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Fears of violence unsettle newsrooms

A memorial for Capital Gazette sports writer John McNamara was displayed at a seat in the press box before a baseball game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Los Angeles Angels on Friday in Baltimore.Gail Burton/Associated Press/FR4095 AP via AP

Like many journalists, Amanda Drane knows what it’s like to deal with people who nurse grudges against her and her newspaper in the Berkshires.

She has gotten a call late at night from a man who said he had a gun and didn’t want her to write a story about him. Another time, she was sued for defamation by a local political gadfly who has been convicted of witness intimidation and threatening to shoot a city employee. She still sees him every other Tuesday when she covers City Council meetings.

Dealing with disgruntled individuals is a familiar part of any reporter’s job, but those unsettling encounters suddenly felt more threatening after a gunman with longstanding grievances with the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Md., killed five people in the newsroom Thursday.


“You never want to think that could happen in your community, and the people you deal with could do that,” said Drane, a reporter at the Berkshire Eagle. “But the truth is, you never know.”

The Annapolis gunman had been angry with the Capital Gazette since at least 2011, police said, when the paper ran a column reporting that he had pleaded guilty to harassing a former high school classmate. The following year, he filed a defamation suit against the paper, which was dismissed. But he continued to threaten the paper on social media, and had done so as recently as Thursday, when police say he used a pump-action shotgun to shoot his way through the newsroom’s glass doors.

“We’ve all dealt with people who we’ve gently walked toward the door and a handful of times I’ve called police on individuals threatening us, but those situations really come to mind when something terrible happens like yesterday,” said Lisa Strattan, senior vice president of news for GateHouse New England, which includes the Telegram & Gazette in Worcester and the Cape Cod Times. “That’s a constant of what we do: we tick people off.”


Attacks on journalists in this country are rare. Before Thursday’s massacre, 10 members of the media had been killed on the job in the United States since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Journalists said they fear that President Trump’s rhetoric accusing the media of being the “enemy of the people” could encourage more people angry at the press to act violently.

“He keeps pounding away and pounding away at it and there are unstable people out there who could take it out of hand,” said Dianne Williamson, who retired in March after a 35-year career as a columnist and reporter at the Telegram & Gazette. “It’s really irresponsible what he’s saying.”

Bill Everhart, editorial page editor at the Berkshire Eagle, echoed the concern.

“We’re just people trying do our jobs and to be singled out like that, and threatened like that, it’s disconcerting,” he said.

There are no easy ways to safeguard newsrooms, he said, particularly for local papers that pride themselves on being open to their communities.

Two years ago, the Berkshire Eagle installed a security system that requires anyone entering to be buzzed in through glass doors, Everhart said. Previously, there was no lock.

“Anybody could walk in and come over and chat, and sometimes it was good, and sometimes it made you a little nervous,” he said.

On Friday, the glass doors seemed to be on the mind of everyone at the paper, he said.


“Everybody is really conscious today that a security system isn’t going to stop anybody because it’s all glass and you could shoot your way through it,” Everhart said.

Edward F. Davis, a former Boston police commissioner, said it is critical for those who are threatened to notify police in the harasser’s hometown and ensure that officers confront that person at home.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/file 2013

Edward F. Davis, a former Boston police commissioner who provides security consulting to media companies, including the Globe, said it is critical for those who are threatened to notify police in the harasser’s hometown and ensure that officers confront that person at home.

“You have to be diligent and follow up on these things,” he said. “You can’t hope these guys are going to go away.”

Newsrooms around the country stepped up security after Thursday’s shooting, and police in several cities said they increased the police presence around the offices of news organizations.

John Harrigan, a former editor, publisher, and owner of the News & Sentinel in Colebrook, N.H., is among the few journalists whose newspaper has been attacked.

In 1997, a gunman who had just fatally shot two state troopers barged into the News & Sentinel’s newsroom, where he killed a judge who worked in the building, and an editor who tried to tackle the man.

Hours later, Harrigan wrote a Page One story and an editorial about the rampage.

“We had a thoroughly traumatized crew, and yet we put the paper out,” he said. “We just figured that’s what we do — and that’s what we did.”

Harrigan said he was filled with admiration for the staff of the Capital Gazette, who also produced a newspaper about the murder of their colleagues.


“Heroic,” Harrigan said. “It’s hard to appreciate when something like that happens in a newsroom, having to cower under their desks in that awful scenario.”

Colebrook, home to about 2,300 residents, was crushed by the deadly attack, but the newspaper never considered installing locks on its doors, Harrigan said.

“That would be an impediment to human behavior,” Harrigan said. “People wander in just to visit, people bring their dogs in, and it’s a classic, old country newspaper with a real honest-to-gosh newsroom.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.