When you’re a reporter, the newsroom is home.
It may be a home you see more often than your real one, to be honest. It’s where the phone calls get made, the interviews get scheduled, and the miles and miles of copy get written. It’s the place of bad jokes, election-night pizza, and arguments over whether a material is called “concrete” or “cement” in print. It’s the core of the daily insanity, the “daily miracle” as each new edition of the newspaper is referred to.
It’s where life happens.
And last week, for one publication, it became where death happens, too.
On Thursday, the staff of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis lived the nightmare. Five of their co-workers dead as a gunman shot his way in. The rest, having to keep going, to cover this horror that had come through the door, to report the deaths of friends and colleagues even in the midst of trying to find safety.
Every reporter has heard the editor’s admonition to get out there because “you won’t find any news in the newsroom.” If only that were always true.
The exceptions hurt too much.
In a way, it’s strange to be writing about this. Not just because I did a column about press violence literally a year ago, when the stories of the day were about windows being shot, bomb threats being called in, and a congressional candidate knocking a reporter down. But because it’s a story of someone taking a newspaper seriously. Seriously enough to kill.
That’s been the exception more than the rule these days.
We’ve seen the stories of the budget cuts, the layoffs, the financial pressure put on newspapers across the country. To many people, they’re a part of the conversation that seems to get increasingly exiled to the periphery. Websites keep snapping up and recirculating their copy – it’s a dirty secret how many online news sites rely on newspaper coverage, just as television stations once did before – while the men and women at the heart of it are continually called on to do more with less.
And they still do it.
I’m not talking about angels. I’m talking about people who make good choices, bad choices, and sometimes even bizarre choices in what they cover and why. Here and around the world, they ask, they learn, and they tell the story, even when someone would rather they not.
Sometimes they die for it.
Around the world, just this year, 33 of them have. Most of them by murder.
To our Founding Fathers, the conversation would not have been strange. On the Fourth, we look back to when several of them wrote words that could get them killed. When the signers of the Declaration pledged “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” they knew it was no empty promise.
“Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants?” Dr. Benjamin Rush of Pennsylvania recalled in later years.
“Let us prepare for the worst,” Abraham Clark of New Jersey wrote after signing. “We can die here but once.”
The right words at the right time matter.
And in journalism, this is why the work goes on.
Sometimes badly. Sometimes well. Reporters get praised, threatened, reviled, thanked, and even ignored – sometimes all in the same week. And even if newspapers went away tomorrow, the work would still go on somewhere, in some form, because it is too necessary to a free country to have people ask and learn and tell the story to others.
The story won’t stop. So the storytellers must go on.
At the Capital Gazette, one page of one edition was left blank after the shooting, save for the names of those who died and a brief tribute. A moment to pay honor, to feel the pain.
And then the work continued. As it has. As it will.
This is a country made by speaking out. And the words will not be silenced.
Not even in their very home.