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The Capital Gazette: What The Newsroom Looks Like 2 Years After Shooting

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Almost three years ago, back in June 2018, I spoke with a journalist who was grieving the loss of his colleagues. A man with a shotgun had entered the offices of their newspaper, The Capital Gazette, in Annapolis, Md., and killed five members of the staff.

JOSH MCKERROW: They were journalists of the community newspaper. They're not journalists who want their names in big letters or - you know, they were the journalists that - the engines that make community papers run, that make American journalism run. They would not have wanted to be a story.

KELLY: But now they were, as Josh McKerrow explained one day after the shooting. Soon after that, news coverage quieted down as it always does, replaced by other tragedies. NPR's Chris Benderev wanted to understand the impact of a mass shooting over time, so he spent two years getting to know the surviving members of The Capitol Gazette staff. What he found is the subject of a new series from NPR's podcast, Embedded. We're going to share a long excerpt from the first episode and over these next 20 minutes, let Chris tell the story of an unexpectedly courageous act on the day of the shooting. A warning to listeners, this story includes vivid descriptions of the violence.

CHRIS BENDEREV, BYLINE: On the morning of June 28, 2018, the Capital Gazette had a plan for what it would cover - wrap up any loose ends from the election two days earlier, report on the drowning of a paddleboarder in the Chesapeake Bay and finally, a routine story for this part of Maryland - Induction Day at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, the day every year when young applicants officially enter the Navy.

Even though it happens every year, people in Annapolis like seeing photos of Induction Day, so the Capital Gazette had sent one of its photographers out to the Naval Academy - Josh McKerrow.

MCKERROW: So I knew what I wanted. I wanted to be there at dawn because it's right on the Severn River. And I wanted to get that sunlight as it kind of, like, popped over the horizon, like, hitting the family saying goodbye to their kids.

BENDEREV: Josh had been at the paper for 14 years, and he liked taking photos of those wide-eyed kids about to join the Navy.

MCKERROW: I've done it many times, and it's one of my favorite assignments of the year because at the very beginning, they're with their parents and hugging and, you know, tearful. And then an hour and a half later, they're standing rigidly at attention, you know, getting shouted at by Marines for, you know, not holding their hands in the proper way, you know, not reading their "Reef Points" the proper way. And then they get their heads shaved, and they get very overwhelmed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BENDEREV: Induction Day was the kind of small, locally important story that made the Capital Gazette a fixture in Annapolis. The paper had been around in one form or another since before the American Revolution. And yes, it occasionally got big scoops. It had also covered scandals at the Naval Academy, for instance. But its bread and butter was the less flashy stuff.

If you want to know what happened at the city council meeting last night, check the Capital Gazette. Their reporter was probably the only reporter there and definitely the only one who stayed until after midnight to hear debate over whether commercial vehicles should be allowed to double-park downtown or where exactly on the map a nearby marina ended and open waters began.

One of the Capital Gazette's most popular features, though, was something more charming - Home of the Week. Every week, this one reporter, Wendi Winters, would profile a different home. Sometimes they were expensive and remarkable, but often they weren't. They were just local.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BENDEREV: Back at the Naval Academy on June 28, Josh McKerrow says that his shoot of Induction Day went kind of perfectly.

MCKERROW: On that day, I was just in it. You know, I was getting moments. I was just - I was really pleased with the work I was doing.

BENDEREV: Afterward, Josh knew that he had to sift through a lot of photos of those wide-eyed young people getting their hair buzzed off. And typically, he'd head back to the newsroom to do that. But today, he was in a hurry because it was also his daughter's birthday.

Josh is a divorced dad of three, and he was going to stop by his ex-wife's house with a gift and take his daughter out for snowballs, the shaved ice dessert that's famous in this part of Maryland. So he drove home, picked out his best Naval Academy photos, sent them in, and then hopped in his Jeep and drove off. It was about 2:30 p.m.

MCKERROW: So I'm driving north on 97, and I see my phone ring. And I see that it's Rick.

BENDEREV: Rick Hutzell is Josh's boss, basically the editor-in-chief of the Capital Gazette. Rick was on vacation, but Rick never truly stops working. So it wasn't weird to get a call from him.

MCKERROW: And I almost let it just go to, like, voicemail to be honest. I was like, oh, you could just let it go.

BENDEREV: If Josh was in trouble or Rick wanted him to cover some local crime story - and these were the typical reasons Rick would be calling - Josh didn't want to deal with that right now. Remember - daughter, birthday, snowballs.

