When my son Pat was still waking up after open-heart surgery three years ago, he said, “Call Rob and tell him I’m okay.” Rob wasn’t his father, mother, or sibling. Day by day, he was closer than that. He was Pat’s editor.
On a small newspaper a good editor is much like a minor league coach or the sergeant of an infantry squad, guiding and inspiring an overworked, underpaid, close-knit group that does its job every day and then wakes up the next day to do the job all over again. In Pat’s 19 years at the Annapolis Capital Gazette, the paper’s ownership has changed twice and its staff has been cut again and again. The smaller the crew, the closer the bond.
Then, suddenly, at 2:33 p.m. on June 28, 2018, Pat’s colleagues Rob Hiaasen, Wendi Winters, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara, and Rebecca Smith were gone, murdered not for what they had done but for who they were, newspaper people doing their job.
Pat, returning from a late lunch after a doctor’s appointment, was spared purely by luck. Apparently the murderer swung his shotgun at his victims desk by desk in the newsroom, and Pat’s desk was next. At first police held him and other Capital staffers across the street as they swept the building, even as reporters from networks and other papers swarmed the scene. Then he was out among them, reporting on his fallen friends and for them, too busy for shock. He and his colleagues set up shop with their laptops in the back of his pickup truck, doing their job.
It’s what you do.
As a born newspaperman, I have always been bemused by legends about how worthy papers great and small respond to emergencies. Writing Civil War history, I came to admire the little-remembered Gamaliel Bailey, who edited abolitionist papers in the North before starting another not far from the Capitol in Washington in 1847. His prospectus for The National Era stated that “the great aim of the paper will be a complete discussion of the Question of Slavery … not for the triumph of Party, but for the establishment of Truth.” A year later, a pro-slavery mob attacked his office, imprisoning the editor and his printers for three days. Undeterred, Bailey kept on publishing, and three years later ran a serial by Harriet Beecher Stowe. It was called Uncle Tom’s Cabin. When Stowe met Lincoln a decade later, he is famously said to have said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
Right, but who serialized it?
The Great Baltimore Fire began at 10:50 on Sunday morning, February 7, 1904, and in 14 hours would destroy most of downtown. Inside the cast-iron, “fireproof” Baltimore Sun building, reporters, editors, and printers labored on, counting on the structure to withstand the storm. But that night, approaching flames heated the iron walls until they started buckling. Management ordered everyone out, raising protests from the city room, composing room, and press deck, where men (they were all men in those days) were determined to keep working.
Within hours, Sun editors, printers, and the whole operation were aboard a chartered train to Washington, where they took over the shop of the Evening Star, which didn’t publish on Sundays. As the paper’s centennial history boasted, “The Sun, in those days, was not a paper to get excited and descend to indecorum, even in the presence of a fire that was destroying the heart of Baltimore. It got out no extra, but devoted itself to preparing a full report for early next morning, with all names spelled precisely right and no essential fact forgotten. The other papers published extras, but not the imperturbable Sun.”
The Baltimore Sun Media Group now includes the Annapolis Capital.
Forty-four years ago, the weekly Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Kentucky, was living up to the slogan next to its nameplate: “It Screams!” The paper crusaded so vigorously against abusive coal companies and official sleaze that some of the local powers tried to burn it out of business. The designated arsonist largely botched the job, but when my friend the owner/editor Tom Gish announced that he would publish on schedule the following week, the police chief dropped by and tacked a “condemned” notice to the building.
Somebody asked Tom if that meant he’d have to stop publishing. “No,” he said. “No, you just never quit.” Without hesitating, he and his co-editor wife moved the Eagle to the front porch and all over their house. Family members worked with friends who flew in from afar, reporting, typing, laying out pages, pasting them up, and then driving the whole thing up the road to the next county to be printed. That first homemade issue bore a freshly revised slogan: “It Still Screams,” and the Eagle still does.
Then there are stories like Will Irwin’s performance in the hours when the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire were destroying much of the city and knocking out telegraph lines to the rest of the world. Back east at the New York Sun, Irwin wrote a six-column descriptive account of what must have been happening, block by block, as if he were there in the beloved city where he had once lived. (Will was the uncle of my late and cherished friend Don Irwin, longtime Washington correspondent for the old New York Herald-Tribune and Los Angeles Times. It’s in the blood.)
You can track these tales back centuries, discovering generations of newspaper people doing their jobs in the face of fire and fury. That tradition lured many of them into the business and has held them there despite all. But most of those heroic tales are about material crises or public crimes, and often end with well-earned congratulations. Annapolis and the readers of the Capital are mourning losses more real than buildings, more painful than court cases could ever be. Those who worked beside Rob, Wendi, Gerald, Johnny Mack, and Rebecca lost comrades-in-arms. How could they honor such companions?
That terrible day, a reporter from The New York Times asked Pat if the Capital would publish the next morning.
“Hell, yes,” he said.
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