A shooting in the family: The Capital Gazette is in my journalism DNA

My phone in my pocket buzzed. I ignored it, at my peril. I generally don't, but I was in the middle of our intern lunch, a summer ritual at The Sacramento Bee, a session for our students to learn why journalism matters and how they can play a role in helping to secure its future.

I wanted the interns to pay attention to their lunch speaker, longtime photographer (and now videographer as well) Randall Benton, who, on Thursday, was guiding them through the world of visual journalism. Lezlie Sterling, his editor, sat with the interns, elaborating on key points as needed. They took this educational moment seriously, and had a smart, prepared presentation.

He stood before the 10 of them in our dining room, at the head of a table, by a monitor showing his work. I sat off to the side. My phone buzzed again. I slipped it out of my pocket and saw a text from my older brother Mark. He made some inscrutable reference to Annapolis and the Capital, home of my first daily reporting job and my hometown paper growing up in the Maryland suburbs. He lives in southern Maryland, we're close, communicate often, but not often in the middle of my day.

I checked my alerts, just as I heard Randall talking about ethics and the care we take, and how serious any infraction is. He talked, I listened, but now I read little bursts of cryptic information about journalists in peril.

I sighed. A deep, weary, soul-emptying sigh. One of those shootings, whose story arc I know well, had begun to unfold in a newsroom that had helped forge me as a journalist, and in one that now had a possible body count. I quickly read stories and tweets from young reporters, but they all look young to me now. I glanced back at the interns in front of me, student journalists from Sac State, Stanford, Yale, Chico State, UC Davis, Cal, Pomona College, Northwestern, CUNY. They were eating pizza, asking smart questions, getting smart answers to guide them in their nascent careers.

They are all just a little younger than I was when I worked at the then-Evening Capital, decades ago. I imagined the reporters in the newsroom 3,000 miles away and close to my roots were probably like I was. Working. Learning. Working some more.

I thought, I wonder how inured the interns are to shootings? At 64 and a managing editor, I'm still not, even after 154 mass shootings this year – four or more shot is the measuring stick there – according to the Gun Violence Archive. I decided not to interrupt their talk with news, to let them absorb what we prized covering rather than what we had all routinely feared.

All people, though, intersect with somewhat selfish responses to events. We personalize them, maybe as a way to cope, maybe as a way to understand, maybe as a way simply to connect. I've never quite understood this impulse, even though I have it like everyone else. A shooting occurs somewhere and we feel compelled to let others know: I've been to that place. As if it is about us.

Part of the reason for doing this, or at least not being being able to avert our eyes to tragedy, psychologists say, is self-preservation, a part of "negativity bias." It's a way we process events, recognizing the associative fear, and examining why it didn't, or couldn't, happen to us. The closer your connection, the more you feel.

I sorted through those feelings, both professionally and personally. I sent the link of the developing story to the head of HR. We are obviously cognizant of security. I did not immediately respond to my brother's text. It wasn't a story about me, I didn't want to succumb to that narcissistic impulse.

But I had it. My mind wandered to the Cap. I am the journalist I am today, for good or ill, because of my formative years there. This was decades ago, in the late '70s. It published in the afternoon then, hit the streets around 1 p.m. My copy deadline loomed at 10:15 a.m. I had to write a minimum of two stories a day. I worked with hard copy, clacking away in its old noisy newsroom, within walking distance to the state Capitol grounds we covered religiously, with editors grabbing the sheets out of my IBM Selectric as I wrote them. I rolled a new sheet in while I heard them nearby grumbling, "Lebar, your copy is a mess." I never learned to type.

My days started at 5 or 6 a.m., with my first beat, covering cops. I already knew the rigors of that well, having worked at a weekly for two years before, visiting the cop shop, as we called it, every day. Your relationship as a reporter there was different from any I experienced after. You knew the police. Then you could wander into the station unencumbered by any security and see the chief. He knew you. You knew him. I walked the halls and talked to detectives. I roamed the parking lot and talked to police officers.

