When I was in Reidsville, an angry and grieving man walked into our newsroom, came into my tiny office without warning, and shut the door behind him. His teenaged niece had died in a car accident.
The Review, like many small-town community newspapers, had covered the fatality in extensive detail. And the man was angry about the story we had published, which quoted the police report that said his niece was at fault. He believed the story had left a “black stain” on his niece and on his family.
Anxious to take out his anger and grief on someone, the man threatened multiple times to punch me, even as I tried to listen and calmly talk him down. Finally, I said, "Go ahead," with the stipulation that as soon as the punch was thrown I would throw him through the plate glass window that separated my office from the rest of the newsroom.
Given that I was 5 inches taller and 40 pounds (at least) heavier, he opened my door and left.
The police were called.
I was lucky. He never came back.
This afternoon, at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., five employees were killed when a man with a shotgun opened fire in the newsroom. Details remain sketchy, even though a suspect is in custody and has been identified. A few minutes ago, police said the man had filed a defamation claim against the paper in 2012, but the case was dismissed in 2015.
Threats and physical violence against journalists have risen in recent years, which comes as no surprise given the shouting over “fake news” and the fragmented nature of our society. When I saw reports of this latest gun-related tragedy, I immediately flashed back to that day in Reidsville, and to my career as a newspaper journalist.
I worked for community papers in Texas and North Carolina for more than a decade. It is hard, grueling labor, the only constants being long hours and low pay. (You sure as hell don’t do it for the money, the quality of life, or the fame.)
You do it because you love to write and be part of the community in which you live. You publish, despite what others may think, more good stories than bad ones.
This horrible news is now up on the Capital Gazette website, and reporters say there will be a print edition tomorrow. Because even in the face of tragedy, that’s what good journalists do.