MCKERROW: But I picked it up. And I said, hey, Rick, you know, kind of in that friendly, like, you know, wasn't-me kind of voice. And he's like, are you in the office?

BENDEREV: Josh told his boss, no, he hadn't gone into the office.

MCKERROW: And he was like, OK, it's probably not true. But I'm hearing word that there was a shooting at Bestgate.

BENDEREV: Bestgate Road, where their newsroom was.

MCKERROW: And I can't get a hold of anyone in the office. And at about the exact same moment - I'm going north on the highway, and in the left breakdown lane roaring South is dozens of emergency vehicles. They must have been going a hundred miles an hour - like, an armada of cars. And I've been doing this enough that, like, I see a fire truck passing me with their lights on, I look at their body posture, and I can tell whether this is for real or not. You know, I can tell just by the set of their shoulders whether they're going to a report of a chimney fire or they're going to, you know, a three-alarm dwelling. And I could just - I could see instantly that this was the real thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BENDEREV: Josh is seeing all this as he's still on the line with his boss, Rick. He now realizes that the thing Rick said probably wasn't true - that there'd been a shooting - must be true. But he doesn't tell Rick.

MCKERROW: I couldn't tell him. I couldn't tell them because I knew. I knew. I knew. I knew. I just couldn't - I couldn't be the one. And so I think I said, OK. I'm coming up on Benfield. I'll turn around. I'll stay in touch.

BENDEREV: They hung up, and Josh began driving toward the Capital Gazette's newsroom, called his daughter and apologized and said he couldn't make it for her birthday. When he was at a stoplight, he posted on Twitter, I'm safe. I wasn't there. I'm on my way. Twitter was starting to fill with little scraps of information. One of the reporters inside the newsroom tweeted, active shooter, 888 Bestgate. Please help us. And the person who wrote that tweet...

SELENE SAN FELICE: I mean, I remember I was working at my desk when I heard the shots.

BENDEREV: Selene San Felice, a 22-year-old reporter at the paper. Here's what happened. Around 2:30 in the afternoon, a man with a shotgun fired into and exploded a huge glass door at the entrance of the Capital Gazette newsroom, and then he stepped inside. The gunman made his way through the reception area and down the main hallway that ran through the middle of the office, shooting over and over. As the gunman moved towards the back of the newsroom, Selene, as she told CNN later, made a decision.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ANDERSON COOPER 360")

SAN FELICE: I said, I'm getting out of here. And I grabbed my purse, and I went to the back door, which I was only a couple of steps away from. It was locked. And I said, it's locked.

BENDEREV: The back door, which was the only other way out of the office, wouldn't open because the gunman had barricaded it. So Selene hid under a desk. Another colleague tried to run towards the back door, tripped and fell and hid behind a filing cabinet. And another colleague was shot right in front of Selene. But soon after that, the shooting just stopped. Everything got quiet. Selene texted her parents that she loved them, and then she tweeted, active shooter, 888 Bestgate. Please help us. After the police arrived, they escorted Selene and the others out and told them, keep your eyes on the deputy in front of you. Do not look around.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BENDEREV: Nineteen minutes after the shooting started, cops finally found the gunman and arrested him. He'd been hiding under a desk in the middle of the newsroom. A little while later, when Josh arrived on the scene, he couldn't actually get to the newsroom. The building it was part of had been walled off by ambulances and caution tape and police.

So Josh did what he does when he arrives for any crime story. He started snapping photos. He tweeted them out. They were some of the first pictures of this story that anyone sent out to the world. And then Josh walked across the street to where the media were starting to set up shop in the parking lot of a shopping mall with a J.C. Penney near an Ann Taylor near a Sbarro pizza. And it was in that mall parking lot that Josh, without knowing it, became part of this thing that has ended up defining the Capital Gazette ever since because Josh ran into two other reporters from the paper who hadn't been in the newsroom during the shooting but had also instinctively rushed there as soon as they'd heard - Chase Cook and Pat Ferguson. There were some hugs, and then, without any fanfare, they all started working, reporting, trying to figure out what was going on.

They couldn't go back to their old newsroom, but they did have the back of Pat's Toyota pickup truck in the mall's parking garage. It had a cigarette lighter where Chase, who didn't even have a laptop on him, couldn't charge his phone. And there were some plastic crates, where Josh could prop up his computer to go through photos. The whole setup made for this incredible image - three local journalists reporting on an attack on their own newsroom from the back of a pickup truck in a mall parking lot.

