By Joanna Campbell Slan of the Femmes Fatales
Yesterday, a lone gunman walked into the newsroom of The Capital Gazette, a newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, and targeted journalists. Using a pump-action shotgun, he blew out the glass window, the only barrier between the public and the editorial staff.
Experts on television and radio have been talking about soft targets, and how fragile that glass barrier was. How easily the gunman burst through it. How exposed the journalists were.
That vulnerability happens on purpose.
As a journalism graduate, I’ve worked in many daily newspapers—the Daily News at Ball State University, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the Bloomington (IL) Pantagraph. No one knows the heartbeat of a town the way a working journalist does. While maintaining objectivity is paramount, knowing the community you serve is equally important. When I worked at the Post-Dispatch, people walked in all the time to talk to reporters, editors, and ad sales people. We all sat in an open bull pen. The editors and management had glass doors with blinds that could be pulled, but otherwise, there was no privacy in the newsroom. Nowhere to hide.
That was by design. We worked as a living, breathing organism. If I heard a tidbit on the street, I told my colleagues. Likewise, they shared with me. We took breaks together in a glass enclosed break room. The only space that was contained, secured, was the press room.
I loved walking back into the room that housed our printing press. Huge rolls of newsprint were off-loaded by forklifts from the train track behind our building. The paper came from Canada. It arrived on a huge spool. The press men wound it through the printing press like thread through a sewing machine. The smell of the ink and the oil hung in the air. Red lights and buzzers sounded as the press started up. Men in jumpsuits raced from one area to another, checking the impressions for clarity, adjusting ink flow, and monitoring the action.Once the press was running, the paper moved with such force and tensile strength that you could lose a limb if you got in the way. That gave a “paper cut” a whole new meaning. When the press was in action, the noise was deafening. You needed ear protection if you stayed back in the press room for any length of time. The printing press was a behemoth, a monster, that demanded feeding and tending. When it roared to life, the entire building shook.
To think that my work was printed on that paper, that my effort was a part of that action, thrilled me. If you walked around behind our building, you could watch as the finished newspapers were bundled, tied, and tossed to news agents and carriers for distribution to our readers.
One of the men killed yesterday was Rob Hiaasen, brother of Florida author, Carl Hiaasen. On Friday morning, Carl told CNN his brother was, “the rock of our family,” who, “believed in the mission and the craft of hometown journalism."
Carl has it right. Being a journalist is much more than a job. It’s a mission. Each and every day when I worked at a newspaper, we made history, because without our efforts, so much slipped by unobserved, unremarked upon, and unrecorded. Our job was to shine a spotlight in the darkest corners of our community and demand that attention be paid. Even all these years later, I still consider myself a journalist. I still want to know why, and who, and how, and what in the world?
It’s in my blood.
Ink and blood. So we write the story of our nation today, this day, after the tragedy.