Thinking of fallen journalists, cherishing freedom of the press this Fourth of July

Published 12:51 am Wednesday, July 4, 2018

A workplace becomes more than a place where you do a job. The people you spend time with in that workplace become more than coworkers.

Nowhere is that more true than in a newsroom, especially at a local newspaper. Publishers, editors, reporters, advertising folks, even the pressroom people become this unique family sharing the experience of making a newspaper together.

For years, I had the privilege of being a member of several of these special family units. In a newsroom, we laughed together, cried together, and had disagreements — just like any family. I came to respect and to love many of the people who populated those newspaper offices.

That is why it hit with shattering sadness when I heard about the deaths last week at a newspaper in Annapolis. It felt like I knew the victims whose photos flashed across the television screen.

There was the former feature writer and assistant editor whose wife described him as a poet as well as a journalist. Another picture showed the smiling face of the young woman only recently hired to work in sales at the paper. The person who was the community correspondent was among the ones killed. And, the editorial page editor and a staff writer lost their lives.

Looking at their faces was like seeing a family photo album. It was heartbreaking to imagine the terror they felt that last day.

The man who came into the newspaper firing a rifle was angry about a story that appeared in the paper. He had a history of violence and people knew he was dangerous. They had a picture of him at the newspaper so they would know him if he showed up causing problems. Unfortunately, that didn’t help when he stormed into the building after making sure those inside couldn’t escape through the back exit.

When I read about the killings, I thought of the times someone got mad at me about a something in the paper. I’ve been cussed, called names, invited to leave the state and had my integrity questioned. I didn’t like it, but with time, I learned not to take it too personally.

What I naively never felt, was frightened for my safety. When I was a reporter, I had editors who had my back if a reader got too upset. As an editor, I tried to do the same thing for reporters. You take care of your family members.

Listening to television news stories about the dangers of working in a newspaper and needing to worry about the subject of a story becoming violent, I realized maybe my safety was an issue even if I didn’t know it.

For a moment, that made me think that maybe I need to be careful with my column writing. However, as quickly as I had that thought, another one replaced it.

“No,” I thought. “If people, especially those working in our newspapers, start being afraid to write the truth or temper their opinion pieces because of fear, we lose one of our vital freedoms.”

It’s interesting and perhaps ironic that I’m writing about deaths in a newspaper office the week of the July 4th holiday, a day to celebrate the great gift of freedom. This year it seems especially important to acknowledge the role the press plays not only in keeping us informed but also in guarding our right to free speech.

A free press is a gift we must protect. The founders of our country knew this and thankfully, we have dedicated journalists who know it as well.

We must never take them for granted no matter what anyone says.

So as I celebrate the Fourth of July, I’ll think about that newspaper in Annapolis mourning the loss its family members. In fact, I’ll think about all the members of the press, especially the ones working in local newspapers, and I will breathe a thank you to them and for them. And, I will remain proud I was part of a newspaper family.


Nancy Blackmon is a former newspaper editor and a yoga teacher.