Two years ago today, the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, arrived on the porches and stoops of subscribers and filled the racks and boxes of distributors throughout the area, just like any other day.
However, it wasn’t any other day. And the paper hadn’t published just any story.
Those who lived to tell the tale decided to tell it as their fallen colleagues would have wanted them to. They used portable equipment, huddled up in a parking garage and reported on the deadliest attack on a U.S. newsroom in history.
Two years later, those connected to the Capital Gazette shooting continue to feel the ache of loss. The family and friends of those five people move forward through “painful milestones”as they recall those they lost and look to a continued future with out them.
As for those who remain at the paper, the work has taken on an additional level of importance. An editorial in Sunday’s paper explained how the staff members pressed forward, forever changed by the violence and yet they remain unrelentingly committed to their duty to the community:
We work hard to keep their legacy alive in the work we do every day. As we cover some of the most important news this community has ever faced, we find ourselves wondering how they might have influenced our coverage on the coronavirus pandemic? What stories would they want to see on the Black Lives Matter movement so passionately playing out on our streets? Where would their curiosity take them?
Each of them changed this organization and the lives they touched here. Their legacy at The Capital lives on in those who knew them as friends and colleagues.
About six months after the shooting, I was working on the “First-Person Target” series for the blog, when a friend helped me connect with one of the reporters from that newsroom, Chase Cook. Cook worked with fellow staff members to cover the shooting and inform the public about it. However, it was his tweet regarding the paper’s resilience that became part of journalism legend:
Cook, now an assistant editor at the paper, was gracious enough to do an interview with me for the series right around the time the Capital Gazette staff received “Person of the Year” honors from Time magazine. In revisiting the interview, I found myself struck by the strength Cook had in that time of crisis, but also the humanity he exuded in recalling both the traumatic and the mundane moments he experienced.
Both in that initial interview and in listening to it again, I came to the conclusion that Cook was exactly the kind of journalist and person I would want any one of my students to become.
Determined and human. Even-handed and reflective. Honest and hopeful.
What follows are the excerpts from Day 3 of the series, featuring Cook’s thoughts and recollections. Any errors are mine alone. Everything else is his:
When Jarrod Ramos began his attack on the Annapolis Capital Gazette on June 28, 2018, reporter Chase Cook wasn’t there. His request for an extra day of vacation might have saved his life.
“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.”
Ramos had a long-standing feud with the newspaper, which included an unsuccessful defamation of character suit and a series of ongoing social media attacks. He arrived at the newsroom on that Thursday in late June carrying a 12-gauge, pump-action shotgun, which he used to blow apart the office’s glass doors. He had planned the attack for some time, officials said, noting that he had barricaded a back exit to prevent people from escaping.
The shooting left five dead and two others injured. In addition to Hiaasen, staff members Wendi Winters, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara and Rebecca Smith died in the attack.
Cook was at home when he heard about the attack. He immediately changed into his work clothes and headed to the newsroom.
“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 and several of his colleagues gathered in a nearby parking ramp and set up their computers in the bed of a pickup truck, preparing to cover an incident that had ended the lives of several of their colleagues.
“I just remember meeting Pat (Furgurson) and Josh (McKerrow) at that truck…” 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.”
As he gathered information and helped construct the main news story on the shooting, Cook found himself having to go to a nearby mall for supplies.
“I remember going to buy a charging cable for my phone because it was going to die and I didn’t have a charging cable with me,” he said. “I must have looked insane to the person I bought it from because I was sweaty, I had been crying, I was tired and I was like frantic and I must have looked like I was on drugs or something.”
“It was weird, too, because being in the mall, everybody was kind of going through their day,” he added. “They were living a normal experience and my whole life felt paranoid. I thought this guy was following me in the mall I got really paranoid because I kept seeing him everywhere I went.”
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.”
“I felt that nothing would have prevented any of us from putting out a newspaper the next day,” he added later. “Even if I had been dead inside the building, somebody would have done it.”
