On Twitter and other social media outlets, shreds of good news were quickly overtaken by accusations and assumptions about who was responsible and how the shootings fit into the story of a divided and angry nation.
The first tweet was urgent and spare: “Active shooter 888 Bestgate please help us,” wrote Anthony Messenger, a summer intern at the Capital Gazette, a struggling small-town newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland.
But within minutes after that 2:43 p.m. tweet Thursday, a devastating shooting in a suburban office building prompted reactions that again demonstrated the country’s wrenching divisions.
On Twitter and other social media outlets, shreds of good news — reporters and editors at the newspaper pronouncing themselves safe — were quickly overtaken by accusations and assumptions, mostly unfounded, about who was responsible and how the shootings fit into the story of a divided and angry nation.
With five of his colleagues dead and two others injured, Jimmy DeButts, an editor at the Capital Gazette, felt compelled to offer a defense of the work his colleagues do. He begged people on Twitter to “stop asking for information/interviews. I’m in no position to speak, just know @capgaznews reporters & editors give all they have every day. There are no 40 hour weeks, no big paydays — just a passion for telling stories from our community.”
A shooting at a newspaper, even a local paper that mostly steers clear of national politics, opens a window into the economic dislocation that has altered the way Americans work and how they learn about their communities.
“We keep doing more with less,” DeButts tweeted. “We find ways to cover high school sports, breaking news, tax hikes, school budgets & local entertainment … We try to expose corruption. We fight to get access to public records … The reporters & editors put their all into finding the truth. That is our mission. Will always be.”
From inside the Annapolis, Maryland, newsroom, reporter Phil Davis provided an immediate narration of the chaos around him. “Gunman shot through the glass door to the office and opened fire on multiple employees,” he tweeted an hour after the attack. “Can’t say much more and don’t want to declare anyone dead, but it’s bad. There’s nothing more terrifying than hearing multiple people get shot while you’re under your desk and then hear the gunman reload.”
Moments before the shooting began, Davis, who writes about crime, courts and local sports, had retweeted a story about electric scooters coming to Baltimore. His own latest story, about an Army veteran who died Wednesday evening while paddleboarding in the Chesapeake Bay, had just been posted on the Capital’s website.
Now, the Capital Gazette, descendant of the seventh newspaper to be created in colonial America, in 1727, had to cover news about itself. “A shooting has occurred at the Capital Gazette in Anne Arundel County,” said the lead story on the paper’s home page at 3:10 p.m.
In a country where trust has been in sharp decline, suspicions about what might be behind a shooting in a newsroom quickly became a dominant part of the story.
On Fox News Channel, reporter Trace Gallagher told anchor Neil Cavuto: “We checked in earlier, Neil, with the ideological bent of the Capital, again, it’s one of the oldest newspapers in the country … we kind of looked at the editorial board, who’s on it, what topics they cover, it’s very much a local newspaper. … Doesn’t really seem to have a major ideological bent, if that plays into the motive at all.”
Cavuto felt the need to assure his audience that the paper was not overly controversial: “Eyeing through it on the Internet, I don’t notice any rabid editorials or polarizing coverage. It just seems like a very solid local paper.”
Journalists around the country offered their support to colleagues in Annapolis, and many added a defense of their craft: “On this horrific day, let’s establish that journalists are not ‘the enemy of the American people,’ as President Trump has tweeted,” wrote NPR correspondent Melissa Block.
An industry group, Investigative Reporters and Editors, tweeted out the text of the First Amendment.
On his radio show, Fox News host Sean Hannity immediately questioned whether Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters’s call for continuing public harassment of Trump administration officials might have inspired the shooting. “Honestly, I’ve been saying now for days that something horrible’s going to happen because of the rhetoric,” Hannity said. “Really, Maxine, you want people to call your friends, get in their faces?”
The far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos had sent out a message to reporters on Tuesday saying, “I can’t wait for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight.” Now, without knowing who shot up the Capital newsroom, some people were connecting dots.
Yiannopoulos put out a statement saying his inflammatory words were “a private, offhand troll to two hostile reporters,” “a joke” that was never meant to be widely distributed. “You guys should decide whether you think I’m ‘disgraced, irrelevant and over’ or ‘so dangerous I inspire mass shootings,’” he wrote on Facebook. “I can’t be both.”
With a daily print circulation of about 29,000 as of 2014, the Capital Gazette had only 31 reporters and editors. “We are close,” tweeted reporter Danielle Ohl. “We are family.”
And on Thursday, the surviving staffers were working to put out the next day’s edition. The journalists, augmented by colleagues from The Baltimore Sun, which bought the paper in 2014, worked against the most crushing deadline of their careers.
“I am okay physically, so far, mentally I am a mess,” wrote Capital photographer Paul W. Gillespie, who was in the newsroom when the shootings took place. “I am in shock trying to process this horrible situation.”
And so the grieving and the reporting jumbled together Thursday night as the paper’s journalists huddled under a covered parking deck of the Annapolis Mall, not far from where scores of other media people were clumped awaiting further details of the shooting that left five people dead and others injured.
Capital Gazette Editor Rick Hutzell called a few of his journalists over to talk, a discussion punctuated with hugs and shocked expressions.
“We’re trying to do our job and deal with five people” who lost their lives, said reporter Pat Furgurson, whose wife and adult son were with him at the mall.
Furgurson said his colleagues were “just people trying to do their job for the public.”
“You think something like this might happen in Afghanistan, not in a newsroom a block away from the mall,” he said, reflecting on what appeared to be one of the deadliest attacks on journalists in U.S. history. Police later said the gunman explicitly targeted the newspaper.
The paper’s staffers were resolute that they would publish despite the tragedy. Reporter Chase Cook wrote on Twitter: “I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.”
Brushed aside were the logistical difficulties of producing a newspaper when the newsroom is an off-limits crime scene.
High-school sports editor Bob Hough said he and a colleague were working on the sports section from his home Thursday evening.
“I don’t know that there was ever any thought to not putting something together,” said Hough, who wasn’t at the office when the shooting happened. Hough said they were doing a full five-page section in collaboration with the design team based at The Baltimore Sun that always lays out the pages.
He noted that some colleagues were out reporting on the shooting story as it continued to unfold late Thursday, and he said he expected the next day’s paper would include that coverage and whatever else would be in a typical Friday paper.
Photographer Josh McKerrow edited photos on a laptop in the garage deck.
“It’s what our instinct was — to go back to work,” McKerrow said. “It’s what our colleagues would have done.”