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A year after newsroom attack, journalists embraced by city

Brian Witte
Associated Press

Annapolis, Md. – Standing ovations. A surge in subscriptions. Hugs from random readers. At a time when journalists are being vilified as “the enemy of the people,” staff members at the Capital Gazette newspaper are feeling the embrace of a grateful community, one year after a gunman went on a newsroom rampage that left five of their colleagues dead.

In this June 29, 2018, file photo, Steve Schuh, county executive of Anne Arundel County, holds a copy of the Capital Gazette near the scene of a shooting at the newspaper's office in Annapolis, Md.

Reporters who survived the worst attack on journalists in U.S. history say the trauma has not faded, but their connection with their readers is a source of comfort and inspiration.

“They’ll say that they read our work, and then they’ll be really nice to us, which is nice, even if they disagree with whatever we’re reporting,” said reporter Selene San Felice, who hid under a desk during the June 28, 2018, shooting.

Killed were Gerald Fischman, editorial page editor; Rob Hiaasen, an assistant managing editor; John McNamara, a staff writer who covered sports; Rebecca Smith, an advertising sales assistant; and Wendi Winters, special publications editor.

The paper received a special Pulitzer Prize citation and $100,000 for its coverage of the attack and its insistence on putting out the next day’s paper. The staff was named along with other journalists as Time magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year. Editor Rick Hutzell won the National Press Foundation’s Benjamin C. Bradlee Editor of the Year Award.

In this June 29, 2018, file photo, mourners stand in silence during a vigil in response to a shooting at the Capital Gazette newsroom, in Annapolis, Md.

Annapolis residents held fundraisers and gave employees a rolling standing ovation when they marched in the July Fourth parade just days after the attack. Subscriptions soared 70 percent a week after the bloodshed and remain there, said Renee Mutchnik, a spokeswoman for paper’s owners, Baltimore Sun Media. Readers have been known to walk up to staffers to thank them.

Journalists at the paper say the honors and award have helped but haven’t made the trauma go away. Some have turned to their craft to heal. Some have rededicated themselves to journalism.

Reporter Rachael Pacella, who hid between filing cabinets during the shooting, has broken down at funerals and in the Wyoming wilderness on a camping trip. Covering a City Council meeting in Bowie, Maryland, distressed her because the press area was too far from the exit, the escape route in case of attack.

“Through counseling and support, I’ve gotten a lot better over time,” she said, “and the experience has also sort of reconfirmed to me my commitment to journalism and has made me want to give back even more to the community in terms of telling their story.”

Overcome by anxiety and despair after the shooting, photojournalist Paul Gillespie asked colleagues and victims’ relatives to sit for simple black-and-white portraits in his basement. Gillespie, who escaped from the newsroom during the attack, calls his project “Journalists Matter: Faces of the Capital Gazette.”

In Gillespie’s pictures, reporter E.B. “Pat” Furgurson solemnly holds a pen and notebook, a hat with the words “Not the Enemy” next to him. Pacella looks through the shape of a heart she has made with her hands in one frame, while clutching a “Press On” poster in another. Andrea Chamblee wears a “Journalism Matters” T-shirt and a lanyard with the press credentials of her slain husband, McNamara.

In this July 5, 2018 file photo people pause for a moment of silence next to a memorial near the Capital Gazette building, in Annapolis, Md., for the five Capital Gazette employees who were killed in one of the deadliest attacks on journalists in U.S. history.

“Each one of these photo sessions has been, for me anyway, kind of like a therapy session with these people,” Gillespie said, “because we start off with just taking a few easy pictures – me trying to get them comfortable with the camera and stuff – and then we just talk the whole time as I’m taking pictures.”

San Felice said she is focusing on more serious and ambitious reporting at the newspaper, which moved into new office space this month 2½ miles from the scene of the bloodshed.