Three years ago today, on June 28, 2018, a deranged gunman murdered five staffers at the office of The Annapolis Capital Gazette, the beleaguered Maryland daily that serves this state capital on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. The attack was then and remains today the costliest assault on the press in the history of the country.

            Today, several hundred people are commemorating the deaths of news editor and columnist Rob Hiaasen, 59; editorial editor Gerald Fischman, 61; community news reporter Wendi Winters, 65; sportswriter and editor Bob McNamara, 56; and sales associate Rebecca Smith, 34; by dedicating a striking new memorial to the First Amendment on the waterfront. In an ironic twist, a trial to determine whether their confessed and defiant killer was mentally stable at the time of the shooting opens tomorrow in a local courtroom. The defendant pled guilty to all five murders in an earlier trial. His only explanation was that he was settling an old score with a pair of editors who no longer worked at the paper. His lawyers assert that he was crazy.

            There will be recollections of the deceased at the dedication, speeches about the importance of the first amendment, declarations by local politicians and others of the importance of local newspapers and praise for the Annapolis Capital, which was honored by the Pulitzer Prize committee for soldiering on three years ago in the wake of the shooting. 

            Meanwhile, another murder is taking place at the Annapolis Capital. The vulture capital firm Alden Capital, which has bought and systematically fleeced and destroyed scores of newspapers across the country in the name of short-term profit, is killing the Capital. Not with a gun, of course, but with budget cuts, buyouts, staff reductions and consolidation. The Capital newsroom was already shuttered last year even before Alden completed its $630 million takeover of Tribune Publishing, the parent company of a dozen dailies including The Baltimore Sun Media Group, of which the Capital is a component.

            Just yesterday, Danielle Ohl, a young and promising reporter on The Capital, signed off with an eloquent op-ed column headlined: “See You Later, Annapolis; I love you,” after apparently taking one of the buyouts urged by Alden Capital to trim the staff and cut costs. She will be missed by the readers, as will Rick Hutzell, the longtime and dedicated editor, who took a buyout a week earlier. Both wrote that the paper will be fine going forward without them, but readers wonder at what point the staff and budget cuts will become lethal.

            There is a slim ray of hope: a few public spirited citizens in Baltimore have floated plans to purchase the Baltimore Sun Media Group from Alden and restructure it as a non-profit. So, the Capital, which has been published regularly since the 18th century, may live on in a new incarnation. 

            Or not. 

            Stay tuned.

Real Change, or a Mirage?

   With the late and unlamented 2020 receding from mind and memory, it is tempting to hope that the racial reckoning the country experienced  in that not very good year in the wake of the brutal killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and others will bring about real and lasting change in racial attitudes and our national culture.

   There is no guarantee, of course, given our long and painful history. The real change hoped for after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the riots and disruptions of the 1960’s and 1970’s largely evaporated in the reactionary 1980’s. Why should the 2020’s be different?

   There are some hopeful signs:  the reach and impact of the Black Lives Matter and Me, too movements,  the greater sensitivity and inclusion in everything from President-elect Joe Biden’s vice presidential and cabinet selections to popular culture, advertising, corporate boardrooms, politics and, finally, believe-it-or-not, media. You see it everywhere, from the profusion of minority anchors on television to the reporters on the beat; from the increasing numbers of African-Americans featured in mass advertising to the promotion of women to  the top executive ranks. 

   One huge breakthrough that got insufficient attention in December, 2020,  was the elevation of Rashida Jones, a 39-year-old, African-American television executive to the presidency of MSNBC. As the first Black woman to take charge of a major television news network, Ms. Jones is shattering a glass ceiling and joining a former fraternity that has been almost exclusively White and mostly male. There are notable exceptions, like Susan Zirinsky at the head of CBS News, but they are not the rule.

   Rashida Jones rocketed up the executive ranks, producing presidential debates and town halls, overseeing daytime news coverage for MSNBC and breaking news and specials for NBC’s broadcast news divisions. But her selection as president would not have been a given prior to the traumatic racial justice and cultural tumult of 2020. Now it seems natural, appropriate and, if anything, overdue. 

   Old habits and attitudes die hard, however: The New York Times article announcing her appointment not only was inside the paper at the bottom of a page, the piece devoted most space to the career and favorite pastimes of Phil Griffin, the white male she was replacing. Griffin is a fine fellow, apparently leaving on his own timetable, but really…

   Another media breakthrough in late December occurred not among the coastal elites but in Kansas City, where one of the Midwest’s most influential newspapers apologized for decades of racist coverage of its own community. In a striking letter to readers, Mike Fannin, editor of the venerable Kansas City Star, wrote that the newspaper “disenfranchised, ignored and scorned generations of Black (note the capitalization) Kansas citizens.” He wrote that the paper had “reinforced Jim Crow law and redlining.”   Fannin pointed to the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the firestorm that followed as the impetus for what he promised would be an “honest examination” of the paper’s past in its own pages.

   As the readers of The Annapolis Capital read last June when it recalled its own racist writings, The Star was not the first newspaper to re-examine its past performance, but it was impressive nonetheless.

    Three months earlier, the publisher of a larger and influential U.S. newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, acknowledged its own “blind spots” on race and promised to openly acknowledge its past biases.  Its public apology said the staff was beginning the process of “acknowledging” past biases and promised that its newsroom will not tolerate prejudice. This stood out even in the in the strongly blue, supposedly progressive  California.

   And, just this week, another change in the media world: the estimable Mark Shields, who stepped down after 33 years from his regular Friday night punditry post opposite David Brooks on The PBS NewsHour, was replaced by Jonathan Capehart, a 53-year-old, Black and openly gay man. Capehart, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his editorial writing at The Washington Post, will give the Friday night feature a different look.

  Will the Black Lives Matter and Me, Too movements blossom further in 2021? Will the transformation in the media world and beyond continue? 

   As they say on television, stay tuned.