Capital Gazette: "A Damn Paper"

Judges called this episode “a masterpiece of trauma-informed journalism” that “cuts right to the heart,” helping listeners “understand the real impact of violence directed at this profession and at the democratic institution.” They praised the team’s “persistent, careful and caring touch” alongside its “straightforward, unblinking approach,” “from the reporting to the language choices to the structure to the ways it demystifies local news.” They praised the team for “creating space for the staff to have agency and nuance in the telling of their own stories,” and said, quite simply, “this story is what trauma is all about.” Originally aired as the first episode of NPR's Embedded podcast on February 18, 2021.

Capital Gazette: "A Damn Paper"

Just hours after surviving a shooting at her workplace, Selene San Felice was on live television being interviewed by Anderson Cooper. It was June 28, 2018. Five of her coworkers at the Capital Gazette, a local newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, had just been killed.

Selene described her experience and expressed her shock, but as a journalist, she also took it a step further. "This is going to be a story for how many days? Less than a week. People are going to forget about us after a week," Selene said on air. "I'm going to need more than a couple days of news coverage and some thoughts and prayers."

For more than two years, producer Chris Benderev has been following Selene and the other staffers who survived the Capital Gazette shooting. He talked with the staff members who were in the building, and those who were not. This series is about what happens after the news trucks go away. How do you rebuild your life, and your newspaper, after such an attack?

In part one of this story, we look at the events that occurred on the day of the shooting — not to retell the crime itself at length or in graphic detail, but because in order to understand everything that would come next for The Capital you need to know how the staff responded to the tragedy on June 28, 2018.


Selene San Felice's editor, Rob Hiaasen, was killed during the shooting. She was assigned a new editor, and even though their first edit went well, she said, "It felt so bad to get that from somebody that wasn't Rob." She went out in the hallway and cried.

'People Will Forget About Us': The Capital Gazette Shooting Survivors, Years Later

On June 28, 2018, reporter Selene San Felice was working in her cubicle on a local story. By mid-afternoon, she and her colleagues at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Md., had become the subject of national news. Around 2:30 pm, a gunman had blasted his way into the newsroom and killed five members of the staff. San Felice hid under a desk and prayed.

San Felice worried that the shooting would barely register with the public, once it was no longer breaking news. It was just one in a string of recent high-profile attacks. Four months earlier, a gunman had killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla. Four months before that, a man killed 58 fans at a music festival in Las Vegas. And almost exactly two years earlier, San Felice had covered the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando as a student journalist. The breaking news, the vigils, the speeches from politicians—each step in the dance was familiar to her.

It feels like I’m a normal person. Which is awesome. … [Then] these little moments happen when I realize that I am not. But I’m OK with that.
After the shooting, Selene San Felice moved over to the entertainment section of the newspaper. The reporter who used to cover that beat, Wendi Winters, was killed in the attack.

Just hours after the shooting, San Felice conveyed her disillusionment on live television. During an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper, she said, "This is going to be a story for how many days? Less than a week. People will forget about us after a week."

She added, "I'm going to need more than a couple days of news coverage and some thoughts and prayers because our whole lives have been shattered."

Capital Gazette journalists became subjects of news stories connected to the shooting. Reporter Rachael Pacella landed on the Capital Gazette's front page for testifying at the Maryland State House about gun violence.

The new Capital Gazette series from NPR's Embedded podcast asks what happens after the public and the press move on. It follows San Felice and the rest of surviving staff in the two years following the shooting.

Reporter Rachael Pacella hit her head while trying to escape the shooting and had to go to the hospital. From her hospital bed, she found a sheet of paper and pen and started documenting details of the attack. Later, she filled notebooks with her memories.

