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Out of tragedy comes a rededication to journalism

The first anniversary of the terrible newsroom attack in Annapolis, Maryland, passed by with minimal fanfare. In a way, it was rather refreshing, as we, as a society, seem to relish reliving dark days, but in reality, many folks in journalism are constantly thinking about it — while still doing their jobs.

Not much has changed since a gunman went on a rampage at the Capital Gazette and killed five people. The Associated Press has described it as the worst attack on journalists in U.S. history, and considering the attention it got that dark day on June 28, 2018, it’s understandable.

After all, gunmen had mainly been targeting schools and shopping malls, places where there were large groups of people and places where journalists found themselves going to report the news once the gunmen had completed their dark deeds. The last thing anyone would expect is for a gunman to go after the journalists themselves; after all, those gunmen gain notoriety from being reported in print, on radio, on television, online and any other news source you can fathom.

With such an event taking place, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see the survivors throw up their hands and say, “Screw this. It’s not worth our lives to do this.” After all, this happened at a time when our nation’s president was (and still is) referring to journalists as “the enemy of the people.”

They didn’t, though. They picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, maybe made an appointment with a therapist and went right back to doing what they do best — showcasing their community. They didn’t even pause the production of their daily paper. Despite the blood of five of their comrades staining their offices, they moved forward and put out the next edition, reminding people that the world doesn’t stop spinning just because something bad happens.

Apparently, they’re still doing that job a year later. The Associated Press spoke with the reporters and editors who kept the paper going strong, and that desire to keep moving forward came from the readers they serve. The Capital Gazette staff had folks cheering them on as they marched in their city’s Independence Day parade. Subscriptions jumped up 70 percent the week after the attack and stayed there, a remarkable feat in this day and age as newspapers and the companies that own them are shrinking.

Mary Adams, a bookstore owner in Annapolis, recalled how some of the journalists were interviewed in the aftermath of the attack and was amazed by their strength.

“They were saying, ‘Well, anybody would put out a newspaper, and of course you would do it,’” Adams said. “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.”

You’ll find that there’s a strength in journalists that not everyone has. Many journalists work long hours, even in smaller communities like Shawano, to gather the news their neighbors need to know. Sometimes it involves coming onto grisly murder scenes and getting details from the police. Sometimes it means listening to a bereaved family as they talk about a loved one who is no longer with them. Sometimes it means sitting in a government meeting until 10 or 11 p.m. to get the important details.

The folks at the Capital Gazette have rededicated themselves to their mission. A photojournalist has taken portraits of his colleagues and their families to create an exhibit called “Journalists Matter: The Faces of the Capital Gazette.” A reporter delved into 700 emails obtained through an open records request to find out the public library’s policies on LGBTQ programs in light of a contentious drag queen story time.

Of course, the scars are still there. One of the Capital Gazette reporters described to the AP the anxiety she felt at a city council meeting because the press area was so far from the exit, the escape route if a gunman ever decided that maybe he could fight city hall. Her fears are well founded, considering how politicians are even less popular than journalists.

In the end, the tragedy helped the newspaper to rediscover its core goal of connecting with readers, engaging in conversations with their neighbors to get at the root of the issues. Newspapers everywhere should be doing that very thing, and it shouldn’t take a murderous gunman to motivate them.

Lee Pulaski is the city editor for the Shawano Leader. Readers can contact him at lpulaski@newmedia-wi.com.