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The Capital Gazette Found Justice. But Can the Newspaper Survive?

9 minute read
Hutzell is the former editor of Capital Gazette, where he spent 33 years covering local news. He is a member of the board of advisors at the Fallen Journalists Memorial Foundation, which is working to build a memorial in Washington. He lives in Annapolis.

I sat 10 feet behind the man who plotted to murder me.

It was the final day of his sanity trial, giving a jury power to decide if he understood what he was doing three years ago when he shattered the illusion of safety created by the glass doors of our Annapolis newsroom.

Among the evidence were two years spent stockpiling weapons, identifying targets while sitting in the office parking lot with a camera, statements that he hoped to appear insane, letters taking responsibility for his attack and a revelation that after murdering four people, he put down his shotgun to surrender. Then he spotted a survivor under a desk, picked up the weapon and obliterated one more life.

That was Gerald Fischman, a brilliant opinion page editor and my friend for 25 years. He died during minutes of carnage on June 28, 2018 along with Rob Hiaasen, Wendi Winters, John McNamara and Rebecca Smith.

I listened to the man’s public defender offer a rambling closing argument, telling 12 men and women there was sufficient proof his client didn’t understand the wrongness of shooting at fathers and brothers, mothers and daughters, then reloading and shooting again. I studied the man.

Dressed in blue prison scrubs and a black COVID-19 mask, he sat still except when asked to move so his restraints could be removed or restored. Long hair, long beard. Eyes focused straight ahead behind thick glasses. Small, compressed and silent.

I did the math. Could a 63-year-old man leap over two empty courtroom benches and beat the light out of those eyes before sheriff’s deputies pulled him off? Would jail be worth it?

So, I turned away. I looked at Alex Mann.

I hired Alex to cover this trial. He was a 2017 summer intern at Capital Gazette. He knew those who died and worked in the same space where their lives ended.

He moved into the Annapolis newsroom from his first job at another paper, and we started a three-year conversation with others about the coverage and meaning of this story.

If that man sitting quietly in a wood-paneled courtroom was the past, Alex and journalists like him are the future. He and Lilly Price, a second Capital Gazette reporter assigned to the trial, are proof that the plot to kill a newspaper for writing the truth failed.

That was the objective. A murderer five times over, the man told police, lawyers and psychiatrists that he only regretted not killing more. I was on a list of high priority targets. He hoped the families of those he murdered would sue the paper because it failed to protect them, finishing the job he started.

Yet for all of his plans and violence, he failed.

After two hours of deliberation, the Anne Arundel County jury said he failed to convince them that he was insane enough to skip responsibility for his crimes. He failed to win a quiet life in a state psychiatric hospital. He failed to block the almost guaranteed multiple life sentences coming down in September.

We were always going to reach this point. It just wasn’t supposed to take this long.

The gunman pleaded not guilty and not criminally responsible by reason of insanity to five murder charges and more. Then, he admitted his guilt on the spring 2019 day his trial was set to start. That set up a second trial to determine his mental state.

That state was hate unchained. He vowed to silence the newspaper for writing about his harassment conviction for a campaign of spite against a former high school classmate, who barely remembered him after he contacted her on Facebook. In an insightful 2011 column, Eric Hartley explored it as an example of the power for harm posed by social media.

The lawsuit he filed was trash, yet he used the courts for five years of appeals. It was such an obsession that the appellate judge who wrote the stinging final opinion singled him out for failing to grasp the newspaper had done nothing wrong.

That’s when he decided to kill.

The jury should have decided in October 2019 whether he knew this was wrong and whether he could have stopped. Then the delays started.

The lead public defender withdrew, fatal cancer. More time was granted to find expert witnesses for him.

COVID-19 shut down trials in Maryland for a year.

There were changes.

The University of Maryland turned its tiny student newsroom in Annapolis over to the Capital Gazette staff for 11 months and loaned respected editor Karen Denny as an endless source of help. Reporters from other papers came back to fill in while the survivors took time to heal.

The community that mourned with survivors during an Independence Day parade in Annapolis supported us with subscriptions and a realization of what The Capital meant to the community.

Maryland passed a red flag law, making it easier to remove guns from someone deemed by the courts as a threat. Annapolis and Anne Arundel County became a center for discussions of preventing gun violence.