I actually thought to myself during the shooting, ‘Oh, this is news. This is a big deal.’ Not in a victim-y way but in a newsy way. I was recognizing in real time that it was a news story, and I was surprised that news judgment occupied any brain space at all during that moment.
Rachael Pacella tried to escape from the newsroom during the shooting but tripped and fell. She then hid behind a filing cabinet.
Joshua McKerrow, a photojournalist who had worked at the paper for 14 years, was out on assignment that day. After the shooting, he gathered with other colleagues in a parking garage near their office. When McKerrow learned the names of his coworkers who had been killed, he felt his life had irrevocably changed: "I had one of those moments—and it wasn't the first time I'd had at that day—where I could see the demarking line between my old life and my new life."

Along with two other colleagues, photojournalist Joshua McKerrow worked in the Westfield Annapolis Mall parking garage to report on the mass shooting that had just taken place at his newspaper.

I should have been there. … The feeling is that if you’d have been there, maybe you could have done something.
Joshua McKerrow was out on assignment during the shooting. He has harbored guilt for not being in the office that day. McKerrow’s colleagues have helped him manage that guilt.

Part of this new life for McKerrow and his colleagues meant figuring out how to cover the story of their own newsroom. The attack fueled the staff's commitment to the paper. On the night of the shooting, reporter Chase Cook sent out a tweet that went on to be retweeted nearly 15 thousand times: "I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow."

The Capital Gazette's top editor, Rick Hutzell, made a longer-term pledge: the paper would cover the trial of the man who killed his colleagues. To do so, the staff would have to contend with dual challenges: Could they report fairly on a case that affected them intimately? And could they protect themselves emotionally while being constantly reminded of the attack?

Hutzell knew he could have handed this story over to the Baltimore Sun—the Capital Gazette's larger sister newspaper—but he didn't want to. The Capital Gazette, he said, "remains focused every day on what's going on in the community" and the shooting was fundamentally a story about this community. He believed it was "crucial for who we are that the Capital visibly cover this and try and maintain a sense of objectivity."

For months after the shooting, the Capital Gazette staff worked out of a newsroom of a University of Maryland student newspaper.

To report on the aftermath of the shooting, Hutzell had immediate practical issues to address. The office was a crime scene, so the staff operated out of a cramped college newsroom for months. Reporters had to take on new beats to cover for colleagues who'd died and some were taken off their usual beats. Phil Davis, the paper's crime reporter, couldn't write about one of the biggest murder trials in the city's history—the shooting at his newspaper—because he was likely to take the stand as a witness.

Businesses in the neighborhood surrounding the temporary newsroom posted signs supporting the Capital Gazette. Phil Davis appreciated the signs, but he also knew the attention wouldn't last forever.

The job itself was part of the recovery for me. … Not being able to work was going to drive me stir-crazy.
Phil Davis, who survived the shooting, returned to work two weeks later.
These changes created new difficulties. Though the small newsroom gave the journalists a sense of camaraderie, reporter Danielle Ohl said, "Sometimes it was fraught. When you have a lot of traumatized people and you put them all together in a small room, the emotions are going to bump up against each other."

Danielle Ohl had loaned Lincoln in the Bardo—a novel centered on death and grieving—to her editor Rob Hiaasen. After Hiaasen was killed, Ohl discovered that he'd left the book on her desk with a note: "Danielle, Thank you for the gift of this amazing read!" It was the last communication she received from Hiaasen.

It’s like this meme now to be triggered, but it happens … and it sucks because you want to be able to do your job.
While Danielle Ohl was covering a city council meeting a few months after the attack, a disgruntled source approached her about a recent story. After he referred to the shooting, Ohl could no longer focus on her assignment. Her editor decided to take over for her that night.


Even outside the office, reporters sometimes couldn't escape reminders of the shooting. "You'd walk into a place and you'd say, 'Hi, I'm Josh from the Capital,' and people would burst into tears," McKerrow said. "Like I was the walking embodiment of a mass shooting and meeting would hit them all at once that this was real."

Despite these obstacles, in the two years since the shooting, the Capital Gazette staff have done what they vowed to do: put out a damn paper, every day.

Some images in this story were made with a film double exposure process, combining a portrait with a location or item that was significant to that person.