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Sean Kirst: In Annapolis, amid the grief, a newsroom we all know

The Sunday circulation is 34,000, daily 29,000.

In journalism, many of us have worked along the road in newsrooms that sound a lot like The Capital Gazette, one of America's oldest newspapers, where a killer Thursday in Annapolis murdered three men and two women before he hid beneath a desk and was arrested by police.

There are papers of that size in communities in just about every state around the nation, and my experience is that you find the same kind of people in every one. In this era, they are more dedicated than ever to their work. Now, amid a time of cutbacks for our profession, there are fewer and fewer photographers and reporters and editors on the job each day, trying to share the endless narratives that matter in those towns.

The faces, the personalities, in each newsroom are distinct, uniquely personal, and yet familiar. There are old-timers, the journalists who have been there forever. In each new story, they often recognize the local kids or grandchildren of people they met long ago. They know the correct spelling of every street in the region, and they know the fastest way to every corner or alley in their particular city.

They are flanked by newcomers, young writers just out of college or arriving from some even smaller paper, the kids with sweeping dreams and aspirations who approach each story as potentially the biggest thing they ever covered.

In a way, they are correct, and will always be correct.

Because the stories that resonate in everyday lives, the ones of unforgettable immediacy, are not typically about national or international drama.

The stories that strike home are about the young guy, a teenager, lost in the car crash. Or the house fire that leaves a family homeless after someone forgot to turn off a burner on a stove.  Or the second grader who climbs on the wrong school bus at the end of the day, and the frantic parents, once they find her, who bury her in hugs.

Or the water line that bursts, flooding a street and stalling traffic. Or the many homes without power after a fierce thunderstorm, including someone's grandmother who is now left without heat. Or the pileup that shuts down the interstate exit. Or the obituary of the well-loved 80-year-old retired teacher, whose death resonates with generations, with all the kids she ever taught.

Those are the stories that the kid just out of college goes to cover, sent there by the editor who has seen it all, the editor who tries to sum it all up with a 45-second description. Those are the stories that bring a sigh of recognition from longtime reporters, the ones who have known every zoning board commissioner for the last 30 years, before they pull on their jackets and head out the door.

Those are the stories, in the soul and quality of the telling, that are the brick and mortar of community.

So while I never met the people lost at Annapolis, once I read of their work and their ethic and their careers, I felt as if I knew them all.

Gerald Fischman, 61, editorial page editor. Rob Hiaasen, 59, an assistant editor and columnist. Wendi Winters, 65, a community correspondent. John McNamara, 56, a staff writer who covered sports on every level. Rebecca Smith, 34, a sales assistant hired nine months ago.

Shot to death, in a workplace that seemed as familiar as their living rooms.

Those jobs, day in and day out, involve keeping up with the breadth and sweat and struggles of a city, which means interacting with human beings living out some of the best and worst days in their lives. There is the eternal jubilance of high school and college graduations, or teenagers shouting from a bus after winning a basketball championship.

There is the old landmark that is restored, to quiet civic joy, or the one that breaks so many hearts as it goes down. There is the selfless firefighter who saves the child from the fire, or the neighborhood that grieves for the child who is lost. There are the rescues and arrests, the politicians who come and go in glory or regret, the endless meetings of civic boards and legislatures, all part of the diary of a community.

In these newsrooms - even now, so many newsrooms - photographers and reporters and editors are responding around the clock to everyday men and women, living out their lives. The result, even in a digital age, becomes the clippings that go in boxes or hang from refrigerators, talismans that will someday be passed down to children and their children, after them.

Just one conversation with a journalist, at a moment of utter loss or grief, may determine how those families see the media, forever.

So it is reality. That story, the everyday story told on the day that begins like every day, may be the most important story you ever tell.

All over the nation, there are people in small newsrooms who understand and respect that truth, people who believe deeply in the meaning of what they do.

Capital Gazette editor Jimmy DeButts, in a griefstricken tweet, wrote of how his staff had "no 40 hour weeks, no big paydays – just a passion for telling stories from our community.” He wrote of a mission to report the major events that affect Annapolis, as well as covering the everyday business of his city.

Those are the kind of journalists who settled in every morning to do their jobs at his newspaper, the ones who are now part of an unbearably senseless list.

We have had teachers and children shot down in classrooms. We have had killers walk the hallways of colleges. We have had mass shootings in churches and airports, in dance halls and in malls.

Now a murderer has violated the profession I have known for more than 40 years, and he chose a newsroom populated with men and women you might see in a grocery aisle or at a high school football game, men and women whose quiet empathy and common sense shaped the paper – and digital stories – they created every day.

The Sunday circulation is 34,000, daily 29,000.

In this besieged profession, we all understand that our colleagues in Annapolis did their job because they believed there was nothing to quite match it, because of a shared and unspoken sense of purpose that was as real as the air they breathed in that newsroom.

They did their jobs for the clatter of keyboards and the crackling voice of the police dispatcher, for the wisecrack from the old reporter standing at the printer, for the kid journalist to whom everything seems new and the guy whose editorials framed a conscience for his city. They were joined by that constant search for the story, the one true and burning story that ought to matter above all else.

At the end, they did not write it. They told it with their lives.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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