Tribune Publishing, owner of The Capital and The Baltimore Sun, committed to keeping the Annapolis paper alive, promises embodied by people like Trif Alatzas and Tim Knight and Terry Jimenez. The company spent a small fortune on bulletproof walls for a new place to work.

The journalism profession rallied around us, awarding a Pulitzer Prize and other accolades, and made the paper a symbol of a free press in an era of attacks. The staff appeared on the cover of TIME.

Mass shootings continued; local murders needed to be covered. The police chief quit during Black Lives Matters protests. Elections came and went. COVID shut down the newsroom and classrooms and threatened to overwhelm the world.

My job was to keep it all spinning, focused on the work. I didn’t do it alone, though some days I was the symbol of the symbol. We did it together.

Yet, amid the endless news cycle and constant backbeat of grief, I quietly warned colleagues by ones and twos that it would not last.

Economic winds tearing through local journalism in 2018 were just outside the protective bubble created around our newsroom by goodwill. That bubble, I warned when I wasn’t being cheerleader-in-chief, would get smaller and smaller until one day it popped.

Staff members left for better jobs or in company buyouts. Hiring got tied up with strategy for the wider organization. The tide of culture change started in 2014 when The Sun bought its small-town competitor quickened as the tragedy receded, frequently drowning the needs of Annapolis in those of Baltimore.

Through it all, Alex remained focused on the case. We tried not to discuss it in the newsroom, where survivors worked every day. He wrote about motions, and families and anniversaries. Alex discovered a flaw that allowed lawyers to seal court documents without explanation or review.

Then Alex was called to Baltimore for a better-paying job. He could continue to cover the case with editors in Annapolis, we all agreed. That phone call from the publisher was the sound of a bubble bursting.

Donald Trump made it hard for some readers, drunk on hateful rhetoric, to support any news outlet that didn’t support his view of the world. COVID-19 came and subscriptions rose as people wanted news to stay safe, but some of those same readers saw the paper’s coverage as proof of its bias.

The bulletproof office closed with the arrival of COVID-19 restrictions in March 2020, It never reopened, as Tribune decided to save jobs over real estate during the recession. COVID-19 waned and online readership fell.

Tribune changed hands. Alden Global Financial succeeded in its long campaign to buy another major newspaper company, beating back a quixotic challenge by a Maryland billionaire. One of its first actions was offering a buyout to cut costs.

I wanted to stay. I believe in the work. Then I admitted to myself that a future of decreasing resources, fighting for every hire, cutting things deemed nonessential and working harder and longer to cover the ever-widening gaps was more than I could do after three draining years.

So, I left. I kick myself for abandoning reporters like Alex and Lilly and editors like Brandi Bottalico and Jay Judge to carry on with what I could not: Finish the story.

Today, as the families and other victims describe the July 15 verdict as a victory, I know the last three years have been just a reprieve. There are good people at The Capital and Baltimore Sun Media, its parent newspaper group, who are committed to keeping it going. I hope they can do it. But their success depends on factors beyond Annapolis.

I have faith that the value of a free press will survive the loss of a small-town newspaper editor, and even the presses themselves. It might not include print titles like The Capital and its weekly paper the Maryland Gazette, which have no physical presence in Annapolis for the first time since before the Revolution

Instead, it may be in small digital publications for local news. My friend Bess Langbein, whose Due East Partners works with nonprofit newsrooms, believes it will require nimble fundraising and robust community engagement to overcome the noise of an era when everyone is their own publisher and no one has an editor. It will come through years of experiment and failure in search of a successful model.

I don’t know if there’s a place for me on that journey. I left my position without any real job prospects.

Looking back, I take solace in relegating the man who killed my friends to a single line in the story of how a small newspaper, rescued in a moment of crisis by those who cared about its purpose, survived to report the news again.

Watching Alex in that courtroom, alone among the families and the lawyers and the killer, I realized that together with others, we saved The Capital so it could reach this point.

Bubble popped, winds blowing harder than ever, future unclear.

Alex and Lilly and Brandi are passionate about what they do and believe in the need for strong journalism in a community like Annapolis, the nation and the wider world.

Can Tribune keep the Alexes of its new asset? Or do they lose him and Lilly and Brandi and thousands like them to visionaries brave enough to make bold choices, patient enough to invest time and money, and smart enough to take the risks required to reach the future of journalism?

That is what ultimately will decide the fate of The Capital and much, much more.

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