Continuing to shine the light
UofSC alumnus shares story of colleagues lost in Annapolis newsroom shooting
By Megan Sexton, firstname.lastname@example.org, 803-777-1421
University of South Carolina alumnus Jimmy DeButts stood in front of a class of aspiring journalists at his alma mater and stated these simple but chilling words:
“I’m standing before you today because I was on vacation on June 28, 2018.”
On that summer day, a gunman stormed into The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland and shot and killed five of DeButts’ colleagues in a newsroom where he has worked since March 2012. DeButts, the paper’s community news editor and columnist, is a 1996 graduate of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, and returned to campus this month to talk to students in public relations classes and the senior semester of broadcast and multimedia journalists.
The man charged in the killings had a long-running grudge against The Capital Gazette newspaper after a former columnist wrote about a 2011 harassment conviction. When he shot his way into the newsroom in 2018, DeButts was on vacation in Massachusetts. Had he been at work, DeButts told the students, the desk where he sat would have been in the shooter’s line of fire.
“I feel like it’s my responsibility to shine their light, to share their light. They were great people who were only doing their jobs,” he says.
They include assistant editor and columnist Rob Hiaasen, who hired DeButts and who he describes as “a mentor, a friend, the nicest person you’ve ever met.” Wendi Winters, the community news reporter who seemingly knew everyone in town, and who threw a trash can and recycling bin at the shooter, distracting him and allowing others in the newsroom to hide. Rebecca Smith, a “full of life” sales assistant who had been working at the newspaper only a few months. Gerald Fischman, a columnist and editorial page editor who was one of the quietest and sharpest people in the newsroom. And John McNamara, a sports reporter DeButts described as a “real newsman who would always come back with the story.”
DeButts’ message to the School of Journalism and Mass Communications students: The shootings in his newsroom changed everything for The Capital Gazette, but it changed nothing about the job he and his colleagues do every day. While the deaths of five of their colleagues and friends caused the remaining journalists to lose “a piece of their soul,” the shootings did not change the newspaper’s mission. They continue to seek the truth and tell the stories of their community — stories about tax increases and high school sports and city council meetings. “If we don’t cover those things, they won’t get covered. And we take that very seriously. We still serve our community. We still cover the ‘boring stuff,’ the city council and county council meetings. We also tell the stories of the people who are changing and having a positive impact on our community.”
I’m proud of the fact that from that day on we’ve continued to report. People were fighting tears, literally, to put out the paper.
Jimmy DeButts, The Capital Gazette, Annapolis, Maryland
That work continued the day of the shootings when the journalists who were out of the office rushed back to tell the horrific story involving their friends and colleagues. They set up a mobile newsroom in one of the reporter’s truck beds in a parking garage across the street from the crime scene, and reported the story with help from their sister paper, The Baltimore Sun. Chase Cook, a reporter who covered the Maryland General Assembly, tweeted in the hours after the shootings: "I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.’’
The surviving staff members of The Capital Gazette appeared on the cover of Time magazine in December as some of its Person of the Year honorees. The photo of the staff appears with the headline “The Guardians and the War on Truth.”
On April 15 the Pulitzer Prize Board awarded a special citation to The Capital Gazette's staff for its work covering the June attack. The citation was given “for demonstrating unflagging commitment to covering the news and serving their community at a time of unspeakable grief.”
“I’m proud of the fact that from that day on we’ve continued to report. People were fighting tears, literally, to put out the paper,” DeButts told the UofSC students. “While we are doing things with a heavy heart, we don’t change what we do.”
A Florida native, DeButts attended a journalism conference at South Carolina after his junior year of high school and fell in love with the campus. “The luckiest and best decision I made was to come to school here,” DeButts says. “I immediately jumped in with The Gamecock. All the mentoring and all the guidance I got from my professors and from editors at The Gamecock really set me on a course.”
He spent the first nine years of his career as a sports writer at newspapers in rural Virginia, Augusta, Georgia and Birmingham, Alabama. He later switched to covering business and moved to Baltimore to work for a business journal, before landing at The Capital Gazette in 2012.
The Capital Gazette’s newsroom, like others around the country, has seen its resources dwindle in the past decade. When DeButts arrived there in March 2012, there were 17 reporters covering the county of 500,000 on the Chesapeake Bay. Now there are eight. Still, DeButts told the students he remains committed to the mission of a community journalist, and he believes there always will be a market for local news — whether that is Friday night high school sports coverage or new businesses opening or playing a watchdog role with government agencies. That commitment is evidenced by the tweet DeButts sent out in the hours following the June 2018 shooting.
“Devastated & heartbroken. Numb. Please stop asking for information/interviews. I’m in no position to speak, just know @capgaznews reporters & editors give all they have every day. There are no 40 hour weeks, no big paydays — just a passion for telling stories from our community.”
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