The Capital Gazette shooting and the true value of local newspapers

Benjamin Wallace-Wells writes:

On Thursday afternoon, a thirty-eight-year-old man named Jarrod Ramos killed five people at the Capital Gazette newspaper, in Annapolis, Maryland. He fired a gun into the newsroom, then stopped, reloaded—members of the staff now cowering under their desks—and then started firing again. After a mass shooting, there is usually both sadness and a sense of dread, as the country waits to discover the shooter’s identity and the nature of his grievance. But in this case the staff of the Capital Gazette already knew all about Ramos. He had been the subject of a story in the paper in 2011 that detailed how he had stalked a high-school classmate on Facebook. Ever since, he had mounted a relentless campaign of harassment and menace against the paper and its editors. Ramos sued the Capital Gazette for defamation, and lost; he maintained a Twitter feed exclusively devoted to ranting against the paper. He threatened the paper often, and some of his threats “indicated violence,” the local police chief said Thursday. Tom Marquardt, who had been the newspaper’s publisher and editor until 2012, told the Los Angeles Times last night that, “if it’s him, I’m gonna feel responsible for this. I pray it’s not him.” It was. This time there was no mystery about the killer’s motivation, no chance for opportunistic politics to creep in. His story was already laid out in the memory of the local reporters and in their newspaper’s archives.

On Thursday evening, after Ramos was in custody, I read the article about Ramos and the woman from his high school, published on Sunday, July 31, 2011—the one that set off the unravelling. The story, written by a columnist named Eric Thomas Hartley, is a small masterpiece, one that shows exactly what local newspapers can do. Its tone is terse and alarmed; no paragraph is more than three sentences. Its subject is an outwardly unexceptional criminal case in Anne Arundel Court, in which Ramos pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of harassment. The headline, ominous and artful, was “Jarrod Wants to be Your Friend.” [Continue reading…]

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