The newsroom in Annapolis, Md., targeted in a mass shooting Thursday, is a small, collegial operation that focuses on a mix of light community news while also serving as a watchdog in the state capital, current and former staff say.
“It’s a community newspaper – where they cover kids’ awards and what matters to people,” Steve Gunn, editor of the paper between 2013 and 2015, told The Globe and Mail.
“But it’s in a state capital, so there’s watchdog reporting on state government, city council and matters like that – in a lot of ways, it’s the perfect newspaper.”
The newsroom immediately set to work covering its own tragedy, with a print edition still planned for Friday.
Police said a gunman opened fire in the newsroom, killing five people and gravely wounding a number of others before he was taken into custody. Authorities said the man entered the building and “looked for his victims″ and threw smoke grenades during the attack.
Court records identified the suspect as Jarrod Warren Ramos, 38, who had previously sued the newsroom.
In 2013, Mr. Ramos sued a former staff writer and columnist at the paper as well as its publisher and parent company for defamation.
That lawsuit stemmed from an article written about an incident two years prior by that reporter entitled “Jarrod wants to be your friend,” which detailed how Mr. Ramos befriended a former high school classmate on Facebook and then proceeded to call her vulgar names, tell her to kill herself and try to get her fired from her job at a bank.
The Maryland Court of Special Appeals judgment stated that Mr. Ramos felt he was defamed in the article about how he had pleaded guilty to a charge of criminal harassment.
“A discussion of defamation law would be an exercise in futility, because the appellant [Mr. Ramos] fails to come close to alleging a case of defamation,” the written ruling stated in the dismissal of his appeal for a defamation lawsuit.
According to the Capital Gazette article that prompted his defamation lawsuit, Mr. Ramos was a computer engineer who worked for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for six years.
Mr. Gunn, who declined to talk about the suspect or his motive, said a shooting is every newsroom’s worst fear.
“This is every newspaper’s nightmare,” he said. “Just the idea of someone who has an issue with the paper coming in with a gun.”
The Capital Gazette newsroom serves a collection of newspapers throughout Maryland’s Anne Arundel County, including the Capital, the Maryland Gazette, the Bowie Blade-News and the Crofton-West County Gazette.
At the time he worked there, there were about 40 journalists at the paper, Mr. Gunn said.
The attack hit a business in which colleagues had forged strong ties.
“In a small shop, you’re seeing people every day – you see them at the grocery store, it’s a pretty constant thing,” Mr. Gunn said.
Police identified the dead as Wendi Winters, Rebecca Smith, Robert Hiaasen, Gerald Fischman and John McNamara.
Author Carl Hiaasen said on his Facebook page he was ”devastated and heartsick” to confirm the loss of his brother, who he described as ”one of the most gentle and funny people I’ve ever known″ who had a “gifted career as a journalist.”
Rob Hiassen had worked as a columnist and editor for The Capital Gazette for several years.
Chase Cook, a reporter at the Capital Gazette, told The Globe and Mail there was little he could say about the incident.
“We’re still processing what happened,” Mr. Cook said in a brief telephone interview.
Mr. Cook, who covers county and state government and described the paper as focused on county affairs, said he could not say where the paper and its editorial team will go from now.
He said he was working with his colleagues on covering the story, and that was his focus.
On Twitter, he was more blunt, writing: ”I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.”
The Capital Gazette is the result of a merger in 1991 of the Maryland Gazette, founded in 1726, and the Capital, founded 1884, according to the newspaper’s website. The newspaper dedicates itself to local coverage of Annapolis and this week’s editions stuck to news of the community.
Alfred Hermida, director of the University of British Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, said the current political climate in the United States has increased fears about violence against reporters, though he stressed that he didn’t know the motives behind the shooting and was speaking only in general terms.
He noted the attack took place as the press has come under criticism by the U.S. President Donald Trump and amid angry public discussions around media reports.
“There’s a context in the U.S. where politics is becoming increasingly polarized and media journalists are being labelled by some people as the enemy,” Mr. Hermida said.
“And when you have that kind of context and that environment, it changes things – because some people may interpret that as, ‘well, if the media is the enemy, that gives me almost licence to do certain things … if you create an environment where journalists are presented as the enemy, as working against the best interests of the country, that does in a sense put a target on the journalists’ back.”
- With files from The Associated Press