When I walked through the Daily Mountain Eagle for the first
time as a sports writer, I never imagined that 22 years later, I would be
escorting a police officer through the building in an effort to come up with a
plan in case there would ever be an active shooter at our office.
That’s exactly what I found myself doing on Friday morning. Joey Darty, the leader of the Jasper Police Department’s critical response team, went throughout the DME, accessing each area of the building, seeking ways that we can improve our safety.
While increasing the security at our newspaper has been on my “to-do” list for several months, it jumped to the top of that list on Thursday when a shooter opened fire on a newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland.
The shooter reportedly had a grudge against the Capital Gazette newspaper that went back several years. He viciously acted on that grudge Thursday, killing five employees of that newspaper.
The victims held various roles within the company; several had decades of experience in journalism. The victims were:
• Gerald Fischman, 61, an editorial writer at the paper, working there since 1992.
• Robert Hiaasen, 59, an assistant editor at the Capital Gazette since 2010 and a feature writer for the Baltimore Sun before that.
• John McNamara, 56, a veteran reporter who had been at the paper for more than 20 years.
• Rebecca Smith, 34, a recently hired sales assistant at the newspaper.
• Wendi Winters, 65, who covered local news for the paper.
Most of the victims were veterans of the newspaper business. In reading over biographical information about each victim, I could not help but think about if that type of tragedy happened at our own newspaper. We have veteran reporters and editors such as myself, Ron Harris and Ed Howell. We have a sports editor in Johnathan Bentley. Walker County knows our names, our faces and, for the most part, our life stories. We are people who have dedicated ourselves to not only this newspaper, but to the community it serves.
In recent months, the media has been called “the enemy of the American people.” That is a dangerous lie. The media, especially each community newspaper, continues to be a vital part, possibly even the heartbeat, of the hometowns that we serve.
Many community newspapers, the Daily Mountain Eagle included, are made up of people from those communities in their coverage areas. The vast majority of our employees are from Walker County. We are neighbors to our readers. We have children who go to school with our readers’ children. We attend worship with our readers. We are Walker County.
Real news of what is going on and what is important in our neighborhoods can only be found in the Daily Mountain Eagle. Other news outlets come to town when bad things happen, but we are here through thick and thin. We cover the murders and the tornadoes, but we also cover the local child who spoke at the Southern Baptist Convention or the former high school softball star who has gone on to find success at the college level.
I have stated many times that our newspaper should be the biggest cheerleader and the biggest watchdog for our community. That is what our hardworking team attempts to do every day, and we put out a quality, award-winning product six days per week.
Throughout the coverage of the shooting in Annapolis, it has been obvious that their community is hurting after the incident just as much as their newspaper. It is because their newspaper has done the right thing throughout the years, by being involved and caring about that community. I have no doubt that our community would rally around the Daily Mountain Eagle in the same way. I also have no doubt that our staff would also rally to put a paper our every day, just like the staff of the Capital Gazette has done since Thursday.
Shooting victim Wendi Winters sent out her last tweet on Sunday, which said, “Spreading beauty one artwork at a time today…” That is what our team attempts to do with each newspaper. From our front office and advertising department to our press room, from the newsroom to the mail room, all our team members do their very best to put out a work of historical art. We are grateful for the community we serve, and it is our hope that our community continues to be grateful for the work we do.
In our industry, we are one family and we mourn the senseless tragedy at the Capital Gazette. Our hearts go out to its team members and the community where they work.
James Phillips is editor and publisher of the Daily Mountain Eagle. He may be reached at 205-221-2840 or firstname.lastname@example.org.