Accolades for the staff’s work have poured in from a wide array of sources. Time magazine named the staff of the paper among its “Person of the Year” winners in December, interviewing its members at a hotel near the Newseum. Cook said he begged out of that trip, because he is still having difficulty reflecting on his work on the shooting.
“I did not go to the Newseum with the staff because I still had some anxiety seeing the words that I had written, even if they were in a tweet, being on the wall of the most popular news museum in the country,” he said. “I wasn’t ready to do that.”
As much as the staff feels honored, Cook said he has trouble coming to grips with the attention and the praise.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
Statistics state their case plainly and simply, but fear’s whisper grows louder with each outburst of gunfire and media report of massive death. As the frequency of these shootings grows, so does the number of people who feel the ripple effect.
“I’m so much more intimately familiar with the wave of destruction that happens after (another shooting),” Cook said. “It’s not just to the bodies of the people who are shot but how it proliferates throughout the community that I just feel depressed and sad.”
Cook continued working at the paper for days and weeks after the shooting, using work to help him cope with the tragedy. He said he didn’t really feel the full impact of the attack until he took a week or so of vacation and the adrenaline surge subsided.
He said he is still working to acclimate to daily life in some ways.
“I have a hard time in movie theaters now,” he said. “I get anxious when the lights go out, which is a bummer because I love going to the movies. I think about it a lot when I’m in really crowded places… That fear factor has kind of permeated through everything. I’m at work, I’m in danger. I’m at school, I’m in danger. I’m at church, I’m in danger. I have to convince myself that I’m not because while mass shootings are a problem in the country and they’re up, they’re still a rare crime.”
Cook said the most dangerous thing anyone does on a daily basis is drive a car, something he hasn’t stopped doing. He uses this logical approach to keep his mind quiet when it begins to spiral with fear.
“I try not to live that way but still people knock on the door or ring the bell or something unexpected happens, I get anxious there’s no way to not do that. It happens subconsciously,” he said. “I just try to say, hey, recognize how you’re feeling… Be honest with yourself and how you feel.”
“I think my general sense of safety is different now because I’m constantly having to have that conversation with myself of convincing myself that I’m not in an immediate threat,” he added. “That was not something I thought about before this happened.”
Cook said as he works toward feeling safer, he wouldn’t be inclined to turn to a gun for his own for protection, even though he has spent much of his life around them.
“I don’t know if I would feel safer with more people with guns in the room,” he said. “I’m from Oklahoma. I’ve shot guns. Shooting guns is not a thing you just show up and do. Shooting is a skill and it degrades so if you are going to have a gun, how often are you training with it? Are you confident that you can do something? Are you confident that you can kill somebody? There’s so much more to it than just having it.”
Over the course of his career, Cook has written stories about gun deaths, recalling one about a child finding a gun and accidentally shooting himself with it, which makes him leery of owning a firearm.
“For me personally, I have massive respect for guns,” he said. “That’s how my dad raised me. He’s in the Marines. He carries everywhere he goes… So, I’m intimately familiar with guns. I don’t personally own one. I don’t want to own one, only because I’m so aware of their destructive power that I’m afraid of making a mistake and I would rather just remove that possibility from my life by not having a gun.”
As he continues to move forward from his experiences on June 28, Cook said he sees an important conversation that needs to take place, with citizens demanding more of their leaders on this topic.
“It’s an incredibly complicated thing that I think at the basic level citizens should be demanding that their politicians and their newspapers do something about it,” Cook said. “Write about it. Talk to politicians. Demand they have a stance. Make the politician who thinks every teacher should be armed make that stance… explain to people why you think that would solve the problem and start that conversation.”
“It always turns out where people say, ‘Oh, you just want gun control,’” he added. “That’s not it. It doesn’t work that way. I’m not smart enough to come up with a solution on my own. I want to hear about it. I want to write about it. I want somebody to convince me that this will solve the problem, and use data, and we’re just not having that conversation.”