Nobody who has spent the time I have in newsrooms at community newspapers across this country could avoid being deeply and personally affected by the events that unfolded in Annapolis, Md., on June 28.
Newsroom colleagues become like family, especially those devoted to community reporting like the Capital Gazette and the papers where I worked before joining Kansas Farmer — the Daily Express in Kirksville, Mo., the Free Press in Mankato, Minn., the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minn., the Observer in Fayetteville, N.C., and the Eagle in Wichita, Kansas.
Day-to-day journalism can be humdrum and boring — the press conferences, new business openings, routine meetings and pompous speeches. But we go and we stay until the last speaker has gone home. Because we are the way the public learns what our government is doing at the city, county, state and federal level.
We sort through mountains of documents, looking for records that back up or refute what we think we’ve discovered. We pore through data and compile statistics looking for the who, the what, the where, the why and the how.
Sometimes the big or tragic stories roll in — accidents, deliberate acts of horror, major storms, droughts, wildfires, earthquakes and wars. We mobilize to head into the thick of the action and the heart of the danger. It’s our mission to tell the world what is happening and to write the first rough draft of history.
It’s the facing it all together that makes us family.
It is the long hours, the nights, the weekends, the pizza on election night and on the day after the tornado; it’s the potluck dinners and the standing on a street corner in a blizzard telling everyone else how dangerous it is and that they should stay inside.
It is the task of uncovering the wrongs in the community and shining lights in dark corners. It's telling the stories of what’s right in the community — the giving, the sharing, helping neighbors and rescuing pets from trees and rivers and lakes.
We attend the press conference of the child gone missing, interview the parents and share their fear and hope. Sometimes, we get the happy story of the child being found; more often, down the road, we cover the discovery of the body. Then we sit down to put the grief into words. There’s no time to cry; we have a deadline, so we write with the tears streaming down our face.
We go to police daily briefings and pick up the docket of cases in municipal and district court. Sometimes we pick up an interesting case that offers us a chance to expand on a credible threat — something like the danger of having a casual response on a Facebook page turn into a stalking nightmare.
That was the case of a reporter in Annapolis who found the story of Jarrod Ramos. Ramos was in municipal court on misdemeanor charges of harassment, and very much did not want to see the details of his story in print.
Like angry defendants we have all known, he made hateful phone calls and eventually even sued the paper for defamation. He chose to represent himself in court but never denied the accuracy of the charge against him or made a claim that a single sentence in the story was untrue. His case was thrown out, which made him even angrier.
The difference between Jarrod Ramos and the angry people like him we have all known who shout, “You’ll be sorry,” as they slam down the phone, is that he picked up his shotgun and went downtown, blasted his way into the newsroom and killed five people.
In the aftermath, we ask the question we ask too often in this country: What happened? What made him snap?
For every one of us, that suffering newsroom in Annapolis is part of our story. We admire their ability to put out a paper telling the story of their own tragedy, and in our heart of hearts we know that’s just what we’d be doing if it happened to us.
The reality of today’s world is that we have to consider it could happen to us. I’ve worked in newsrooms that were as wide open as the Capital Gazette, with a wall of windows looking out on the street and the doors open to the public that we serve.
Over the years, an increasing level of violence has meant an increasing level of security in newspaper offices. Employees need a badge to unlock the door and visitors need to have an appointment, state who they are there to see and have that person verify the appointment before they are allowed in.
It makes us more isolated from the community we serve, and we don’t like it but we acknowledge the need for it. It doesn’t assure our safety as journalists, just our safety sitting at our desks.
But we don’t sit at our desks all that much. Mostly we are out there: at the accident scenes and the wildfires, at wheat harvest and the state fair, at the school board and the council meetings, at field days and educational seminars, at the court hearings and the drive-by shootings, at the murder scenes, the beauty shop openings the political rallies and the outraged protests. We could be a target anywhere. We’re the one with the microphone, the notebook, the camera. We’re easy to spot.
As of June 28, we think more that angry guy who said he’d get even. We hope we calmed him down.
In the back our minds, we still wonder: What made Jarrod Ramos snap?