Life after they put out a damned paper: Chase Cook discusses his work covering the Capital Gazette shooting and the Time Person of the Year honors

(EDITOR’S NOTE: I had planned to interview Chase Cook for a larger piece of participatory journalism that should run some time later this year. However, the interview coincided with Time magazine announcing it honored the paper as part of its “Person of the Year” coverage, so here is a small sliver of that interview now. A special thanks to media adviser Judy Robinson of the OU Daily at the University of Oklahoma for helping me connect with Chase.)

Chase Cook spent most of Wednesday chasing down a story about the Anne Arundel County’s top administrator being in a pool of jury-duty candidates, hoping to find out if the local official would be selected for a case.

Approximately 24 hours earlier, he found out that he and his coworkers at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland were honored as part of Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” coverage. Cook said Time had interviewed several staff members on Sunday, but he said he didn’t think anyone knew about the forthcoming honor.

“I was having a conversation with my fiancee that night, feeling unworthy of the accolades that we’ve gotten because we’re just doing our job…,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday. “Every time we get an award it’s because something awful happened and the next day I wake up and the staff is Time Person of the Year.”

Cook had been working at the Gazette for nearly five years when the Annapolis-based paper was attacked in a mass shooting.

A man with an antagonistic history toward the paper used a shotgun to blow apart the glass doors of the newsroom on June 28 before opening fire on the staffers inside. Jarrod Ramos, who lost a defamation suit involving the paper’s coverage of his criminal history, stands accused of killing five people that day, according to media reports. Ramos had a history of stalking and harassment complaints and had taken to Twitter to attack the paper’s coverage frequently.

“I wasn’t in the office that day…” he said. “Rob Hiaasen, who is now dead, gave me the day off because I worked 16 hours covering a primary election on the 26th. I was supposed to work Thursday and I sat at his desk on Wednesday and asked for an extra day off because I was exhausted.”

Cook said he was at home when he got the call about the shooting. He changed into his work clothes and headed to the office. The street was closed down and police were everywhere.

“I was kind of there to cover it and also make sure my friends and colleagues were OK,” he said. “It was kind of a balancing act.”

Cook joined his colleagues who gathered in a nearby parking ramp as they plied their trade from the bed of a parked pickup truck. He wrote the survivor story for the paper, interviewing colleagues who had just witnessed people they all knew get slain in a newsroom they all knew so well. In addition to Hiaasen, staff members Wendi Winters, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara and Rebecca Smith died in the attack.

“I just remember meeting Pat (Furgurson) and Josh (McKerrow) at that truck and that record playing from the dash and just working…” he said. “I remember asking Rick (Hutzell) to put as many bylines on it as he could because I felt strongly that this was a group effort. It wasn’t just me.”

In the wake of the shooting, the most famous words that emerged came from Cook’s Twitter account when he declared, “I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.” Cook said the paper was a group effort involving the staff of the paper, the folks at the home office of the Baltimore Sun, the press workers and countless others, and he thought it was important to let people know the Capital Gazette would still publish.

“For me personally it was kind of a 50/50 of my own personal resolve  I was really upset and I was there working and I wasn’t going to let that stop us from running a newspaper…,” Cook said. “The other part of it was this was news. Nobody knew if we would have a newspaper tomorrow. I was sitting there thinking, ‘Well, I don’t have anything to tell people except that this was a targeted attack. We’re the local paper. We should know more, this happened literally in our office.’ So I confirmed it with Josh and them that we were still going to have the paper tomorrow.”

In the days and weeks that followed, Cook said that he and other staff members have continued to work through their grief and their emotions in their own ways. Collectively, the paper continues to receive praise for the efforts they made that day, which Cook said has a bittersweet feeling to it.

“Most of us, and I don’t want to speak for everyone, but we’ve used this platform to talk about the importance of local journalism and the importance of safety in the newsroom…” he said. “That’s really the best we can do. And at the same time we internally reconcile with, ‘This is awesome we should be happy but why can’t Wendi, Rob, John, Rebecca and Gerald be here to enjoy it with us?’ And they can’t be.”

“I struggle with feeling good or proud about what I did on the 28th and every day since then,” he added. “There’s no room in me to feel proud about that, it’s really just grief.”

As he continues to work for the publication, Cook said he still sees himself as “a guy who works at a newspaper… I’m not that terribly interesting.” He  said he tells people in the public that they should be open to change and read stories with an open mind.

“The audience has to understand that if we come to you with something challenges your world view, you should be open to that,” Cook said.

However he said he finds that he better understands his sources, especially those who suffer a loss, after going through the situation at the Capital Gazette.

“I tell journalists that they should have more empathy which is what I learned after the fact. To be kinder to people, to be more understanding of their situation. You can still do that and get the story. It’s not hard. It might be harder for somethings, but it makes you a better person and a better journalist.”

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