“One Year Later,” by Rick Hutzell, editor of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland.
I recently spoke at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Houston. It was an honor to be invited, but I really wondered what I could say that would have any meaning for some, frankly, very impressive reporters and editors.
So, I told our story. The Capital Gazette newsroom was attacked on June 28, 2018. Five people died, six survived. Through the dedication of our staff, the support of our colleagues at The Baltimore Sun and across Tribune Publishing, plus assistance from the University of Maryland and others, we continued to publish.
We have been recognized for this work by our profession, and more importantly our readers.The deaths of our friends and colleagues, Wendi Winters, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Gerald Fischman and Rebecca Smith, was a tragedy. But as happens with any event that touches people, that tragedy has been interpreted to fit the very real needs of those whom it touches.
So these deaths are meaningful for organizations like Reporters Without Borders (RSF) that look around the world and see a growing threat to a free press. Certainly, having the survivors of our staff appear on the cover of Time magazine alongside the stories of Jamal Khashoggi, Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone, Maria Ressa made it clear to us just how much we have in common with journalists whose lives are far different than ours.
I continued to doubt, however, that our story was like theirs. Yes, members of our staff were targeted. However, when an individual armed with a shotgun tries to silence a community newspaper, it is different than government efforts to silence criticism.
Yes, I believe that my friends died because they chose to be journalists. Wendi literally charged the gunman in an attempt to stop him, becoming the first journalist I’ve ever heard of who died defending a newsroom.
But the United States is suffering through a crisis of mass shootings, so our tragedy is also the tragedy of anyone touched by this evil. The grief I felt was no more important than the grief felt in Las Vegas, or Aurora or Newtown.
And then I went to Houston. People were kind. People were appreciative of the work we’d done on June 29, and the day after that and the day after that.
In my speech, I talked about what had happened on that day, and what happened on the days after. I talked about how we planned to continue the work that my friends loved not only to honor them but because it is of vital importance to our community.
Afterward, a young woman from South Korea walked up and introduced herself. She had, I was stunned to learn, come from Seoul to meet me. Take that in for a second. I’m the editor of a small newspaper in Annapolis. My day is far more likely to be consumed with letters to the editor, phone calls about delivery problems and meetings with City Council candidates than world events.
Our story had touched this woman.
She explained it this way. She represented a foundation that works with small newspapers in South Korea to help them build a digital presence.
Korean journalists are demoralized, she said. They are poorly respected by the public after what was seen as sensationalized coverage of the 2014 sinking of the MV Sewol, a South Korean passenger ferry. Hundreds of people died, most of them high school students.
Adding to the pressure is backlash from supporters of Park Geun-hye, the president of South Korea who was forced out of office in 2017. Her political supporters blame the news media. She invited me to speak this fall in Seoul, saying she hoped our story would mean something to the journalists of Korea.
I've had to decline. It is a gracious offer, but it is the other side of the world and my work is in Annapolis. But I know this, my message to journalists in Korea and around the world is simple.
No matter the threat, your dedication to the work of journalism is what guarantees a free press survives.
What matters is showing up for work and doing your job, even when it’s heartbreaking. Even when it’s dangerous.
Rick Hutzell is the editor of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, part of Baltimore Sun Media Group and Tribune Publishing, and he sits on the board of advisers for the Fallen Journalists Memorial. The Capital Gazette was awarded a special citation by the Pulitzer Prizes in 2019.
The United States ranks 48th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2019 World Press Freedom Index, after dropping three places in the past year.
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