When a gunman burst through the door of the Capital Gazette newspaper just outside Annapolis, Maryland, on Thursday, employees who could do so fled for their lives. Five didn’t make it, and more than 20 were wounded by gunfire.
Yet almost immediately, the survivors did what journalists do: They spread the news.
“Active shooter 888 Bestgate please help us,” came a tweet at 2:43 p.m. from Anthony Messenger, a Capital Gazette intern, in what may have been the first public report of the shooting.
As police and emergency workers descended on the address, the grim outlines of the news soon emerged. In a few moments of inexplicable madness, a newspaper had become the story.
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Somehow — it’s not clear how — the small community paper managed to post a news article and video about the rampage within two hours of the incident. It relied on a news story from the Baltimore Sun, a sister paper (both are owned by Tronc Inc., a Chicago-based company).
The Capital Gazette continued to carry the Sun’s coverage on its website throughout the afternoon.
The Capital, as its generally known, is Annapolis’ daily newspaper, and one with a special pedigree. Founded in 1884, it roots stretch even deeper into the past, to before the nation’s birth. A sister paper, the twice-weekly Maryland Gazette, was founded in 1727 in Annapolis; it was one of the first Colonial papers to publish the Declaration of Independence.
Messenger’s urgent tweet was soon followed by others from in and around the scene.
“A single shooter shot multiple people at my office, some of whom are dead,” tweeted Capital reporter Phil Davis bluntly at 3:42 p.m.
A few seconds later, he added this chilling addendum: “Gunman shot through the glass door to the office and opened fire on multiple employees. Can’t say much more and don’t want to declare anyone dead, but it’s bad.”
Followed by an even more gripping coda: “There is nothing more terrifying than hearing multiple people get shot while you’re under your desk and then hear the gunman reload.”
Tronc bought the Capital from Norfolk, Virginia-based Landmark Media Enterprises in 2014. The deal was seen as something of a reprieve for the paper, which like others has seen its circulation fall and advertisers flee in the internet era. The Chicago company folded it into its portfolio of papers stretching south from Baltimore along the Chesapeake Bay, and converted it from afternoon publication into a morning paper in 2015 (the Capital has a daily circulation of about 29,000 copies).
The new owners also moved the Capital’s headquarters to a new address: 888 Bestgate Road, a street-level suite of offices within a suburban office complex that is easily accessible to passers-by.
While the Capital covers the state capital and the Naval Academy — two beats with national implications — its focus remains community news. The bread-and-butter stories are about local politics, high school graduations, the Annapolis entertainment scene, prep sports.
Its editorial staff includes 31 people, among them nine part-timers who write columns about communities within the Capital’s circulation area in Annapolis, Anne Arundel County and Kent Island. The columns’ place names attest to the paper’s local focus: Broadneck, Brooklyn Park, Linthicum, Pasadena.
The paper had previously been part-owned by the late Philip Merrill, the owner and publisher of Washingtonian magazine.
The shooting shut down the newspaper’s newsroom. But it didn’t shut down its voice.
Jimmy DeButts, the Capital’s community news editor and columnist, survived. His tweet thread became a kind of heartbreaking column: “Devastated & heartbroken,” he wrote. “Numb. Please 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.
“We keep doing more with less. We find ways to cover high school sports, breaking news, tax hikes, school budgets & local entertainment.
“We are there in times of tragedy. We do our best to share the stories of people, those who make our community better. Please understand, we do all this to serve our community.
“We try to expose corruption. We fight to get access to public records & bring to light the inner workings of government despite major hurdles put in our way. The reporters & editors put their all into finding the truth. That is our mission. Will always be.”