The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Publisher locks Capital Gazette staff out of their building in Annapolis

Annapolis Capital reporter Danielle Ohl speaks to a rally of about 200 supporters at the city dock after Tribune Publishing, owner of the Capital and Maryland Gazette newspapers, closed the newsrooms of the two papers.
Annapolis Capital reporter Danielle Ohl speaks to a rally of about 200 supporters at the city dock after Tribune Publishing, owner of the Capital and Maryland Gazette newspapers, closed the newsrooms of the two papers. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)
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In Annapolis, the roots of the Annapolis Capital and Maryland Gazette newspapers date to the Gazette’s founding in 1727. The Gazette was one of the first papers to publish the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, though the paper still proudly notes that it was placed on Page 3 — Page 1 was reserved for local news.

Those roots were damaged when a gunman burst into the Capital Gazette newsroom in June 2018 and killed five staff members. The paper won a Pulitzer Prize for its work through that horrific trauma, and a new, specially designed newsroom was opened for the journalists a year later. Reporters and editors said it provided a feeling of safety, with enhanced security and bulletproof walls.

Now the coronavirus pandemic and the newspapers’ owner have dealt another traumatic blow. Last month, Tribune Publishing announced that it would permanently close the Annapolis newsroom, along with the newsrooms elsewhere of four other newspapers, while continuing to publish print and online editions as their staffs worked from home.

The Annapolis staff made plans to clear out their desks on Labor Day, to stage a final rally and farewell to their bricks-and-mortar headquarters. But Tribune Publishing had other plans. It learned of the rally and locked the Capital Gazette staff out of the building, saying that the event “raises important Covid-related health concerns,” according to a text message from a labor relations executive.

So, many staff members, former staffers and supporters from the Baltimore Sun gathered in the building’s parking lot Monday, painted protest messages on their cars and then drove down to the Annapolis harbor, where a group of about 200 people expressed their hope that the Capital and the Gazette would keep covering local news, even without a central home from which to do it.

“I guess the Tribune didn’t learn after 2018,” said environment reporter Rachael Pacella, who survived the shooting, “that the community here loves these journalists and we’re not going to give up easily. We’re not going to let our newspaper be damaged anymore, and we’re not going to let it be closed down easily.”

“You watched people die while you hid under a desk,” recalled features reporter Selene San Felice, also a shooting survivor, “then you’re supposed to get better. Then you take that desk away from me. That’s how this feels. We’re not better. This isn’t better.”

The company announced last month that it would also close the newsrooms of the New York Daily News, the Orlando Sentinel, the Allentown Morning Call and the Carroll County (Md.) Times. In Annapolis, the Capital publishes daily and the Gazette twice a week. The company also publishes the Bowie Blade-News once a week.

Max Reinsdorf, chief of staff for Tribune Publishing, said in an email Monday night that Tribune was “sensitive to how challenging this decision is for our Annapolis-based employees.” But the company was “consolidating some of our real estate as we navigate revenue declines that have been worsened by the economic impact of the pandemic,” Reinsdorf said. He said Capital Gazette employees would work out of the Baltimore Sun newsroom when the staff there returned.

About one-third of Tribune Publishing is owned by Alden Global Capital, which has been accused of purchasing news outlets, then stripping their assets.

There was no notice given the staffs before the announcement. Pacella said that the announcement “did cause some of the survivors of the shooting to be retraumatized, to have our space suddenly ripped away like that.”

The reporters expressed frustration that they already could not afford to live in Annapolis — they said only four of their 30 staff members make more than $40,000 a year — and now they can’t work there either.

“We thought this was our forever home,” said reporter Danielle Ohl. “We were just settling in and feeling some stability in our lives. It’s really destabilizing. How are we expected to do our job when a lot of us can’t afford to live here?”

Ohl and others said it was already challenging to do journalism in the isolation of the pandemic, but now it will be more difficult to meet sources and find news.

“You take the eyes out of the community when you take the newsroom away,” Ohl said.

Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley agreed. “The importance of local journalism has never mattered more than today,” he said outside the locked newsroom. “We need people to hold us accountable. This is a really sad day that we’re losing this newsroom.”

The staff members slain in the newsroom in 2018 — Gerald Fisch­man, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters — were not far from the minds of the papers’ supporters Monday. Andrea Chamblee, McNamara’s widow, said closing the newsroom “really is a boon for corrupt people. It’s open season now on local government accountability.”

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman recalled visiting the newsroom in 2018, when he was challenging an incumbent for election, and coming away thinking he had a fair chance to get his message out. “If we lose the Capital Gazette, talk about the loss of democracy,” he said.

Jay Perry of Brooklyn Heights, Md., said he and his son showed up because “we want to support the local paper, it’s important. We believe that local news is vital to the community and we shouldn’t just watch it fade.”

Longtime sports reporter Bill Wagner said newsrooms help teach young journalists the subtleties of reporting and where to find the best sources of information. Minutes later, Ohl announced directions to “Susan B. Campbell Park” for the rally.

Wagner hollered that Campbell’s middle initial was C, not B. “The family gets really [angry] when people call it Susan B,” he said.

The crowd roared. “See? Real-time fact checking,” Ohl said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the page on which the Capital printed the Declaration of Independence. This story has been updated.