MCKERROW: At first, it was - the issue was to figure out who was safe. We were making phone calls and checking Twitter and, like, oh, you know, Phil's on Twitter, so Phil's OK. And, you know, somebody sent me a text. I saw Paul here, so OK, Paul's OK.

BENDEREV: Josh tweeted out the names of some co-workers they confirmed were alive. But some of their co-workers hadn't been heard from and had not tweeted. At first, Josh found himself trying to explain it away. Gerald Fischman, the cardigan-wearing editor in his 60s who liked to communicate with his colleagues by leaving sticky notes on their desks - he had eight followers on Twitter. He wasn't going to tweet about this, Josh told himself. And the same went for three other older staffers - Wendi Winters, who wrote Home Of The Week, John McNamara, a veteran journalist who loved covering Maryland sports, and an editor named Rob Hiaasen, who was a beloved mentor to the younger staff. But then one of the other reporters working with Josh in that parking lot, Chase Cook, took Josh to the side.

MCKERROW: And he's like, I talked to Rick. Rick has some names of who's gone. Do you want me to tell you?

BENDEREV: Rick, the editor-in-chief, had gotten confirmation from the police.

MCKERROW: I had one of those moments - and it wasn't the first time I'd had it that day - where I could see the marking line between my old life and my new life. And I said, yeah, you got to tell me. And he told me, you know, John and Rob and Gerald and Wendi are gone. And I didn't break down or anything. I just - I knew it was bad. And I didn't really have time to, like, process it at all because we - you know, we still had stuff to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BENDEREV: And the stuff they had to do was help out with obituaries about their colleagues, their friends. Josh began scouring his hard drive, trying to pull candid photos that he'd taken over the years of John, Rob, Gerald and Wendi. He didn't want their obits to have those canned picture-day photos you can find in the staff section of the company website. Meanwhile, Chase learned something else. In fact, a fifth person had been shot and later died - Rebecca Smith, a sales assistant, the friendly face of the front desk. She'd been the first one that the shooter turned his gun on.

And more was slowly coming out about the suspected gunman, the man police had arrested. I'm not going to tell you his name in this story. It's become more common in coverage of mass shootings to not give the gunman any more notoriety than they already get. But I will tell you he was in his 30s. He lived nearby. And he'd had a vendetta against the paper for years, ever since it had reported on the fact that he was convicted for harassing a woman. He'd sued the Capital Gazette for defamation, then lost the case. In other words, this attack was not random. This was targeted.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Is there any information on the type of shotgun? Was it a sporting shotgun? Was it a tactical shotgun?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I don't have that information.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Were there accomplices, sir?

BENDEREV: The police held press conferences throughout the afternoon in the mall parking lot. Dozens of reporters would pack in. All the big national news outlets had arrived by now.

MCKERROW: Pat and Chase and I covered the press conference like we would cover any press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Broken windows on the fourth floor.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: There are broken windows on the fourth floor.

MCKERROW: And they both managed to fight and got questions in. I was proud of them for that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BENDEREV: So Chase and Pat and Josh had been gathering up some facts, some quotes and photos. But that begged the question, where would the stuff go? Would there even be an edition of the Capital Gazette tomorrow? And would it include their work? Chase Cook noticed that no one had explicitly answered that question yet.

You had been wondering if there'd be a paper tomorrow.

CHASE COOK: I'd been - yeah, I wasn't 100% certain on it. Who knows? Nobody's told me we're not - but also uncharted territories.

BENDEREV: Now, there is a thing you need to know here. The Capital Gazette is actually owned by a bigger paper up the road, the Baltimore Sun. The Sun drops its own stories into the Capital from time to time. And by now, Sun reporters were in Annapolis, covering the story. So tomorrow's Capital could easily be filled with Baltimore Sun stories. They didn't need Chase's or Pat's reporting or Josh's photos. Still, all three of them kept working, uploading whatever they got to the shared server with Baltimore, just like they do with any story. At another point that afternoon, Josh called up a photo editor in Baltimore who worked for both The Sun and the Capital.

MCKERROW: I was like, confirm you got the larger sizes for those pictures. And he's like, yeah, we got them. And I think I said, I want them to be my photos in the paper tomorrow because the Baltimore Sun had photographers there, and I want them to be my photos lead.

BENDEREV: As lead meaning the big photo on the front page.

