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A death in the family: Doing the work they believe in on a small newspaper

‘It’s like being a teacher or a nurse,” one reporter called his job after five colleagues were massacred in the newsroom of their small daily newspaper. “You get paid an honest wage to do work that you believe matters.” 

Since the tragedy, there have been many eloquent responses like this one, along with long overdue recognition of the role smaller newspapers like the Capital Gazette of Annapolis, Md., play in the life of the community and the nation.  

“Smaller papers are interwoven into their communities in a way big city papers are not,” wrote a Baltimore Sun colleague of Rob Hiassen, a onetime Sun reporter who elected to return to a smaller paper to be an editor and valued mentor to young writers.

Journalists are in some ways similar to teachers or nurses in their dedication, though very unlike firefighters, police officers or others who regularly risk and too often give their lives in the practice of their professions. Acts of violence against American journalists have been rare up to now, but what we write can make people angry and threats and even aggressive acts can happen.  

 

I can recall a few harmless attacks, starting way back when I authored “Doings at Madison High,” the high school column in my hometown weekly paper, the Madison (N.J.) Eagle. A schoolmate smacked me in the jaw in response to a column whose subject is long forgotten. What I do remember is being thrilled that something I wrote could inspire such reader reaction.

As a college columnist, I was carried from the dining hall and thrown into a campus creek by members of a fraternity whose pledges had set off alarm clocks as a prank during a showing of Lawrence Olivier’s “Hamlet.”  They objected to my reference to a line in the play about imitating humanity so abominably, thereby acknowledging not only my comment but the work of my collaborator, William Shakespeare.

Things got more serious soon after I began my reporting career for the honest wage of $50 a week at The Wheeling Intelligencer in 1955. A day or two after getting a byline on a story about a man charged with attacking someone with a baseball bat, the paper’s receptionist called the city editor to announce that a man with a baseball bat had asked to see Richard Ahles. The police were called and we never heard from the batter again.

Today, anonymous emails and telephoned threats to newsrooms are the most common and usually ignored, although they probably will be taken more seriously for at least a time after the Capital Gazette killings.

When I ran the newsroom at WFSB-TV in Hartford, an angry caller — angry about just what, we never knew — announced there was a bomb in my car, parked in the easily accessible garage between the station and a hotel.  

This happened not long after the car of Arizona Republic  investigative reporter Don Bolles was blown up by sticks of dynamite under the driver’s seat. The hit men were still being tried, so the State Police took the threat seriously and examined the engine and underside of my car before I could go home.

The Bolles case remains unsolved after more than 40 years. Those paid to plant the explosive in the reporter’s car were quickly caught because the dying Bolles was able to name one of them. His last few words also indicated his assassination was prompted by his investigation of a questionable Phoenix land deal involving some prominent Arizona businessmen and politicians. But only the hit men were identified and prosecuted in a series of bungled trials that continued into the 1990s. The stain on Arizona’s justice system remains.

As to the Capital Gazette, its staff paused briefly to grieve and then resolved, as one reporter said, to “get out the damned paper.” Its Opinion page consisted of only 56 words, centered around the names of the five who gave their lives.

A few days later, a second editorial thanked the community for rallying around the institution and its staff, writing that “we are not the enemy of the people. We are you.”

The editorial feared that, after the loss of their colleagues, “we will never be the same again” but “we hope to be as good again.”

They already are.

 

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.