ANNAPOLIS, Md. – In late June, Sofia Biondi got the call she’d been waiting for: She was the Capital’s Teen of the Week. Reporter Wendi Winters wanted to interview her.
Teen of the Week is the kind of feature the Capital is known for. A 35,000-circulation paper that’s been publishing in Annapolis in some form for nearly 300 years, it’s the only paper that consistently covers hometown news in the state capital, mixing coverage of local politics and crime and the occasional blistering editorial with features on small businesses and, yes, notable teens.
“You can see your friends in the newspaper,” Biondi, 18, said. “There’s no other newspaper that will do that.”
And so she excitedly drove to the Capital’s nondescript offices outside downtown Annapolis on Thursday afternoon. They spoke for an hour or so: about Biondi’s academic prowess, about her passion for gun control. They had both attended the March for Our Lives in nearby Washington a few months before. When the interview was over, Winters walked the teenager to her car outside. It was 2 p.m.
Half an hour later, Winters was dead.
She was shot near her desk by a gunman who had harbored a long grudge against the paper; he showed up with a shotgun shortly after Winters conducted what was likely her last interview.
The shooting came at a time when the public has become almost accustomed to startling rhetoric against the press. And it rocked a community whose reporters — like Winters — have helped define it, by doing what the vast majority of local reporters do: Everyday stories, unsung in the halls of power, that nonetheless matter deeply to the people who read them.
Four of Winters’ colleagues were killed with her: John McNamara, an editor and reporter, Rob Hiaasen, a columnist, Gerald Fischman, editorial writer, and Rebecca Smith, who had worked in the advertising division for just seven months.
They were an intrinsic part of a newsroom that, by its nature, is an intrinsic part of the community it covers.
“We’re not the enemy,” reporter Patrick Furgurson said at a vigil Friday night. “We’re you.”
He had been across the street eating lunch when the gunman opened fire Thursday, and he helped his colleagues cover the death of their friends from a makeshift newsroom in the back of his truck.
At the vigil a day later, they urged a crowd of hundreds who marched to Annapolis’ waterfront to remember their names. Biondi, shaken but determined to pay her respects, carried a white carnation at a vigil near the site of the shooting. On Thursday afternoon, she had frantically texted the reporter she knew as Ms. Winters and received no response.
She was just one of hundreds in Annapolis that the slain journalists had interviewed over the years — whose coverage makes the state capital still feel like a small town where everyone knows everyone.
‘Told the story the way it was’
Jim Hawkins, who runs his family’s garden shop in nearby Bowie, recalled John McNamara stopping by in February after his father’s death to ask if he could write a story about him. The elder Hawkins had run the garden shop for more than 50 years, since Bowie was a sleepy rural town, and in his article, McNamara used the growth of that small family store as a way to chart the growth of the community. Hawkins still keeps the article in his office.
“He did something that meant a lot to me, and to my family,” Hawkins said. “And he told the story the way it was.”
On Friday morning, Hawkins drove to his parents’ home, where a weekly affiliated with the Capital is still delivered, to sort through their issues of the paper and read the last copy McNamara wrote: an analysis of the Prince George’s County primary elections.
At the vigil on the waterfront Friday night, hundreds held candles as Phil Davis, the Capital’s crime reporter, who was in the newsroom when the first shots rang out, read the names of his colleagues.
“You work with people that inspire you,” Davis said. “We’re fortified by the people that surrounded us. And I have to stand here and read the names of the people who fortified me.”