MCKERROW: And he was like, absolutely. And I was like, OK. And we hung up the phone, and I kind of realized in the back of my head that we had just confirmed that there was going to be a paper.

BENDEREV: A little later, Chase asked Josh the question outright.

MCKERROW: Chase asked me something like, you know, we are putting out a paper tomorrow, right? And I said, yes, we are. And I remember saying it, like, a little defensively and, like, just a little angrily. And I was - yes, we are putting out a paper tomorrow.

BENDEREV: After this, Chase sent out a tweet, a tweet that would go on to make him momentarily famous. It read, quote, "I can tell you this - we are putting out a damn paper tomorrow."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BENDEREV: Survivors of mass shootings often talk about experiencing a devastating lack of control, and it was the same for the Capital Gazette. People told me they felt helpless in the moment. Doing journalism, documenting what was happening to them, even in small ways - that was the first chance to get a little bit of control back.

And it wasn't just Josh and Chase and Pat who were doing it. Their boss, Rick Hutzell, proofread stories on his phone from the back of a police car being driven to an interview with detectives. Phil Davis, a courts and crime reporter who'd survived the shooting - he wanted to report, but he knew that he couldn't because he was now a witness to the crime. So he figured he'd do whatever he could to help other reporters. He went to the courthouse's website, which he knew well, and tweeted out details of the bail review for the suspect - tomorrow morning, Annapolis District Court, 10:30 a.m. It was journalism as a coping mechanism.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BENDEREV: Back in the mall parking lot, Josh eventually stopped for a moment and took in the situation.

MCKERROW: The sun was going down. I talked earlier about reading the body postures of, you know, police officers. They were relaxing. It was done. Everyone was really tired. They'd caught him.

BENDEREV: Josh saw the people around him starting to figure out dinner or talking about heading home. Basically, they were figuring out what's next. But Josh had a very different feeling.

MCKERROW: I just didn't want it to end. I just did not want it to end. I did not want to walk away from there. But you have to.

BENDEREV: Why didn't you want it to end?

MCKERROW: I didn't want the rest of my life to start. I didn't know - I didn't have the conscious thought, but I just was like, this is going to change everything. Everything is different now, and I don't want everything to be different, you know what I mean? Like, I can't - if I leave here, then I have to deal with everything else that's going to happen after.

And already, you know, someone had said, we're going to have to go to five funerals next week, aren't we? And who wants to go to one funeral? And just suddenly, you're thinking, five funerals next week. You know, it's already like their plans are being made and the world is moving to the next step. And I don't want to move to the next step. I don't want - you know, I don't want to go to Wendi's funeral. I don't want to - but it was time. I mean, there was nothing else to do, and I was so tired. You know, I'd been working since 6.

BENDEREV: News outlets were already beginning to talk about the heroism of putting out the paper from the back of a pickup truck.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: The Capital Gazette published the paper even after five of its employees murdered in the newsroom. I can tell you this - we are putting out a damn paper, one reporter said. And yes, they did. Five beloved, hardworking...

BENDEREV: Months later, the Capital Gazette would be recognized by the Pulitzer board with a special citation that commended the paper's courageous response and its unflagging commitment at a time of unspeakable grief. But at the end of that day, Chase and Josh and Pat weren't thinking about awards or viral tweets. They were thinking about their coworkers - the ones who died and the ones who'd barely made it out alive. Would those people even care about the next day's paper?

SAN FELICE: I mean, when we got taken out of the office, I was like, the paper is dead.

BENDEREV: This is Selene San Felice again. She's the 22-year-old reporter who hid under a desk during the shooting.

SAN FELICE: I thought the whole operation was dead. I mean, all the [expletive] editors are dead. So how are we going to do it? I didn't know that Chase and Josh and Pat were, like, out just in the parking lot of the mall, reporting. I thought at that moment we were all going to give up. So then when I saw Pat on TV and I realized we were still reporting and then I got the call that, like, they were writing a story and that they had been reporting, then it was amazing. And I knew that we were going to have a paper and that if we were going to have a paper the next day, we were going to keep having a paper. So I wanted to be part of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "LACQUER GROOVE")

KELLY: That was Selene San Felice talking with NPR's Chris Benderev. He followed the staff of the Capital Gazette newspaper for two years after the mass shooting that killed five of their colleagues. This story comes from NPR's Embedded podcast. Episode 2 of the Capital Gazette series is out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "LACQUER GROOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.