Phil Davis had spent three years trying to avoid being the story.
The former Capital Gazette reporter had witnessed one of the worst attacks on a newspaper in American history. He had hidden under a desk in his newsroom as the gunman reloaded. He was there when five of his colleagues took their last broken breaths. And then he had returned to his job covering crime in Maryland as an observer, not a victim.
But on a sweltering Friday in July, Davis, by then a reporter with the Baltimore Sun, had no choice but to be the story. Standing in a courtroom just feet away from the man who almost killed him, he told a jury about that harrowing day.
“I had put it together that it was probably a shotgun, due to the type of noise that it was,” he said, speaking clinically, precisely, like a journalist trained to cover the type of violence that suddenly besieged him. “So it sounded like, to me, that he was reloading two shotgun shells within feet of my desk.”
Davis, the last survivor to take the stand, returned to the courtroom gallery and sat next to his former colleague, an education reporter, who during the shooting had sought cover between two filing cabinets. They listened to the rest of the proceedings in silence, together, amid rows of current and former Capital Gazette employees, determined to support each of the others tasked with reliving their darkest day.
In the years since the shooting, these journalists had become family – and not just because of what they had survived. They had helped each other through a series of attacks: the physical one in their newsroom and the PTSD that made it hard to get through each day. And together they had faced the existential threat to their industry that compelled longtime colleagues to take buyouts, permanently shuttered their newsroom and, finally, led to their newspaper’s acquisition by a hedge fund with a reputation for deep cost-cutting.
“It felt like death all over again in a lot of ways when people would leave to take buyouts,” said Selene San Felice, a former Capital Gazette reporter who had hidden under a desk during the attack. “We could feel each other being ripped apart when all we wanted to do was stay.”
The survivors have confronted these intersecting traumas daily, but perhaps never as directly as throughout the criminal responsibility trial of Jarrod Ramos, which took place in Annapolis three years after he attacked their newsroom and days after Alden Global Capital acquired their paper.
In response to questions for this story, Alden offered a single-sentence response: “The Capital Gazette is a prized jewel in American journalism and we are proud supporters and owners of its critical mission to provide valued local news and information that subscribers rely on.”
Before the Capital Gazette became nationally associated with the terror of June 28, 2018, it was primarily known as the daily paper of record for Maryland’s capital, with roots dating back to pre-Revolutionary War America. It was also a trailblazer, launching one of the first newspaper websites in the country. But newspaper industry tides changed in the mid-2000s with the steep decline in ad revenue. By 2014, the paper’s longtime local owner had died, and it was sold to the Baltimore Sun Media Group – which was owned by the legendary yet financially troubled publisher Tribune.
The reporters moved from their old, bustling newsroom to a smaller alternative, and the staff of the Annapolis paper began to shrink. By 2017, there were roughly 30 journalists covering a community of more than 500,000.
Despite a dwindling staff, the paper maintained tremendous resonance in the community. Anne Arundel County residents picked up the print edition for features like Wendi Winters’s Home of the Week, and they counted on its watchdog reporting from official government meetings.
“It really did make a difference when the mayor, when any politician knew somebody from the Capital was sitting there,” said Annapolis Planning Commission member Diane Butler.
“It was like you could meet the community through the newspaper,” said Frieda Wildey, a subscriber of more than 20 years. “It was a wonderful resource.”
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Ramos became fixated with the Capital Gazette in 2011, when the paper ran a column about his harassment of a high school classmate. For years, he unsuccessfully fought the Capital Gazette in court filings over the contents of that piece, exhausting his appeals options.
Then on a quiet June day in 2018, Ramos blasted into the Capital Gazette’s office and stalked its hallways with a 12-gauge Mossberg shotgun.
Davis texted a police sergeant, one of his sources, from underneath his desk as the gunman’s boots passed by.
“Help,” he wrote. “Shooting at the office.”
Winters, Rob Hiaasen, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara and Rebecca Smith died because they worked for the paper that Ramos believed had wronged him.
