By Laura Jane Willoughby ’98
On June 28, 2018, a gunman walked into the newsroom of The Capital newspaper in Annapolis, Md., and killed five employees. Their names run like a ticker tape in my mind: Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, Johhn McNamara, Rebecca Smith, Wendi Winters.
The Capital newspaper and its sister publication, the Maryland Gazette, were my first stops as a 1998 media communications graduate of the College. I had worked with Gerald and John. I knew Wendi and Rob from journalism gatherings. I did not know Rebecca, a new employee in advertising, but it didn’t matter. In the way that happens at small-town newspapers, I had stayed a part of The Capital, an extended family of former and current employees connected by long hours, low pay and a shared belief that local papers mattered. We were all connected, whether we had worked together or not.
While news organizations had faced workplace shootings in the past, this was the first shooting in the U.S. to target journalists. As I huddled on my bedroom floor that day scouring social media and messaging other former Capital colleagues for updates, it was hard for me to separate the attack from the recent full-frontal assault on the press.
Like all my colleagues in the industry, we witnessed the vilification and politicalization of the media over the last few years. Since he’d first announced his candidacy, President Donald Trump has called out the “fake news” media. The morning of the attack, he tweeted, “Establishment Government, Media, and Hollywood are killing America. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” Just two days before, right-wing nationalist Milo Yiannopoulos told the Observer, “I can’t wait for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight.”
The Capital shooting, coming so soon after, seemed at first a direct response to the rhetoric, as though it was the culmination of the very pubic declarations against my chosen profession. While ultimately the shooter’s actions were the result of a private grudge held against the paper, it still didn’t remove the sting of the words thrown wholesale against an entire industry. It seemed an attack on democracy itself, a one-off hit to the “Fourth Estate,” the idea that the news media is the stabilizing leg of the three-legged stool of the republic.
The sanctity of journalism was built into the First Amendment of the Constitution by the Founding Fathers (three of whom were also founders of the College), who believed a free press could investigate and write about government abuses and oversteps, a check-and-balance necessary for a stable democracy. “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost,” Thomas Jefferson wrote of the only profession protected by the Constitution.
The shooter may not have been inspired by the words of public and governmental figures, but the attack did highlight an industry facing its own set of challenges. Social media has transformed where and how we get our news and how journalists interact with the public. The blurring of the line between pundit, media personality and straight news journalist has changed how the public views the profession overall. Consolidations at community and national newspapers have left fewer reporters doing more and, ultimately, bring up questions on how, or even whether, the news industry will survive. A cadre of College of Charleston graduates working in journalism today are in the crosshairs of these changes and of a nation divided over the role of the press.
The CNN newsroom is a cacophony of color and sound on a normal news day, the bright graphics of the network’s logos on computer screens and a bank of television screens providing an ever-changing vignette for the constant hum of voices from colleagues conferring on stories.
SONYA HOUSTON ’86, senior producer of CNN NewsRoom with Ana Cabrera, was sitting at her desk in the network’s Atlanta office when the first interoffice news alert about the Annapolis shooting chimed in her email. She is surrounded by technology that keeps her linked to the demands of 24-hour news. Like the September 11 attacks and other shootings, the initial news of Annapolis horrified her. At first, “It felt like what had been a figurative attack had become literal,” she says. “Just knowing that someone had walked in and then shot people. Five people died. It was awful.”
Her desk is grouped with others on her team, who normally prepare the show lineup and write copy for the Saturday and Sunday shows, but the breaking news ground regular operations to a halt. She dialed up a live feed from Annapolis on one of the television screens on the wall that normally broadcast CNN and other network news competitors, putting her personal reactions aside, and went into “news gathering mode” – confirming information, scouring Twitter for on-the-ground information and thinking ahead to the weekend show, booking analysts and experts in law enforcement. But, “in the back of my mind, I was thinking, What if it happened here?”
Just months later, on October 24, the CNN New York studio shut down, and staff evacuated when a suspected pipe bomb appeared in the mailroom, one of a series mailed by a man targeting Democratic leaders and media pundits. No one was hurt, and the man responsible pleaded guilty to 65 counts.
