The Media Today

NPR’s tale of two crises at the Capital Gazette

March 16, 2021

On June 28, 2018, a gunman stormed the newsroom of the Capital Gazette, in Annapolis, Maryland, and murdered five staffers: Rob Hiaasen, Wendi Winters, Rebecca Smith, Gerald Fischman, and John McNamara. Later the same day, Selene San Felice, a twenty-two-year-old reporter who survived the attack, was interviewed on CNN, and shared a grim observation about the nature of the news cycles that typically follow mass shootings in America. “I honestly didn’t even expect to be talking with Anderson Cooper today. I thought people would get, like, an Apple News notification, and they would just blow it off,” San Felice said. “This is going to be a story for how many days? Less than a week. People will forget about us after a week.”

The Capital Gazette shooting, and San Felice’s interview, stayed with Chris Benderev, a reporter and producer at NPR, much longer than that. He and his colleagues at Embedded—a documentary-style show, hosted by Kelly McEvers, that produces deep dives off the news—had already been looking to focus on the aftermath of a shooting; there was, sickeningly, no shortage of possible subjects, but Benderev ended up staying with the story of the Capital Gazette. (It helped that Annapolis is close to his base, in DC.) Over the course of the next two and a half years, he reported a four-part series; the first installment dropped a month ago, and the fourth came out last week. The series starts with the CNN interview and expands from there, focusing first on the day of the shooting—when surviving staffers worked from the back of a pickup truck to, in the now-famous words of reporter Chase Cook, “put out a damn paper tomorrow”—then tracking how the survivors processed their longer-term trauma while continuing to report, including on the gunman’s trial. Benderev captured some gutting individual stories. San Felice struggled to match Winters’s prolific output covering community events. “People have stopped saying, like, Hey, I’m sorry, Wendi used to do this,” she said, “now it’s just: Wendi used to do it, who’s going to do it?” Another reporter, Danielle Ohl, recalled covering a city-council meeting where a local businessman upbraided her for her coverage, with words to the effect of, “I understand freedom of the press, but you see what happened to you guys.”

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After the shooting, Benderev was one of a number of reporters to seek access to the Capital Gazette. Initially, Rick Hutzell, the top editor, declined the requests—for reasons of security and inadequate physical space in a tiny temporary newsroom, and also because his staff still needed privacy. But Benderev kept talking to staffers who were keen for his reporting to proceed, and encouraged them to record their thoughts in voice memos that he could use later, or that staffers could one day incorporate into a project of their own. (Some of them, Benderev says, at one point considered making a podcast.) Eventually, Hutzell gave Benderev his blessing to interview staff offsite; then, in the spring of 2019, the Capital Gazette moved into a bigger space and Benderev was allowed inside. He visited at least once a week until the pandemic hit, after which he joined meetings via Zoom; he interviewed most of the staff, and tried to structure his questions, he says, to respect their traumatic memories. As an old-school editor, Hutzell, Benderev says, was resistant to becoming part of the story, but he opened up more as time passed. “As much as, as a radio journalist, I always want people to be emotional,” Benderev told me, “he just felt like he can’t be a puddle of tears and then be the manager, because he has to be this stable presence.”

As the series nears its conclusion, it shifts some of its focus to incorporate a second, very different type of crisis—telling the very specific story of journalists surviving a mass shooting at work against the much more common backdrop of crushing cuts to the news business. “We always knew that it would be two things,” Benderev says of the series. “I guess the part we did not know was the stuff with Alden Global Capital and the newsroom.” In the fall of 2019, Alden, a New York hedge fund notorious for whittling down its media properties, became the largest shareholder of Tribune, the Capital Gazette’s ultimate owner; Tribune implemented cuts across its titles, before moving, last summer, to permanently shutter physical newsrooms, including the Capital Gazette’s. “I know this is probably disappointing news for a lot of you; when I first heard it, I got to admit, my stomach was on the floor as well,” Hutzell told his staff on a Zoom call that Benderev recorded. “I don’t have all the answers. I can’t even make my damn camera work. But I do believe that there is a workable solution that addresses a lot of these problems.” Ohl, speaking to Benderev before the newsroom closed, had been more pessimistic: “The thing that makes me just so angry is that we could bounce back from a mass shooting, but I do not know if we can bounce back and survive corporate ownership.”