And the survivors put out a newspaper the next day, covering their own terror. They were deemed heroes. A memorial declared them “Guardians of the First Amendment.” The Pulitzers gave them a special citation with a $100,000 bequest, the largest ever for the organization. TIME magazine named them people of the year. But all the while, they were shouldering mounting burdens: the psychological toll of the mass shooting and an uncertain future for the newspaper.
“It brought up a lot of questions,” Davis said of the shooting’s immediate aftermath. “Like is what I’m doing worth it? Is there a path that would lead me somewhere safer?”
Days after the attack, the Capital Gazette moved into a temporary newsroom operated by the University of Maryland in a former opera house. In that room, meant for college students, the survivors began their long and complicated recovery.
Some days, they dreaded coming in because the sound of a doorbell or the bangs from outside construction sent them into panic. Other days, survivors newly on edge and irritable turned on each other when someone was too loud on the phone. San Felice sat in the hallway and cried the first time she had to write a story and Hiaasen was not there to edit it.
“It was a trauma factory,” she said of the 11 months they spent in that room.
But during that time, they also found moments of solace and purpose. They received piles of gifts and donations from across the country, including free lunches and boxes of coffee. They worked hard, and together, comforted by the normalcy of calls with sources and notebooks strewn about the room. And during that time, they felt supported by Tribune – which facilitated their move to the temporary space, provided counselors and gave them flexibility to take time off when they needed it.
The reporters felt especially hopeful when, a year after the shooting, Tribune opened a new newsroom specially designed with enhanced security and bulletproof walls. But the move turned out to be a fleeting moment of stability.
In March 2020, the pandemic forced Capital Gazette journalists to leave the newsroom. They didn’t know it then, but they would never return to their new home.
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They would not all reunite until 15 months later, dedicating the Guardians of the First Amendment memorial in remembrance of their slain colleagues. The event – held on the eve of Ramos’s trial and the third anniversary of the attack – did more than honor the legacy of the murdered journalists. It was also a platform for Capital Gazette reporters hoping to save their newspaper.
“If you care about journalism and truth and freedom of the press anywhere, subscribe to your local news organization,” said Rick Hutzell, the former editor of the Capital Gazette, on the third anniversary of its attack. “Because that’s the only way they will survive.”
Watching Hutzell – the editor who shepherded the Capital Gazette through its darkest moments – were his former reporters. Of the six employees who had survived the shooting, few were still with the newspaper. Almost every other journalist and editor employed by the publication in 2018 had left, including Hutzell.
Their departures, in a way, mirror what is taking place elsewhere. The local newspaper industry has suffered tremendously from declining ad revenue and, in just the past few years, thousands of journalism jobs and hundreds of newspapers have vanished.
One of the forces at play is corporate consolidation. Just before the pandemic, hedge fund Alden Global Capital – already one of the largest newspaper owners in the country and described as a “vulture” by its journalist critics – set its sights on the Capital Gazette’s parent company, Tribune, by becoming a major investor.
This panicked journalists at Tribune newspapers, including at the Capital Gazette, who held rallies and publicly pleaded for wealthy locals to step forward and buy their newspapers. They saw what had happened at other Alden-owned newspapers: Real estate assets, such as newspaper-owned buildings, were sold off, and newsroom staffing was dramatically reduced; one University of North Carolina study concluded that Alden-owned outlets have cut newsroom staffing by as much as twice the national average. Journalists weren’t around to cover crucial county meetings or school systems.
At the Capital Gazette, the journalists’ fight for the future of their newspaper – which picked back up with a union drive just months after the shooting – had a distinct resonance.
“It felt like we couldn’t let the paper disappear because then there would be nothing and no one left to pass on the memory and continue the work that the journalists who were killed were doing,” said reporter Danielle Ohl, who served as the paper’s guild chair.
Hutzell, meanwhile, saw the paper’s salvation in its steadfast commitment to covering the trial of the man who attacked it. He took great pains to select the right reporter to steer that coverage, ultimately choosing Alex Mann, a former Capital Gazette intern who had worked with Hiaasen and McNamara.
