My first stint at the Mount Vernon News started in 1993. Back then, there were no computer programs to design pages, it was all done by hand. One of the men responsible for turning columns of copy and bold printed headlines into easy to read pages was Joe Poljack. Joe was a friendly, talkative man who liked to tell stories. One particular story involved a man with a gun, a deceased man and two, including Joe, who were injured by gunfire. The story was 30 years old by the first time I heard it. Honestly, I never thought too much about it even though it would become topic of conversation in the building from time to time. Until, that is, the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, made the headlines when five employees were killed by a man holding a grudge against the newspaper for a number of years.
Twenty five years after I heard the story of the shooting at the News, and after some quick searching through microfilm, I was able to read the first-hand account written by then News reporter Bob Dixon.
Bob’s words were chillingly familiar to the accounts written of the shooting at the Capital Gazette. Shots were heard. Employees hid under desks. Chaos, heartbreak and all sense of safety destroyed.
There are also differences between what happened here 55 years ago and what happened in Annapolis last week. Orville Perkey, who was convicted of fatally shooting Richard Merrin in the offices of the News, would have carried out his mission regardless of where his ex-wife was working — it just happened that she worked for a newspaper. The Capital Gazette shooter had specific targets in mind and they were connected — in his mind — to the paper’s coverage of a criminal harassment case he was involved in.
What the two situations have in common is a persistence and dedication by newsroom staff to tell their story in their own way as quickly as possible. While I don’t know what the deadlines were in 1963, the News was an afternoon paper, so I’d have to believe staff had that day’s edition complete, or nearly complete, by the time Mr. Perkey walked through the doors just before 12:30 p.m. Because staff knew the shooter, and his background, the initial story was probably written rather quickly with the news of Perkey’s apprehension to make the same day’s edition.
As editorial staff members in Annapolis collected their thoughts, there was never a doubt they would publish a newspaper the next day — that’s what they do. That’s what we all do on this never-ending cycle of one deadline after another. There’s rarely a moment to breathe between one edition and the next, and for those outside the industry, it’s often a difficult concept to wrap your head around.
Newspapers and journalists aren’t suppose to be the headlines — we are only suppose to write them. As journalists, we serve a behind-the-scene role in our community and never feel comfortable as part of the story. Sometimes our level of comfort is challenged by voicemail messages, emails, phone calls, office visits or social media posts that express pure outrage over anything from a misspelled word, missed delivery or the information we publish, or don’t publish, about a court case. These interactions are anything but civil and sometimes make it hard to keep focused on the next task to meet the next deadline.
Whatever happens in our society, journalists — and I mean the good ones who continue to produced unbiased, detached coverage like I believe we do — must continue to persevere and be dedicated to the craft that drives them to tell the stories of their communities, to question the decisions of our elected officials and to dig deeper than a two-sentence press release to keep our readers informed. Journalists, however, must be cautious and cognizant of the people quick to criticize and judge and be mindful of what can be dismissed and what must be monitored. Most importantly, we must never lose our focus and continue to show not only our relevance in the community but to remind each and every citizen of Knox County how important our role is and how lucky we are to have a locally-owned and operated newspaper, dedicated to the topics of local interest and necessity.