Permanence and loss at the Capital Gazette

Yesterday marked three years to the day since a gunman killed five staffers at the Capital Gazette newspaper inside its offices, in Annapolis, Maryland. To mark the anniversary, the paper put portraits of the victims on its front page, in between a photo of an empty bench in a waterfront park where one of them, Rob Hiaasen, liked to hang out, and a headline noting that “THEIR WORDS LIVE ON” in “views of Annapolis and the region that can never be erased.” Inside, the paper reprinted some of these words, including a 2017 reflection, by Hiaasen, on a story about a ninety-eight-year-old local man who would sometimes sleepwalk down to the waterfront. “I am profoundly jealous of every fact in this story,” Hiaasen wrote, adding that he hoped one day to emulate the man. “There they will find me. Sleepwalking and daydreaming among all the boats in the water. Found smiling, they will report.” Yesterday, Hiaasen’s former colleagues and city officials and residents gathered at a different local park to dedicate a physical memorial to the victims, comprising five pillars standing sentinel before a brick wall engraved with the text of the First Amendment. Also fixed to the wall: an embossed copy of the Capital Gazette’s front page from three years ago today. It carries the same five photos as yesterday’s edition.

The anniversary of the shooting comes at a turbulent moment for the paper in another, very different respect. Recently, Tribune Publishing, its ultimate owner, was acquired by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund with a long-standing reputation for sharp cuts at its titles. Alden was already Tribune’s largest shareholder when, last year, Tribune closed the physical newsrooms of a number of its papers, including the Capital Gazette; then, this year, Alden moved to take full control. Initially, there was unexpected hope for the Capital Gazette: should the deal go through, it would be spun off, along with the Baltimore Sun, into nonprofit ownership anchored by Stewart Bainum Jr., a local hotel magnate. Even after the spin-off hit a technical snag, optimism persisted; Bainum set his sights on the whole of Tribune, with the goal of selling the company’s other titles to other local owners, and—working with Hansjörg Wyss, a Wyoming-based Swiss billionaire—eventually outbid Alden. But Wyss dropped out (reportedly after concluding that his vision for revitalizing the Chicago Tribune was a pipe dream), and the bid finally fell through. Last month, Tribune’s non-Alden shareholders voted to green-light Alden’s takeover, which was finalized a few days later. Immediately, Alden saddled Tribune, which had been debt-free, with nearly three hundred million dollars of it, including via a loan from another company owned by Alden. It also offered buyouts to staffers across Tribune’s titles nationwide.

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Last week, the New York Post estimated that around a hundred staffers had taken buyouts. Several of them worked at the Capital Gazette. Rick Hutzell joined the paper in 1987 with the intention of leaving after two years to “join the Associated Press and see the world,” but he stayed, and rose to become the top editor. His last day was ten days ago. The buyout, he wrote, “represented a chance for something new” before he got too old to enjoy it. “I wish I could say it’s all been grand, and I’m headed off to retirement,” he wrote. “But it hasn’t, and I’m not.” Chase Cook—a reporter who famously tweeted, in the aftermath of the shooting, that “we are putting out a damn paper tomorrow”—took a buyout as well, as did Danielle Ohl, who chaired the paper’s union; she described herself as “exhausted” after the shooting and years of fighting on behalf of her colleagues, and called the buyout “an opportunity to take care of myself” so she can keep working for years to come. “The thing that makes me just so angry,” Ohl once said, following a prior round of buyouts in January of last year, “is that we could bounce back from a mass shooting, but I do not know if we can bounce back and survive corporate ownership.”

