Cindy Choi

A Year After Newsroom Attack, Journalists Embraced by City

Reporters who survived the worst attack on journalists in U.S. history say the trauma has not faded, but their connection with their readers is a source of comfort and inspiration

Standing ovations. A surge in subscriptions. Hugs from random readers. At a time when journalists are being vilified as "the enemy of the people,'' staff members at the Capital Gazette newspaper are feeling the embrace of a grateful community, one year after a gunman went on a newsroom rampage that left five of their colleagues dead.

Reporters who survived the worst attack on journalists in U.S. history say the trauma has not faded, but their connection with their readers is a source of comfort and inspiration.

"They'll say that they read our work, and then they'll be really nice to us, which is nice, even if they disagree with whatever we're reporting,'' said reporter Selene San Felice, who hid under a desk during the June 28, 2018, shooting.

Killed were Gerald Fischman, editorial page editor; Rob Hiaasen, an assistant managing editor; John McNamara, a staff writer who covered sports; Rebecca Smith, an advertising sales assistant; and Wendi Winters, special publications editor.

The paper received a special Pulitzer Prize citation and $100,000 for its coverage of the attack and its insistence on putting out the next day's paper. The staff was named along with other journalists as Time magazine's 2018 Person of the Year. Editor Rick Hutzell won the National Press Foundation's Benjamin C. Bradlee Editor of the Year Award.

Annapolis residents held fundraisers and gave employees a rolling standing ovation when they marched in the July Fourth parade just days after the attack. Subscriptions soared 70 percent a week after the bloodshed and remain there, said Renee Mutchnik, a spokeswoman for paper's owners, Baltimore Sun Media. Readers have been known to walk up to staffers to thank them.

Journalists at the paper say the honors and award have helped but haven't made the trauma go away. Some have turned to their craft to heal. Some have rededicated themselves to journalism.

Reporter Rachael Pacella, who hid between filing cabinets during the shooting, has broken down at funerals and in the Wyoming wilderness on a camping trip. Covering a City Council meeting in Bowie, Maryland, distressed her because the press area was too far from the exit, the escape route in case of attack.

"Through counseling and support, I've gotten a lot better over time,'' she said, "and the experience has also sort of reconfirmed to me my commitment to journalism and has made me want to give back even more to the community in terms of telling their story.''

Overcome by anxiety and despair after the shooting, photojournalist Paul Gillespie asked colleagues and victims' relatives to sit for simple black-and-white portraits in his basement. Gillespie, who escaped from the newsroom during the attack, calls his project "Journalists Matter: Faces of the Capital Gazette.''

In Gillespie's pictures, reporter E.B. "Pat'' Furgurson solemnly holds a pen and notebook, a hat with the words "Not the Enemy'' next to him. Pacella looks through the shape of a heart she has made with her hands in one frame, while clutching a "Press On'' poster in another. Andrea Chamblee wears a "Journalism Matters'' T-shirt and a lanyard with the press credentials of her slain husband, McNamara.

"Each one of these photo sessions has been, for me anyway, kind of like a therapy session with these people,'' Gillespie said, "because we start off with just taking a few easy pictures, me trying to get them comfortable with the camera and stuff, and then we just talk the whole time as I'm taking pictures.''

San Felice said she is focusing on more serious and ambitious reporting at the newspaper, which moved into new office space this month 2 miles from the scene of the bloodshed.

She recently published a story using public information laws to obtain more than 700 emails from the county library board, its staff and the public on a debate over LGBTQ policy and programs, including the contentious Drag Queen Story Time, in which men in drag read to children.

"I think that with a year gone by, we're moving into a new era for our paper, and I want to make sure that we're honoring the people that we lost by doing the best journalism that we can do for the people of Anne Arundel County,'' she said.

The man arrested in the attack, Jarrod Ramos, 39, has pleaded insanity and is set for trial on murder charges in November. He had a grudge against the paper after it wrote about his guilty plea to harassing a former high school classmate in 2011.

Mary Adams, who owns The Annapolis Bookstore, remembers how some of the journalists were interviewed in her store a short time after they received the Pulitzer citation in April. They talked about how they published the newspaper the day after their newsroom was shattered.

"I started listening to the interview, and they were just so modest about all that they did,'' Adams said. "They were saying, 'Well, anybody would put out a newspaper, and of course you would do it.' No, not anybody would put out a newspaper the day after. That really just took so much strength, I think, and compassion for their friends that they lost. I think people are just so much more aware of The Capital now.''

The Rev. M. Dion Thompson of St. Anne's Episcopal Church in Annapolis, who worked as a journalist at The Baltimore Sun for 15 years, said a greater connection has developed between the community and the newspaper. 

"They weren't, as the president would say, 'the enemy of the people.' That wasn't who we saw,'' Thompson said. "These were people who walked with us, shopped with us, that we saw at the stores, that we may have interacted with in stories. These were real people, and I think that incident, that tragedy, just sort of heightened a sense of connection and protectiveness.''

Gillespie, who hopes to create an exhibit of his photographs and possibly a book, said the community's support has been off the charts.

"Someone came up two weeks ago and gave me a hug and a kiss,'' he said. "It was really nice.''

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