When CPJ interviewed Rick Hutzell at a café in Annapolis, Maryland, in July, he acknowledged that the decision to open up about his experiences as the former editor of the Capital Gazette, the site of the worst newsroom shooting in US history, was a shift. Writes Katherine Jacobsen
Hutzell had been wary of giving interviews in the three years since a rogue shooter murdered five of his colleagues on June 28, 2018. The focus, he said, needed to be on the legal process and on the newsroom.
But now, the legal process is close to wrapping up: on July 15, 2021, a jury deemed the shooter, Jarrod Ramos, criminally responsible for his actions – a decision that will likely lead Ramos to be sentenced to life in prison. And Hutzell is no longer with the paper. He wrote his final column on June 19 after making the fraught decision to accept a buyout, he told CPJ.
Now spending his time fundraising for the Fallen Journalists Memorial, a monument on D.C. federal property which will honor his colleagues and other journalists killed in the line of duty, Hutzell spoke with CPJ about how his paper covered the shooting, newsroom security, and what healing looks like for his community.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was it like to be the center of a news story while trying to report on it?
Horrible. I think I’ve turned down interview requests from your committee before and a whole bunch of other people and it’s because that’s not really who I am or what my role was.
I decided—we decided—that the role of the Capital would be to cover the story. This happened in this community and it was important to pursue it, and so being part of the story was just incredibly awkward.
Normally newspaper reporters, print journalists, are very good at just kind of disappearing into the background. It’s very nice to come into the room and say “Hi, everybody” and then hopefully people will forget that you’re there and be candid. To have somebody continually point you out and say, “Hey, you’re sitting over there!” was awkward, and to me it was a new experience.
How did you address security immediately following the shooting? And how did you restore that sense of trust in knowing that you can come to work and be safe?
I think that the immediate aftermath it was interesting, the company and the people who were in decision making positions above me wanted to pour a blanket of security over the paper. We had 24-hour security. The University of Maryland very generously loaned us their Annapolis newsroom for their student news service. [The third-floor newsroom] went into a lockdown.
The purpose I think was as much to keep the people safe as it was to make them feel safe. I was in a little tiny office that was so small I had to maneuver my feet to get them behind my desk.
We were in there for a year and to me it was incredibly healing because we were all in there together. The space was noisy, and it gave you a reason to be out of the office if you wanted to be out of the office. But it really gave us a chance to sort of coalesce, sort of breath, and have some fun.
I think if we hadn’t been in an anonymous commercial office building surrounded by a sea of parking lots with glass windows all around us on the first floor [the shooting] wouldn’t have happened.
Individual news organizations have to decide what are the steps that they can take that are good commonsense ways to protect their staff members. They also have to teach personal security and self-care to their staff members because of the physical and psychological impact of doing the work that we do.
We know that Ramos had a vendetta against your paper after you reported on his legal troubles. Was there anything that struck you as new or particularly chilling at his trial?
I very early on saw the video and so there wasn’t anything that was really a surprise in terms of what the evidence was for me. I don’t think seeing the shotgun was, for me, particularly chilling. It looks like what it is: it’s something that’s designed to kill people. I think the thing that for me was the most chilling was the door jams [that barricaded the escape route, trapping the staff members]. That that is a thing you can buy. The thing that was chilling was the ammunition type that he brought—the dragon’s breath. What the hell is that?
I chose not to be at the trial because I didn’t want to be a distraction. I had three different reporters reach out to me, saying “Hey can we follow you around the trial?” No, let’s let the focus be on the families and on the trial and that’s just fine. I did go back down for the closing argument, just because I felt like I needed to be there.
I had sort of come to the decision that after the trial it was going to be time to move on [from the newspaper]. It was hard. It was hard emotionally and it was hard psychologically. I was pretty sure that I was going to be the last person in the newsroom who knew these people.
What does justice mean in this case?
In some ways, justice is a difficult concept. Nothing will bring back the five friends who died. Nothing will restore the shattered lives. That’s just the truth.
One of the things about being a human being is that you think about the things that would be unbearable — and then they happen, and you bear them.
Justice is that this guy got a fully vetted trial that appeared to have been fair in all aspects and that he’ll now be punished for what he did. That’s justice. He has been judged to be criminally responsible. That’s justice. He will undoubtedly serve a lengthy term, more than likely he’ll spend the rest of his life in prison. That’s probably justice. But that isn’t restorative justice.
I think that one of his stated aims was to kill the paper. To kill me. To kill other people by name. And you know he failed at that. And that’s important. The fate of the paper is not clear, but it’s not because of anything he did.
With the Capital Gazette’s Annapolis office permanently closed for financial reasons due to the pandemic, how do you preserve the spirit of the publication and your colleague’s memories?
The straightforward fact is you honor those people by continuing the work. That’s just undeniable.
These people will be remembered by the stories that have been told about them. I think that in general human beings make sense of the world through the stories they tell. Journalists have that in spades. The stories that are told about them are important. I think the memorial downtown [honoring the five slain journalists] and the Fallen Journalists Memorial will help preserve their memories.
The photographs of your deceased colleagues Rob Hiaasen, Gerald Fischman, Wendi Winters, John McNamara and Rebecca Smith are printed in every issue of the Capital Gazette. Do you foresee that continuing?
I had begun to ask myself, was there a time to take them off, to give them a rest? It’s somebody else’s decision now.
The things that took away the lives of my friends are not unique to this situation, so in some sense you honor their memories by working on the problems that led to their deaths. That’s why in the past several years we have written a lot about efforts to control gun violence. That’s why in the year afterward, I spoke about asking public officials about how we could make this the last mass shooting in America. It was an impossible ask. And that’s why we nominated first Wendi and then other members of the staff for the Medal of Freedom to try and draw attention to what happened there.
There will be the day that no one at the Capital knew them personally. There will be the day that no one at the Baltimore Sun knew them personally. I think their memory lives on … because of things that have happened in this community.
Katherine Jacobsen is CPJ’s U.S. research associate. Before joining CPJ as a news editor in 2017, Jacobsen worked for The Associated Press in Moscow and as a freelancer in Ukraine, where her writing appeared in outlets including Businessweek, U.S. News and World Report, Foreign Policy, and Al-Jazeera.
Please follow Blitz on Google News channel