Other staffers who were at the Capital Gazette at the time of the shooting are still there. This week, they’re grappling with yet another traumatizing story: the trial of the gunman who killed their colleagues. (After initially pleading not guilty, he changed his plea to guilty, though he is now also pleading not criminally responsible by reason of insanity; starting today, the jury will begin weighing that defense.) As NPR’s Chris Benderev reported for Embedded, as part of a recent series (that I profiled) about the shooting and its aftermath, Hutzell always felt strongly that his paper—and not its immediate owner, the Sun—should take the lead in covering the trial, despite the complications that would inevitably arise. Phil Davis, who would normally have covered the trial, couldn’t do so since he was a witness to the shooting; Cook, who wasn’t in the newsroom at the time, took the story on, but then backed off it after speaking candidly with The New Yorker about the gunman’s guilt. In the end, Hutzell hired a young reporter named Alex Mann, who had interned at the Gazette prior to the shooting but not been there during it, to take the lead on trial coverage. Hutzell also laid down some rules: no talking about the trial in the newsroom, due to the presence of both trauma victims and witnesses; no role for himself in stories concerning him directly. The guilty plea changed the story, but it did not end it; nonetheless, last year, the Sun moved to hire Mann away. According to Benderev, it frustrated Hutzell to think that the reporter with the best grasp of the trial would no longer be employed by his paper. The Capital Gazette having the best coverage would be a testament to its survival.

Mann now works for the Sun, but his trial coverage is also appearing in the Gazette, whose own reporter Lilly Price is on the story, too. Hutzell, of course, is no longer around to oversee it. The confluence of the trial, the shooting anniversary, and the buyouts is a coincidence (to an extent, anyway; no one forced Alden to offer the buyouts at this particular time, or at all). Once the trial is over, national attention will likely ebb away from the case again, but the economic threats to the paper will endure. So, of course, will the horrifying memories of three years ago. Yesterday, at the memorial dedication in Annapolis, Summerleigh Winters Geimer recalled that the last time she saw her mother, Wendi Winters, who was killed in the shooting, Wendi had said “black and white and read all over”—a reference to an old newspaper joke, and the color of the outfit she was wearing. “Now,” Geimer said, “it seems like ‘black and white and read all over’ is a mean joke for a newspaper covered in blood.”

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Below, more on the Capital Gazette, Alden, and local news:

  • Pleas: Yesterday, Selene San Felice, who worked at the Capital Gazette at the time of the shooting and now works for Axios, criticized news outlets that have used images of the shooter to illustrate stories about the memorial. “Why bother covering a memorial event for a mass shooting if you’re going to continue ignoring the survivors of that shooting? I’m tired of talking to TV stations that continue to use the shooter’s image even when I tell them about the physical and mental distress it puts me in,” San Felice wrote on Twitter. “This is why people don’t trust reporters. We don’t even listen to each other.”
  • Debts: Last month, Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, spoke with Ohl and Rebecca Lurye, of the Hartford Courant, which Tribune also owns, on our podcast, The Kicker. “You’ve seen this company, this hedge fund, the moment they took over, take out a business loan from themselves, at a 13 percent interest rate,” Ohl said, of Alden. “That is not the activity of a persuadable, benevolent owner who is just in it to stabilize the industry, as they say.” Last week, meanwhile, Julie Reynolds, a longtime Alden-watcher, reviewed the terms of Tribune’s sale to Alden and wrote for Nieman Lab that, in hindsight, “the actions of Tribune’s former board come across as self-serving, while the facts suggest violations of both securities and corporate law.”
  • Buyouts: The Chicago Tribune has been hit particularly hard by the latest round of buyouts: the paper reported last week that nearly forty of its journalists had decided to take one. Among those leaving are the columnists Mary Schmich, Dahleen Glanton, Steve Chapman, Heidi Stevens, Eric Zorn, Phil Rosenthal, and John Kass. While ink has been spilled regretting the departures of many of these writers, the Chicago Reader’s John Greenfield hailed the exit of Kass—who recently retweeted the message that journalists are “the enemy of the people” and has also “entertained the possibility” that the 2020 election may have been “rigged”—as cause for “pure joy.” (Per Greenfield, Kass’s departure leaves the city of Chicago without a conservative newspaper columnist.)
  • Gaps: Also out of Chicago, Mark Jacob writes, for Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative, that journalism students are increasingly filling gaps in coverage left by cuts to local news. A new reporting project from students at Medill profiled the Eudora Times, a local news site run by students at the University of Kansas, and the Indiana Citizen, an initiative out of Franklin College. You can watch their work here.


Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.