ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Last week, Sofia Biondi got the call she'd been waiting for: She was the Capital's Teen of the Week. Reporter Wendi Winters wanted to interview her.
Teen of the Week is the kind of feature the Capital is known for. A 35,000-circulation paper that's been publishing in Annapolis in some form for nearly 300 years, it's the only paper that consistently covers hometown news in the state capital, mixing coverage of local politics and crime and the occasional blistering editorial with features on small businesses and, yes, notable teens.
"You can see your friends in the newspaper," Biondi, 18, said. "There's no other newspaper that will do that."
And so she excitedly drove to the Capital's nondescript offices outside downtown Annapolis on Thursday afternoon. They spoke for an hour or so: about Biondi's academic prowess, about her passion for gun control. They had both attended the March for Our Lives in nearby Washington a few months before. When the interview was over, Winters walked the teenager to her car outside. It was 2 p.m.
Half an hour later, Winters was dead.
She was shot near her desk by a gunman who had reportedly harbored a grudge against the paper for years, and showed up at her small newsroom with a shotgun shortly after Winters conducted what was likely her last interview.
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The shooting rocked the country at a time when the public has become almost accustomed to startling rhetoric against the press. And it rocked a community whose reporters — like Winters, with her fiery red hair and talkative, bubbly personality — have helped define it, by doing what the vast majority of local reporters do: Everyday stories, unsung in the halls of power, that nonetheless matter deeply to the people who read them.
Four of Winters' colleagues were killed with her: John McNamara, an editor and reporter who wrote about sports and almost single-handedly covered nearby Bowie; Rob Hiaasen, a talented columnist; Gerald Fischman, the exacting author of many of the aforementioned blistering editorials; and Rebecca Smith, who had worked in the paper's advertising division for just seven months.
They were an intrinsic part of a newsroom that, by its nature, is an intrinsic part of the community it covers.
"We're not the enemy," reporter Patrick Furgurson said at a vigil Friday night. "We're you."
He had been across the street eating lunch when the gunman opened fire Thursday, and helped his colleagues cover the death of their friends from a makeshift newsroom in the back of his truck.
At the vigil a day later, they urged a crowd of hundreds who marched to Annapolis' historic waterfront to remember their names. Biondi, shaken up but determined to pay her respects, carried a white carnation at a vigil near the site of the shooting. On Thursday afternoon, she had frantically texted the reporter she knew as Ms. Winters and received no response.
She was just one of hundreds in Annapolis the slain journalists had interviewed over the years — whose coverage makes the state capital still feel like a small town where everyone knows everyone. And certainly, Winters knew everyone.
Winters' passion for the Capital had led her to freelance there for decades before she was finally hired as a reporter. A dedicated PTA mother and Girl Scout leader, she sent two of her four children to the Naval Academy. She could coax a feature out of just about anyone, and her pen did not discriminate: Her Home of the Week column was just as likely to be about a splendid waterfront mansion as it was about a room in a homeless shelter.
Bryan Mosley's apartment, a modest studio that he rented with the help of the Light House, a local homeless outreach organization, made Winters' column last year. He was new to Annapolis, coming off a stretch of homelessness, and had never lived on his own before.
And he had been nervous about the interview, about the Star Wars memorabilia he had proudly decorated his apartment with, about what the readers of the Capital would think. "Wendi was so self-confident, it was almost intimidating," he said. But she met his dog, and sat in his apartment, and wrote a glowing story about him, and suddenly Annapolians were waving at Mosley on his walks.
"It really got my foot in the door with the local community," he said. "Neighbors I didn't even know — I got to meet them. I made so many friends. I was eternally grateful." After the interview, Winters would often eat at the bistro where he worked, and always made sure to ask about his Star Wars decor: "Tell Han Solo and Darth Vader hello for me," she'd joke.
It was an ordinary kindness that reporters at the Capital regularly extended to their community: The simple act of being seen and celebrated in their hometown paper. Of their stories being told.
Jim Hawkins, who runs his family's garden shop in Bowie, recalled John McNamara stopping by in February after his father's death to ask if he could write a story about him. The elder Hawkins had run the garden shop for more than 50 years, since Bowie was a sleepy rural town, and in his article, McNamara used the growth of that small family store as a way to chart the growth of the community as a whole. Hawkins still keeps the article in his office.
"He did something that meant a lot to me, and to my family," Hawkins said. "And he told the story the way it was."
On Friday morning, he drove to his parents' house, where a weekly affiliated with the Capital is still delivered, to sort through their issues of the paper and read the last copy McNamara wrote: an analysis of the Prince George's County primary elections.
That's the Capital: Feel-good stories balanced by incisive local reporting. Fischman was known for interviewing candidates for local office as if they were running for president, the Baltimore Sun reported. In between features about garden shops and pizza parlors, McNamara covered crime and political scandals and local development. (Like every other municipality in the country last year, neighboring Prince George's County threw its hat in the ring for Amazon's HQ2.)
At the vigil on the waterfront Friday night, hundreds held candles as Phil Davis, the Capital's crime reporter, who was in the newsroom when the first shots rang out, read the names of his colleagues. People reminisced about Hiaasen's sense of humor and careful craftsmanship; about Smith's helpful nature and the pleasure she took from her job.
"You work with people that inspire you," Davis said. "We're fortified by the people that surrounded us. And I have to stand here and read the names of the people who fortified me."
Davis has spent the last few nights sleeping at friends' houses, trying to process what he saw in his newsroom on Thursday. He's not sure if he can go back, to face the silences where his colleagues sat. But seeing the crowds at the vigil Friday night was a kind of fortification, too.
"These are people that care about what we do," he said, "and I feel like on some level, I owe it to them."
Down the street, the crowds dispersing, Tom Levine walked back up Main Street. A furniture seller and occasional architecture writer, he'd known Winters for years. He, like so many Annapolians, had spent Thursday afternoon waiting to hear from their friends in the newsroom of the daily Capital and the weekly Gazette. And when he got the news that Winters had passed, he went to bed gutted.
But Friday morning, the new day's edition of the Capital was on his front lawn like always.
"I was so awed that people I know had this happen to them yesterday, and they still put out a paper," he said. "It's a remarkable thing. And it's a thing we've got to protect."
Staff writer Julia Terruso contributed to this article.