It was an act emboldened by the advent of the internet, something that came after Houston began her career. “We live in times where we are polarized and entrenched in our silos,” she says. “The internet gives people a platform and a forum to express their crazy views and also get their point of view justified. There are a lot more sources now where, if I have some offbeat, violent idea, I can go find someone on Twitter who agrees with me or I can go find a website that reinforces all my pre-existing beliefs. I
think people use that to feel empowered and justified to do crazy, sometimes, unfortunately,
And perhaps that’s one of the major shifts. We have been here before with harsh criticisms from those in power, although the detractors and opinions weren’t always so accessible, immediate and repetitive. They lacked the viral staying power of posts that never go away, are read by thousands to millions of followers and can be shared immediately.
President Richard Nixon was well known for lambasting reporters as his relationship with the press soured. In 1972, he’d told two national security advisers (Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig), “Never forget, the press is the enemy, the press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy, the professors are the enemy, the professors are the enemy. Write that on the blackboard 100 times.” Those remarks were uncovered 35 years after they were recorded, and even Jefferson’s comments on the importance of the press didn’t find a reading public until much later. CNN recently produced a new documentary on President Nixon, so Houston has been thinking about the historical legacy of when press and politicians clash: “There are cycles of, ‘we hate the press, we love the press.’ When The Washington Post broke the Watergate scandal, the people who loved Nixon thought it was horrible, but other people were like, ‘Great, thanks, you uncovered corruption at the highest levels of government.’ It’s a little different now because everyone is in their own echo chamber. I think a lot of people just go to whatever news sources bolster their preconceived notions about what is going on, both on the left and the right. And the news is happening so quickly now there’s not a lot of time to reflect and digest.”
Some of today’s criticism is earned. New outlets have launched that use more politically charged language on both sides of the political spectrum. Headlines have become shorter and more explosive, often resembling clickbait titles in their attempts to grab pageviews and engagement. The line between opinion and straight news story has blurred, nowhere more so than for the 24-hour news networks, where hosts posit arguably politically skewed stories with opinions to gain more viewers – and, thereby, more ad revenue. Criticism that the press doesn’t have to cover the myriad commentary and tweets by politicians and public figures ad nauseum is well earned but negates the reality that social media is today’s town square and ignores the revenue conundrum of news in a digital age. Salacious though they may be, Twitter spats do garner high levels of interest.
That difference, and the shifts that have come with an always-on news cycle, is easier to see with the hindsight of a few decades. Kirk Stone, professor emeritus at the College, taught me, and it was a story he shared in class that made me realize that journalism was more than just a good way to turn a love of learning, talking to people and writing into a career. Before he was a professor, Stone was a political writer at an Indiana newspaper. A source tipped him off that the city council was meeting without issuing a public advisory – a violation of the state’s open meeting laws – and Stone soon found himself huddling with an accompanying photographer behind bushes at the bank across from city offices, an ambush in the making. Stone interrupted the meeting, and the story ran in the next day’s edition. “As a journalist, it was my duty,” he says.
Today, Stone takes a more critical view. “I think the news media is failing in its mission to provide the public a sort of dispassionate, intelligent, well-balanced series of articles that could help you cast a well-informed vote and act as an intelligent citizen,” he says. “As someone said, what we need are more journalists who are shedding light and fewer journalists who are creating heat. We’ve got too much fire and not enough light and too many stories where it seems like the journalist is hoping to be the center of attention.”
While some of the general discontent against the press has found its way to local television news, CHRIS WEIMER ’06, a nightly anchor for WBOC-TV 16 in Salisbury, Md., says he hasn’t seen a disproportionate amount of attacks against his station’s reporting, a byproduct of how hyper-local news works. But he could see signs of the coming public discontent well before “fake news” made it into the mainstay of our media language. “I noticed it from a national level. I could see it and I could understand both sides of it,” he says. “Honestly, before it all, you had just as many people who were distrustful or had negative things to say about the press.
“I think it’s a good thing in some ways, just like we check the public. Maybe sometimes it’s good for people who are our readers or viewers to challenge us, to say, ‘Are you being fair?’ As a journalist, I am picking apart and questioning everything about every story, so why am I going to be insulted when somebody does that to me? We have a right to be challenged.”
Purcellville, Va., lies 50 miles west of the nation’s capital. It is an exurb of the District of Columbia, its main streets lined with turn-of-the-century Victorian and stone houses, its back roads and rolling hills dotted with new housing subdivisions. With a population of 10,000 people, it’s the kind of town that easily picks out newcomers and strangers, the kind where the family-owned hardware store established in 1914 is still owned by the same family. It is the kind of idyllic town often ripe for backdoor politics and, thereby, a journalist’s dream.
