As It Happens

'Sombre moment' as Capital Gazette gets Pulitzer citation for covering shooting in its own newsroom

Being recognized by the Pulitzer Prize committee is one of the greatest honours a journalist can achieve — but for the staff of Maryland's Capital Gazette, it was bittersweet.

'Something like this isn't going to stop us from doing our job,' says reporter Chase Cook

Staff members, former staff, and friends of the Capital Gazette pose for a photo at the newsroom in Annapolis, Md., Monday, after it won a special Pulitzer Prize citation for its coverage of a massacre in its own newsroom. (John Davisburg/Baltimore Sun via AP)
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Being recognized by the Pulitzer Prize committee is one of the greatest honours a journalist can achieve — but for the staff of Maryland's Capital Gazette, it was a bittersweet one. 

The Pulitzer board awarded the Annapolis newspaper a special citation and $100,000 US on Monday for its coverage of the mass shooting at its own office, when a gunman walked into the Gazette on June 28, 2018, and killed five people. 

Despite the attack, reporters and editors worked around the clock to put out a paper the next day. 

Chase Cook spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about covering the murder of his own colleagues. Here is part of their conversation.

How are people reacting in the newsroom [to this honour]?

It was really a sombre moment. You know, we've celebrated in our own way. We didn't have the euphoric pop-off you see in a lot of places because I think we were all kind reconciling with what was just announced.

I just want to read the citation from the Pulitzer committee: "To honour the journalists, staff and editorial board of the Capital Gazette for their courageous response to the largest killing of journalists in U.S. history in their newsroom on June 28, 2018, and for demonstrating unflagging commitment to covering the news and serving their community at a time of unspeakable grief." What does that mean for you?

It means a lot to me to be honoured that way. You know, when it was happening, a lot of it really felt like you're showing up to do your job and you're dealing personally with the loss, but knowing that the people who were killed would want you to be there. Or they would be there, if it was you who had died.

And so we were really just doing our best to honour them and we were doing our best to show our readers that, you know, something like this isn't going to stop us from doing our job.

Because we're doing it to help, you know, the public that we care about, that we love, our audience here, better understand what's happening in our community — even when it's happening to us.

Editor Rick Hutzell, centre, gives a speech to his staff including Chase Cook, Nicki Catterlin, Rachael Pacella, Selene San Felice and Danielle Ohl at the Capital Gazette. (Ulysses Muoz/The Baltimore Sun via AP)

The next edition was out only hours after the shooting. What do you remember of that day yourself? You were one of those reporters.

Rob Hiaasen, who was killed in the shooting, gave me the day off after I worked the primary for 16 or 17 hours that Tuesday. 

At about 2:30, I was at home. I was playing a video game, trying to relax, when I got a phone call about, you know, there was a shooting at the newsroom.

When I first heard the news, I honestly didn't know how to react. I threw on my work clothes and drove into work.

As I was driving, I was getting phone calls from people making sure I was OK ... and I was getting phone calls about who had been killed or who we think might have been killed.

It was incredibly hectic. You know, I was trying not to crash my car because I was crying.

I was just really trying to get there to do my best to support them in whatever way I could, and it turned out that I wrote the front-page story.

And then we put everybody's byline on there ... as a show of solidarity and, you know, proof that a lot of people contributed whether it was through confirming they were OK, telling us what happened in the room when it happened or, you know, seeking out sources and contributing in some way.

It was madness, really.

The Capital Gazette shooting victims, from left to right: John McNamara, Wendi Winters, Rob Hiaasen, Gerald Fischman and Rebecca Smith. (Baltimore Sun via AP)

But, at the same time, you were doing all that knowing that five of your colleagues, including the man you mentioned, Rob Hiaasen, was dead.

You still want to pick up the phone and call them.

I have a reminder on my Outlook, my email, to send Rob a slug at 2:15 and I haven't deleted it. You know, I think it's something I'll carry with me for the rest of my life. I won't forget.

How often do you think about that day?

Every day. It's impossible not to. Every moment. Every time I step into this newsroom is a reminder about what happened.

The people who were killed, one of them was the sales assistant, Rebecca Smith, who was young. But the others were in their late 50s or 60s. So what did you lose — not just the people, but what did you lose in the way of the knowledge, the collective wisdom of those people in your newsroom?

John McNamara knew more about Maryland sports than I think anybody I knew. He could give you details and statistics and stats about stuff that would totally, you know, if he was working with a sports writer, would totally influence and improve their work naturally.

Rob was the same way. So was Wendi [Winters] and Gerald [Fischman].

I mean, the way that Gerald knew his way around words. ... He was so helpful as a writing coach when you would make a dumb mistake or forget something.

Rob would encourage you to do interesting or different things. You know, he had that famous column where he went snow snorkeling, which was just a silly column that he wrote about life in Maryland.

Steve Schuh, county executive of Anne Arundel County, holds a copy of The Capital Gazette near the scene of a shooting at the newspaper's office on June 29, 2018. (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

These people, their memories, they will be with you as you pick up the citation. What would it mean for them, if they could be with you?

I think it would mean a lot to them to be a part of it.

I also think they might be disappointed that we didn't win the breaking news Pulitzer.

There was a dedication to their profession that I bet, you know, if I was sitting down with John, having a beer ... that we would wonder to ourselves, you know, why wasn't the reporting good enough to win that award and not a special citation?

They were dedicated to their craft and they would love the recognition, but I think they would also be craving to do the next best thing.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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