But disruption continued, and the family that had bonded so fiercely in the wake of tragedy scattered. Davis started a job at the Sun in 2019, and when Tribune offered buyouts in early 2020, three Capital Gazette journalists took them. That included Pat Furgurson, who covered the murders of his colleagues from the back of a pickup truck, and photojournalist Joshua McKerrow, who photographed the scene.
There were other, smaller blows. The Baltimore Sun poached Mann in a consolidation effort that Hutzell said signaled his paper had started to succumb to industry headwinds. And in the fall of 2020, the Tribune sent an email promising $10,000 bonuses, but it turned out to be a “phishing” security test that infuriated staff. Tribune later apologized for the “misleading” message.
In August 2020, Tribune announced it was permanently closing the newsrooms of five of its newspapers, citing the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and said it was “constantly evaluating its real estate needs.” Closures included the new, permanent home of the Capital Gazette, the one that had offered its staff a sense of safety and security within Annapolis. Reporters protested, and were told they could work out of office space used by the Baltimore Sun once it reopens. “We remain committed to our in-depth community coverage,” read a company memo to Capital Gazette employees. “These decisions were not made lightly or hastily.”
Meanwhile, San Felice, desperate to find a way to afford to stay at the Capital Gazette, proposed that the newspaper create and hire her for an investigations position that would increase her salary from just over $34,000 to $40,000. But, according to her, editors denied her request.
That was the first time San Felice felt she had no real future at the Capital Gazette. Also suffering from the recent loss of her aunt, she thought for the first time about taking her own life.
“It was the trauma from the shooting, the trauma from my personal life and the end of my career,” San Felice said. “I just didn’t have anything else to say.”
San Felice left in early 2021 and took a job in Tampa Bay, where she is a reporter with Axios.
Months later, Tribune shareholders approved selling the company to Alden. Two days later, as part of a cost-cutting measure, the company offered voluntary buyouts to every single Tribune journalist. At least three Capital Gazette journalists took one, including Ohl, who, like San Felice, struggled to see a future at the newspaper despite not wanting to leave.
“I cried a lot with friends and family,” she said.
Hutzell also took a buyout. He left a week before the trial for Ramos began.
“This is my final contribution as the editor of The Capital,” Hutzell wrote in an op-ed. “Those are hard words to type. I had to take a deep breath as I read back over them.”
The reporters who have stayed at the paper continue to struggle. Photojournalist Paul Gillespie once found respite from his intense PTSD by spending time around colleagues. Now, the burden of covering Anne Arundel County largely by himself often triggers outbursts.
“Not only did I lose my five Capital Gazette family members who were killed,” he said, “but now I’ve lost everyone, basically, who worked there before the shooting.”
Most days, he said he feels like he’s waiting to die.
But, for now, he has remained, for a simple reason.
“I love the people around here,” Gillespie said. “I am the Capital photographer. Where I go, people know me.”
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The Capital Gazette survivors sat together in the courtroom again on Sept. 28, when Ramos was sentenced to five life terms in prison without parole – one for each person he murdered – and an additional life sentence for his attempt to kill Gillespie.
Furgurson had tried in the year since he had taken the buyout to be there for former colleagues, frequenting cookouts and birthday parties. But he knew their pain was different. He had been out for lunch when Ramos blasted into the newsroom.
So, after the sentencing hearing, he hung in the background among the survivors and families of the dead in the hallway, waiting for a quiet moment to tap San Felice on the shoulder. They embraced.
“I kept this in my pocket for good luck,” Furgurson, 67, told her, clutching a small blue bag. In it was an amulet, the blue-and-white “evil eye” pendant that symbolizes protection.
San Felice had bought it in Istanbul when she went to spread Winters’s ashes at her family’s request. She hoped it would bring peace and protection to the people in her newsroom. Now, with the reporters spread across the country, the talisman took on new meaning – symbolizing their ongoing support for each other, no matter where they lived and what they did.
“Oh, I’m so glad,” San Felice exclaimed, running her hand over the evil eye.
– – –
The Washington Post’s Katie Mettler contributed to this report.
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