Across the United States, it is towns like Purcellville that are losing coverage as newspapers close. Unlike similarly sized towns in the nation, however, it is one of the fastest growing areas in the D.C. metro region, and the county in which it sits, Loudoun, is the second–fastest-growing county in the nation.
On November 17, 2017, TREVOR BARATKO ’08, editor-in-chief of the Loudoun Times-Mirror, was sitting at home enjoying a Friday night glass of wine when an email announcing an emergency town council meeting for Purcellville for the next morning, a Saturday, hit his inbox. The notice came after 7 p.m., following a string of disruptions, firings and personnel changes for the town. Two weeks before, the town had fired its police chief after a questionable investigation. Baratko started to sense that “something was awry and that it may be a little complex.”
At the time, Baratko was doubling as managing editor and reporter. Early the next morning he arrived at the Purcellville Town Hall, notebook in hand, where the town council convened its meeting only to quickly close for an executive session in an upstairs conference room. Baratko is equal parts irreverent and personable, with a penchant for asking tough questions and persisting even if the answers aren’t forthcoming. He perched in a lobby chair, waiting out the council, who emerged after several hours and began leaving without reconvening – a violation of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, which dictates minutes record summaries of topics discussed.
Meanwhile, the paper learned that the town itself was under investigation, so that afternoon Baratko sent an email to the mayor asking who, exactly, was conducting it. A Sunday morning press release cleared some things up: After an investigation into emails the week before, the town council had learned the investigator they had hired had “old but serious” felony convictions and a romantic relationship with a town employee involved in the investigation. The town promised an outside audit and discipline for the town employee.
Baratko says that the stories on the town and the paper’s role in forcing the town council to follow open-meeting and Freedom of Information laws are the “epitome of the Fourth Estate.”
“The chief would have been fired, nobody would have questioned it, and someone who spent 30 years in law enforcement would have been ousted in her hometown,”
he observes. “And the council would have carried on if reporters weren’t there holding them accountable.”
The stories gained the Loudoun Times-Mirror a hate-and-vitriol–filled Facebook page targeting the paper and Baratko, with posts calling for his firing; memes with giant, red “fake news” banners; and charges of unethical reporting at the newspaper, all managed and posted anonymously. The paper reported the page to Facebook several times, but it remains. The page, and so many others like it, underscore how easy social media make it for anyone to make allegations, of any kind, and find a public audience without the fact-checking and ethics inherent in journalism.
Social media and the internet have given the public a place to air grievances, charges of unfair reporting and general hatespeech, but it’s also given journalists visibility. ELIZABETH LAFLEUR ’10 often feels like a public figure as a mobile reporter for the Greenville News in South Carolina, in large part because of her regular “Ask LaFleur” column, where she answers reader-submitted questions – what she calls, “the most basic, foundational kind of journalism you can do.” She’s part of the new cadre of journalists, those immersed in the digital age who can write, shoot photos and videos and capture the connectivity of social media.
“I feel like the value of what I do is helping people connect with what’s happening in their community,” she says. “It’s a way to be an outlet for people and help them find those answers, because they don’t have the same resources we have, or they don’t know they have the same resources. Even if they love to say they hate the news, they still like to know what’s going on in their own community.”
On a recent winter day, GINA SMITH ’97 sat in her office overlooking the newsroom of The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., reflecting on a 20-year journalism career and the people who used to sit in desks now empty. Like so many local newspapers across the country, The State has weathered its share of media consolidation: It was family owned from its founding in 1891 until an acquisition by now-defunct Knight Ridder in 1986, which was acquired by the McClatchy Company in 2006 during a wave of newspaper downsizing and acquisition. “It used to be overflowing with people,” she says.
Smith began at The State in 2000 as a cub reporter and moved up the ranks to cover politics and government, where a Southern accent and the slight lilt in her voice would have been an asset to gain access to some of South Carolina’s biggest politicians of the day and belies a knack at asking tough questions nicely. She remembers the days when reporters covered every school board, county council, city council and state agency meetings. “I mean, we were everywhere. There wasn’t a whole lot that didn’t find a home in the newspaper,” she says. “We just don’t do that anymore.”
