Journalism is a competitive field. Getting the story first and right is gold. Spouses and friends who work for competing news outlets have been known to use sharp elbows with each other.
But after the horrific shooting at the Capital Gazette, in which five staffers were killed on June 28 in the newsroom near Annapolis, Md., journalists from across the country — the New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, the Boston Globe and others — have been lining up to help the community newspaper.
Dozens of journalists emailed the paper and asked what they could do, and others simply showed up and said, “Put me to work.”
“I’ve gotten offers from all over the country,” said Baltimore Sun editorial page editor Andrew A. Green, who is coordinating the volunteer effort. “They are coming and saying, ‘No amount of work is too much, no shift is too heinous, use me however you need to.’ ”
Green is coordinating because the 31-person Capital newsroom lost five employees, and those who survived are committed to the paper and working hard, but traumatized. The Capital and the Sun are sister publications owned by the Baltimore Sun Media Group, a subsidiary of Chicago-based Tronc. The papers have shared resources in the past, and more so since the shooting.
It happened around 2:30 in the afternoon, when police say Jarrod W. Ramos shot through the glass doors of the newsroom and then turned his gun on newspaper staff, killing veteran and beloved journalists, as well as a new employee. The surviving journalists reported on their friends’ deaths and put out a paper hours after the bloodshed. Social media showed photos of staff working on laptops from a pickup truck in a garage near the newsroom. They wanted to be sure the paper published.
Reporter Chase Cook tweeted the day of the shooting: “I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.”
And every day after that.
To help in that effort, journalists from across the country have been setting their own lives and jobs on hold for several days or several weeks and stepping into volunteer roles at the Sun and the Capital. The volunteer journalists have gotten permission from their news organizations, which are paying them regular salaries while they help out.
“I feel it was a privilege to come up here,” said Carl Fincke, an editor at the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, who is on his second week working in the Baltimore Sun newsroom editing stories for both the Sun and the Capital.
The Sun has assigned a handful of its reporters to the Capital newsroom temporarily, and both newsrooms are accepting journalists as they come.
Fincke didn’t know the people who were killed at the Capital but volunteered out of a sense of deep sadness and solidarity. He said almost everyone at the Pilot, also owned by Tronc, raised their hands to come help.
Fincke said the mood in the Sun newsroom is “very subdued but very professional.”
“It is a very humbling experience for me to be able to sit with them and work with them,” Fincke said. “I am overwhelmed by the gratitude and appreciation they’ve shown. I’m reading a lot of copy and hopefully doing some good.”
He said he is doing it to support his colleagues, and in memory of the Capital staffers who lost their lives: editorial page editor Gerald Fischman, 61; veteran columnist Rob Hiaasen, 59; sportswriter John McNamara, 56; sales assistant Rebecca Smith, 34; and editor and community reporter Wendi Winters, 65.
Ramos, 38, is a Maryland man who expressed long-simmering anger toward the paper for its coverage of a crime he committed by stalking a woman. He has been charged with five counts of first-degree murder in the attack.
In the Capital newsroom, the plan is to mobilize an army of volunteer journalists at least through the summer to allow staffers to regain some footing and give them some support as they work through the first stages of grief and trauma, Green said.
“It’s evolving because a lot of people have reached out to us,” Green said, mentioning the Chicago Tribune, the Orlando Sentinel, the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal and many others. “There are so many offers to help across the board from fellow journalists.”
Former Sun editor Laura Smitherman, who is scheduled to work out of the Baltimore newsroom this week, left the Sun last year after working there for more than a decade. Smitherman, now deputy national editor for NPR, said she didn’t think twice about coming back to help because the newsroom is like a family.
“I don’t know exactly what I’ll be doing. I’m going to help out,” Smitherman said. “I’ll be giving lots of hugs. And editing, I’m sure.”
She said the staff of the Capital are heroes for putting out the paper the night of the tragedy and each day after.
“The world is keenly aware of how important journalism is, how important local journalism is,” Smitherman said. “They are the papers of record for these areas. It’s important that we help them continue with their mission.”
Another former Sun staffer, Boston Globe White House reporter Annie Linskey, is scheduled to lend a hand in the Baltimore newsroom for a few days in the coming weeks.
She said she and her editors were motivated to help in part because they know how overwhelming it was for their staff to cover the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.
“From the Globe’s perspective, we were so inundated after the Boston Marathon bombing,” Linskey said. “I remember our newsroom. If I can help out now, I’d like to.”
Fincke, the Virginian-Pilot editor, noted that in his absence, his colleagues in Norfolk are picking up his workload. And even with the extra help, journalists at the Sun are still stretched thin.
“At the Sun, people are doing a lot of jobs they weren’t doing a week ago,” said Fincke, who arrived in the newsroom the Monday after the shooting. “There’s a lot of spreading this new workload around. It’s got a lot of ripples.”
Fincke said there are grief counselors, therapy dogs and lots of food and coffee in the newsroom.
“I’ve seen some tears, but I haven’t earned the right to shed them,” he said. “As an outsider, over time you learn who knew the people who died really well. It’s a constant reminder of why you’re up here.”