Then, last month—on the same day that NPR released a trailer for the series—came a major development. Alden announced a deal to take over the entirety of Tribune, pending the approval of other shareholders, but there was an unexpected silver lining for the Capital Gazette, which, along with other Maryland papers including the Baltimore Sun, would be spun off into nonprofit ownership—anchored by Stewart Bainum, Jr., a local hotel magnate—should the deal go through. Hutzell told staff that the news was hopeful, but cautioned that there were “still several steps before this comes to fruition.” Since Sunday, we have learned more about those steps, and a possible snag. Marc Tracy, of the New York Times, reported that Bainum and Alden are “at loggerheads” over the terms of the nonprofit spinoff; according to the Sun, Bainum “balked,” specifically, at Alden’s offer of a five-year “shared services contract.” Bainum is reportedly now considering rivaling Alden’s bid for the whole of Tribune; there is much work to be done, but if Bainum were to succeed, Tracy writes, he would seek to sell other titles to local owners, too.

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Whatever happens next, NPR’s series is a useful and timely testament to the local-news crisis in America, as well as a moving, deftly-handled exploration of its original impetus: the inadequacy of the typical mass-shooting news cycle. In seizing on San Felice’s words on CNN, Benderev was worried of sounding “a little self-righteous: like, we don’t forget about these people,” he says, referring to mass-shooting victims generally. “But of course, I do, too, and so do the people at the Capital Gazette… like, it’s impossible to remember.” Journalists sticking with survivors’ stories is a way to counter that grim truth—not just around mass shootings, Benderev says, but the much broader problem of gun violence in America. “The more that news organizations are willing to put resources behind stories where you follow people, and you get to see other stuff that happens to them, I think that’s good,” he says. As the second part of his series shows, fewer and fewer outlets have such resources. At least there, for now, Bainum offers some hope.

Below, more on the Capital Gazette and mass shootings:

  • The mass shooting news cycle: I’ve had to write many times in this newsletter about the familiar issues with coverage of mass shootings, including the lack of follow-through, and the problem of national reporters and photojournalists swarming small towns and cities and crowding out local journalists. In 2017—after a gunman killed twenty-six people in Sutherland Springs, Texas—I spoke with journalists and experts to assess what the press could do differently. Eli Saslow, of the Washington Post, suggested a similar approach to Benderev’s. “Our attention span as a country is so short that the wave of interest ends really quickly, and the people feel, first, relieved, but then a little bit abandoned,” he said. “People respect when you don’t treat these shootings like some sort of grim routine, but as uniquely horrific.”
  • Interviewing survivors: In December 2019, San Felice (who now works for Axios) wrote for Poynter sharing lessons for reporters on how to approach and cover trauma survivors. Following the shooting at the Capital Gazette, “I was able to start healing by feeling heard,” she wrote. “I was also bribed, falsely quoted, harassed and continuously retraumatized by reporters who didn’t know how to handle my story.” Among other recommendations, San Felice suggests that journalists “exhaust all efforts to reach a traumatized subject via the internet or phone before showing up to their door,” and “try as hard as you can to keep them out of the dark places they don’t need to go.”
  • Alden v. Bainum: Also for Poynter, Rick Edmonds calls the odds of Bainum completing a takeover of Tribune “possible, but not all that likely in my view.” For Tribune to reconsider its agreement with Alden “would almost certainly take a firm offer at a substantial premium,” Edmonds writes. And Bainum’s reported plan to then sell Tribune papers into local ownership looks like “a tall undertaking. Keep in mind that a pair of investigative reporters at the Chicago Tribune went knocking on doors a year ago trying to find a buyer for the chain’s flagship and came up empty.”

Other notable stories:

Listen: Why is it so hard to say there’s hope? 

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.