She gained national acclaim and media coverage of her own in 2009 when she broke a national news story after then-Governor Mark Sanford had disappeared, only to reappear on a flight bound from Argentina, where the governor had been vacationing with his girlfriend. But Smith eschews the telling of that story to recount, instead, some of the more recent projects she’s overseen as editor of special projects at The State and sister papers, The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet in Hilton Head – a position created in 2016 during a newsroom reorganization, an anachronism in an industry that has faced continuous acquisition, downsizing and closures.
The ensuing projects provided multimedia reporting – videos along with vivid photographs, graphs, illustrations and stories – on a series of community issues. “Our story ‘Propping up Paradise’ exposed the underbelly of living in a resort community,” says Smith of the exploitation of service workers in Hilton Head and the shortage of affordable housing. The town council is now trying to solve some of the issues.
A subsequent series examined a military housing community whose residents have a high rate of leukemia, infertility and rare diseases. Reporting uncovered underground pollutants and toxins in the community leaking – potentially – into the groundwater that have led to lawsuits and the hope of federal cleanup of the area. “If the work ends up contributing to that happening,” she says, “I’ll feel like it was worth every minute spent hunched over spreadsheets.”
As more newspapers find themselves with smaller budgets and fewer reporters or, in some cases, closed down all together, it’s stories like these that suffer. “There’s a million things, as a reporter, you can tell when you walk into a meeting,” says Smith. “The decision makers act differently. They talk differently. They’re more transparent with people. There is no other outfit in America that provides this service to taxpayers.”
In 2004, the number of employees and print advertising revenue at newspapers hit a peak of near-1990s levels. But since then, newspapers have been in a freefall. Print advertising today is at record low levels, making newspapers and websites dependent on subscriptions. Newspapers have lost half of their journalists. More than one in five newspapers have closed in the past 15 years, and the 1,300 to 1,400 communities that had one in 2004 now have none.
Like any other disrupted business, newspapers need to evolve with the times to survive. The State encourages its reporters to participate in community discussions and forums about the news media. BRISTOW MARCHANT ’07 is a politics and government reporter at The State and moderates “The Buzz on South Carolina Politics,” the paper’s closed discussion group where reporters and editors post politically related stories from the paper, encourage discussion and explain the process behind the reporting. It’s also a way to encourage subscriptions in an industry that is increasingly reliant on them. For understandable reasons, he says, management wants reporters “to engage with readers, so they can understand the processes and principles behind the journalism you’re doing, so they can see it’s not necessarily agenda driven and also it’s something being done by human beings. I think you have to tell people, whatever their opinions are about CNN or Fox News, hopefully they can engage with their local papers and local journalists in their local communities in a different way.”
There are signs of hope. Last July, I joined at least 50 other former staffers of The Capital as we marched behind survivors (a title no one wants to have) in Annapolis’ Fourth of July parade. We reclaimed journalism as a core tenant of patriotism that day – our red, white and blue shirts proclaiming our most important democratic principle: Journalism Matters, #NottheEnemy and “Press On,” a phrase that had arisen in the days after the shooting. It started as a somber procession, but as we walked down the street, applause and cheers from people lining the route grew until all we could hear was appreciation. There were more than a few tears in our eyes, an oddity for those who practice a craft that equates emotional distance with journalistic integrity.
The Capital Gazette staff found its way onto the cover of Time magazine as 2018 Person of the Year, along with four other journalists (including slain Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi). This year, the Pulitzer Prize Board awarded the paper a special citation for the staff’s “unflagging commitment to covering the news and serving their community at a time of unspeakable grief.” The Pulitzer came with a $100,000 award. “Our plan is to use the grant to do the kind of journalism that attracts more readers,” says editor Rick Hutzell.
Recognition of the watchdog role of the press isn’t coming solely from the industry. A report published in March by the Pew Research Center found that most Americans feel their local media – television, newspapers or radio – do at least fairly well keeping them informed on important stories. Most feel that local media reports the news accurately (71 percent) and deals fairly with all sides (62 percent).
“Our mission is so important that we just have to figure out how to keep doing it,” says The State’s Smith. “Whatever the new digital hurdle is, whatever corporate changes happen, whatever changes happen in the political landscape, we’ve got to keep finding a way to tell important stories. We’ve got to be there to hold those in leadership positions accountable, we’ve got to be there to let people know how their tax dollars are being spent. There’s a lot of incredibly important news. But so much of what affects quality of life is local, and I hope there will always be a space for us to tell people what is happening in their communities.”