If you follow the news — and how else would you have gotten here? — then you've probably heard some of the stories of the wonderful human beings who happened to work at a newspaper and who happened to be in the line of fire when a Y-chromosome-warped man with an irrational grudge and access to an all-American long gun started firing randomly at workers at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md.
You've read the profiles about the Capital's lanky and sometimes goofy assistant managing editor "Big Rob" Hiaasen, a James Taylor fanatic who wrote award-winning columns about (irony alert) the need for sane gun laws, and whose wife was going to open her birthday president from him when he got home — which he never did. Or Wendi Winters, the columnist who gave some of her time to causes like the Red Cross, the Girl Scouts, and the seemingly impossible mission of helping reporters and PR professionals understand each other. Or "Dog Mom" Rebecca Smith and University of Maryland sports fanatic and chronicler John McNamara or Gerald Fischman, the newsroom lifer who wrote just six months ago that an editorial page "may be the best way to read a community's mind."
Their loss is so tragic because they were such special people, and yet the irony is that they were so special because, frankly, they were so normal. By normal, I mean they were people who loved their partners and their kids and, yes, their dogs, who were passionate about their team or their favorite singer or obscure philosophers, and who showed up every morning at 9 a.m. to do a job and do it so damn well, knowing they'd never become famous — except that through a cruel twist of fate they did, caught in the cross fire of American rage and gun lust.
It seems almost silly to need to write that — and yet it's necessary because we happen to live in an era when journalists have been singled out by the president of the United States as "enemies of the American people." Thursday's senseless tragedy was the starkest reminder yet of the evil banality of the small man who stands behind our nation's biggest podium, who uses these pillars of local communities as a tool to stir up anger and hatred. And it was also a reminder that the so-called enemies of the American people are just … Americans.
This time, it wasn't the 45th president's rhetoric that killed these five Americans at the Capital. The sick 38-year-old white man who opened fire on a newsroom had a senseless grudge that went back years, and he displayed several symptoms of our national disease — access to guns despite a history of violent threats and harassment, testosterone-laden rage at a woman morphing into senseless violence toward all — separate and apart from our current debate about the role of a free press.
If anything positive is going to rise from the rubble of America's latest gun tragedy, it should be to change the conversation about who journalists are and the role they play in communities like Annapolis, or Philadelphia, or the town where you live, where journalists are your neighbors and your friends, even if you've never met them. While you mourn Rob Hiaasen, Rebecca Smith, Gerald Fischman, Wendi Winters, and John McNamara, take a moment to remember that there are thousands more just like them, still — thankfully — serving their communities.
I'm thinking about the people I've been blessed to work with at places like the Washington Observer-Reporter and the Birmingham News, folks that I met when we were young and Ronald Reagan was the president — so many of whom are still out there plugging away. But I'm also thinking about the friends I haven't met yet — like Joshua Vaughn of the Carlisle Sentinel.
Vaughn is a 20-something journalist who graduated from the University of Massachusetts and somehow ended up in Carlisle, a former-factory-town-turned-college-town in Central Pennsylvania with just under 19,000 souls, a place most Americans only see when they pull off the Turnpike in frantic search of the restroom or a tank of gas. But instead of making Carlisle a pit stop, this young journalist has drilled deep while shining a spotlight on criminal justice issues like the inequity of cash bail, handling of sex offenders and the opioid crisis in rural Pennsylvania. And he's bringing Big Data to his relatively small town.
That data and those stories probably won't win a Pulitzer Prize, but it's a safe bet policy makers will use some of Vaughn's reporting to make life in and around Carlisle a little bit better, or at least more just. It's the kind of thing that happens every day, not just in small and mid-sized towns like Carlisle or Annapolis, but in bigger metro areas that don't happen to be named New York or Washington. Even in Philadelphia, the nation's sixth-biggest city.
Here we're blessed with journalists like my longtime friends Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker and their new reporting partner Dylan Purcell, who have won Pulitzer Prizes for digging into the kinds of stories that would intimidate most folks as just too hard to get. Most recently, they spent months out of the paper — in an era when most bosses are obsessed with online "clicks" and byline counts — so they could dig, literally sometimes, into dangerous asbestos hazards in Philadelphia schools. Because of their recent reporting, the city's new Board of Education rush-approved a $15.6 million emergency cleanup that will prevent some kids or teachers from getting sick. That's being "an enemy of the American people"? With enemies like that, who needs friends.
When you think about it, community-based watchdog journalism is kind of a public utility, much like a school board or the water company. But unlike the government entities they hold accountable from the outside, news organizations don't have a guaranteed revenue stream. Funny thing, they did — informally — in the 20th century, when a deep-pocketed publisher with a printing press and a fleet of trucks was the only way not only for people to get most of their news but, more importantly, for the also-deep-pocketed advertisers to reach their customers.
The 20th century ended a long time ago. But an era in which people started getting access to some free stuff on the internet also has made more people think harder about what kind of things we do want to support with our hard-earned dollars. And here's something else we tend to forget about everyday Americans in a time of toxic rhetoric: Most of us are very generous. You've heard stories like the couple that wanted to raise $1,500 in GoFundMe for separated migrant families and ended up raising more than $20 million, for example. Now news orgs are a funny case, because most are traditional for-profit enterprises, except there isn't much profit in the current climate.
When you-know-who was elected in November 2016, a lot of mostly liberal folks raced to support journalism by buying subscriptions largely to the two big national publications — the New York Times, already the 800-pound gorilla of digital subscriptions, and the Washington Post, recently bought by the world's sometimes richest man. That's great — for all their flaws and quirks, both papers do essential journalism — but you know who really needs your help? The news orgs in smaller towns and the non-D.C./NY metro areas that had the economic rug pulled from underneath them in the digital age. The ones that employ the mostly unsung heroes who put out the Capital or the Carlisle Sentinel.
Or the local news organization in your hometown, wherever that may be.
If you're like me and my colleagues at the Philadelphia newspapers, you're probably heartbroken about what happened in Annapolis. So in lieu of flowers and in addition — as one Capital staffer eloquently put it — to your thoughts and prayers, consider honoring the work they do and the work of decent journalists just like them by subscribing to a community news organization. Think of it as a GoFundMe for journalism — with the difference that you're not just giving something but you're getting something of real value, news about the place where you live.