown your way.

The Capital Gazette Facebook page had been flooded with messages of support, endearment, condolences, and even the occasional rage-filled troll. That day, I was the person whose job it was to read each of them and reply appropriately. It was pitched to me by Gordon as a heavy ask, and by the end of the day, I saw what she meant. It wasn’t labor intensive, but it was emotionally exhausting. We didn’t want the Capital staff to have to sift through them all and relive the incident again, but the heartfelt ones went into a scrapbook of sorts to give to them.

Friday morning, an all-staff email went out, informing us that anyone willing to travel would be flown to Baltimore to help in person, and should inform their supervisors. That message was promptly followed by an email to my boss, and roughly 48 hours later I was lugging my suitcase through O’Hare airport.

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The Tribune sent staffers in two waves: two digital editors, myself and Elizabeth Wolfe, for three days in the first week, and another digital person and a staff photographer the following.

Reporters and copy editors were also sent from other markets such as Florida and Virginia, and a handful of former Capital and Sun staffers were loaned out from their current publications to help. “It all came together very quickly, but I’m glad it did,” Wolfe said. “I really didn’t know what I was signing up for, but I was happy to try my best to help.”

Resources from the Sun’s newsroom had been sent to Annapolis, and the help that came from other papers was used to backfill those spaces in Baltimore. “We wanted as few new faces in Annapolis as possible,” Alatzas says.

The faces that remained in Baltimore were very clearly happy to have guests. Everyone stopped by our desks to shake hands and say thank you, although we weren’t really sure what for. We just showed up, opened a laptop, and did whatever they needed us to do.

“There was definitely a sense of relief,” Gordon said of our arrival. “We were stretched pretty thin, working pretty much nonstop trying to maintain coverage.”

Being there during such a tragic time in the history of journalism made the room feel more prestigious than it already is. There’s just something about carpet that looks like it hasn’t been updated in 30 years, randomly painted neon walls, Pulitzer Prizes hanging in the same place they’ve been since they were won, books and papers stacked as tall as my shoulders, and Elaine the newsroom administrator, there to show you where the extra napkins are. I didn’t work there. This wasn’t my newsroom. Yet somehow it so naturally felt like a home away from home.

The following days brought an array of tasks: prepping stories, editing videos, compiling galleries from victims’ funerals and July 4 celebrations, and managing social accounts for Baltimore and the Capital. Since our papers share content management systems, we were able to jump in with a functional knowledge of how to navigate their content.

“I didn’t interact with any Capital Gazette people, but doing their social media definitely felt like a really big responsibility,” Wolfe says. “Honestly the most nervous I have ever been to send a tweet was the editorial explaining why they were walking in the local parade. I just wanted to make sure every word was perfect, and that I got the right tone and didn’t seem to be exploiting this tragedy.”

And despite working nonstop, those same people had to be convinced every single night that it was okay to go home. Journalists are such dedicated people; even when another journalist tells them to take the July 4 holiday to rest and try to get more than a few hours sleep for the first time in six days, the typical response was “Are you sure? I can stay.”

“They were definitely not concerned about overtime or clocking out,” Wolfe says. “They were there to do the work, and even if they were at home, they were going to keep doing the work. They were eating, sleeping, and breathing this.”

After three days on loan, it was time to fly back to Chicago. Aside from the nightside copy editor, I was the last remaining person in the Sun newsroom on July 4, which made for a bittersweet ending. A week prior I had never met, or even spoken to any of the people I had spent the last few days working alongside. Now they are all people I consider my colleagues. The entire experience was a powerful reminder of how journalism is a team sport. All of the parts move together to make the machine run. And I was humbled to be a spare part.

“I have told everybody I hope we never have to return the favor, but we are just so appreciative of the journalism community.” Alatzas says. “It’s a tough business, but this is something that makes you proud to be a part of it.”

Photo by Kayli Plotner.

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Kayli Plotner is the digital content editor for the Chicago Tribune. Follow her on Twitter @kayplot.