I knew the public information officer. I saw him every day, read police reports, argued with him about what he wouldn't reveal, debated with him about his role and mine. Sometimes he would yell at me about something I wrote. Sometimes he would compliment me. We never sat in silence; we always communicated. Every day.

I moved on from the Evening Capital to the Baltimore News American, prompting my father to complain that I kept getting jobs at papers he didn't subscribe to. By the time I left Maryland, he was receiving the papers he liked – the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post – and ones he didn't. He grew to love the Cap, a newspaper institution since 1884. He also subscribed to its sister paper, the Maryland Gazette, one of the oldest in the country. The Capital covered his home, his life. He engaged in projects that showed up in its pages, and for years its reporters knew him and would begin an interview with, "they tell me your son worked here." He loved that.

That PIO became chief in 1983, and we occasionally talked in my remaining years in Maryland. I remember attending a celebration of some sort with the cops, a grand fest at a cheesy hall in Glen Burnie in Anne Arundel County, south of Baltimore. There the police cheerfully greeted me as a colleague-as-adversary, a relationship hard to describe. We had an implicit understanding – we shared a pursuit of public service from different roles, in different ways.

Later on Thursday, in my office in the Sacbee newsroom, which I access now through an ID keypad entry, I worked on assembling the components of Friday's front page with Lezlie. We would make the Capital shooting the centerpiece story. I had my TV muted on CNN, now reporting five people dead. I turned up the sound to listen to news conference with Anne Arundel Police Chief Timothy Altomare.

I recognized the accent. If you're from Maryland you know it well. He and others were, partly, assuring the crush of national media that he would get them the information when he had it, asking not to use the name of the suspect while acknowledging that he knew we would. I recognized the context, I recognized the sentiments.

I could tell the relationships had not changed. I'm not sure the people there knew what he meant when he talked about the reporters.

"Most of the folks that work at the Capital Gazette work with us, daily, weekly, and we know them," he said. "I want them to know that. It is a loss for the Anne Arundel County Police Department and truly it's an unutterable loss for the city of Annapolis and Anne Arundel County."

I knew what he meant. And that's when I thought, again, it isn't about me, but I get why people connect. I don't know the reporters there, but I do. Through time and distance, through work and purpose, I do. And I sighed. And I ached.

Earlier, with my phone now buzzing regularly for news and social alerts, as Randall explained our commitment to capturing reality, I thought about the people who had worked at the Cap. Tom Coakley, a newsroom presence, arrived at The Bee before I did and welcomed me, his former Capital mate. John A. Farrell, my reporter partner there, had been a Sacramento Bee Book Club visiting author, offering insights into his best-seller, "Nixon: The Life." Pat Macht, good friend, and former director for external affairs at CalPERS, had been a reporter there after me. The Cap is in our DNA.

I interrupted Randall to elaborate on a point he was making about our values. I said, all politics aside, one of the reasons I react so negatively to accusations of "fake news" or being "the enemy of the people" is because the labels are so removed from everything we stand for, for everything we do, for all the efforts we take to get things right and to serve. I said I am personally offended, and I have that right.

I have spent decades, from my years in Maryland to my current commitment to our community here, trying to take all I have learned, to apply it, to teach it, and to learn some more. I told the interns they are pursuing a great profession. What I didn't say: I hope we provide them the environment to shape them as the Capital shaped me.

The next day, I read the names and descriptions of the dead. Robert Hiaasen, 59. Gerald Fischman, 61. John McNamara, 56. Rebecca Smith, 34. Wendi Winters, 65. I received a terse, but emotional, text from my brother. He knows the Capital DNA well, how it often hires young reporters to prepare them, with mentors, for the next steps in their careers. Through tragedies, we all do connect in some way. Journalists are family.

"I was disturbed by the whole thing," he wrote. "...Most (of the dead) are near your age, which bothered me even more. Too close."

Scott Lebar is the managing editor of The Sacramento Bee.
Related stories from Sacramento Bee