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An unbowed Capital Gazette: 'We're putting out a damn paper'

I don’t know what the Capital-Gazette newsroom was like before their world changed last week.

I know what newsrooms used to be like — transcendent places where life around the block and around the world was reported with affection, fervor, joy, sadness, satisfaction, zeal and too many other emotions to list here.

If you were a newsman, there was no better place to be — not home, not church, not the beach, not the mountains. It was a sanctuary for men and women who cared about telling stories. You told stories to each other about telling stories, you worked with others who cared about stories to make sure that your stories would be the best stories they could be.

It’s been a while since I’ve been in a newsroom like that.

Like the newspaper business, newsrooms have shrunk. I imagine that the Capital-Gazette newsroom has shrunk. One of the oldest newspapers in the country, the Capital used to be housed in their own building on Capital Drive in Annapolis until they moved to the first floor of the building on Bestgate Road in September 2014, sharing the building with doctors and dentists and other businesses.

They were not alone. Newsrooms were once a symphony of people telling stories with the soundtrack of the machines in the background, with some newsrooms so big there were people as far as the eye could see. Now they are often bare, desolate places, and many newspapers, like the Capital-Gazette, have moved to smaller spaces — doing more with less, the modern-day newspaper motto.

But if people make a newsroom special, I’m guessing the Capital-Gazette newsroom was a transcendent place, based on the outpouring of emotions from fellow journalists who knew some or all of the five members of the newspaper staff killed by a gunman who invaded their newsroom Thursday afternoon.

Their names are editor and columnist Rob Hiaasen, reporter Wendi Winters, sales assistant Rebecca Smith, editorial writer Gerald Fischman and editor John McNamara.

Of the five, I only knew John, who covered sports for much of his career at the paper. I didn’t know him well, but well enough to say hello and talk in what is an extension of that newsroom passion — the press box. It may be the only place left in the business that still serves as a sanctuary of sorts. He understood how special it was to be there, in a press box or on press row at an event, telling stories about telling stories with colleagues and rivals alike.

There is so much that people outside the business don’t understand about the inside of the business. Agendas? The biggest agenda I’ve encountered is the one where the story is the most important item, the only item, the top item, on the agenda. The story, the story, the story.

The refuge of the newsroom? Downsizing has taken away much of that, along with the mobility of the business, where many reporters can write from home or Starbucks or anywhere their laptop can get a connection. Today, we are all kings of our own castles, never having to leave home for anything. But we’ve lost the person-to-person connection of humanity in the creative process.

From what I can surmise, that connection of humanity was still strong in the Capital-Gazette newsroom, perhaps in large part to Rob Hiaasen.

We both worked at The Sun in Baltimore, but he came on board after I left. But the loss that many of those who I had worked with there have expressed — and who worked with Rob — makes me think he was a newsroom minister, someone who devoted himself to stories and those who wanted to tell them.

Novelist Laura Lippman, who worked with Rob at The Sun, wrote in the New York Times that Rob “had a keen sense for the kind of human-scale stories that resonate with everyone…he made everyone and everything interesting.”

There you go — the story, the story, the story — and the people who want to tell them.

I can’t imagine what the Capital-Gazette newsroom will be like now. Then again, there was the image the day of the shooting of reporters Chase Cook, Josh McKerrow and Pat Furguson working from the back of Furguson’s pickup truck on the next day’s paper — the kind of people that make a newsroom such a glorious place.

“We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow,” Cook wrote on his Twitter account, and they did — a damn good one.

At the end of the film, “Deadline USA,” Humphrey Bogart, the editor of The Day newspaper, is on the phone in the press room with a gangster who is threatening him if he publishes a story. Bogart gives the go-ahead to start the presses and holds the phone up so the gangster can hear.

“That noise, what’s that racket?,” the gangster yells into the phone.

“That’s the press, baby. The press!” Bogart tells him. “And there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing!”

That is the press, baby.

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