By the time I got to The Gazette of Montgomery County, people were already talking about "back when."
Back when reporters got to go on all-expenses-paid trips. Back when you could expense anything without worrying about it. Back when the paper was much thicker. Back when editors had more time to work with reporters, and back when there were more reporters to work with.
Sure, back when may have been better, but I didn't know any different. I was there to work. We all were. So we made it work with what we had. And there was something magical in those windowless walls that made us believe our work mattered. That’s what kept us going strong.
The Gazette folded yesterday because someone along the way stopped believing.
It wasn’t the wide-eyed and bushy-tailed new reporter, just out of college and just thankful to have a job. It wasn’t the photographer who had devoted his life, his career, to capturing the community that was so close to his heart. It wasn’t even the editor, alone in his office late in the evening, just starting to paginate the paper and thinking, just like he had so many nights before, I really should get home.
It was someone who didn’t know about the magic, and didn't care to learn.
They hadn’t been there late on a Tuesday, deadline night, when we were all moody and tense, with stories almost done and eyes tired from staring at words all day, but then someone would say something and it would make us laugh so hard it hurt.
They hadn’t been there early on a Wednesday morning, checking their voicemail to hear someone say thank you so much, that story needed to be told.
They hadn’t been there when the senior political reporter was yelling at her source, saying well you need to address this and you need to do it now, and we were all secretly listening in to learn how to be that tough.
They hadn’t been there when the sports guys were all leaning back in their chairs, tossing a football back and forth and shooting the shit before going to cover their games.
They hadn’t been there when a great newsroom package came out and everyone kind of took a deep breath, patted one another on the back, and said, man, this is why we do what we do.
There is this huge disconnect at newspapers between the people who live and breathe the work and the people who make the decisions. This is part of the problem. But it doesn’t matter now, at The Gazette. The magic is gone.
In my three years at the Gazette, I learned most of what I’ll need to know in life about hard work, journalism and friendship.
The community expected a lot from their sleepy weekly, and we sure gave them all we could.
Over election night pizza, laughing fits, silly office games and occasionally an emotional breakdown or two, we formed a special bond. We learned what it means to have a home away from home, and to have friends who are your family.
The work was hard and the directions that came down from upper management were sometimes unrealistic. As people were laid off and positions were not filled, it became even worse. It was enough to make anyone crack. Still, it thickened our skin. I wouldn’t still be a reporter today if a few strong editors hadn’t whipped me, and my writing, into shape.
The constant layoffs made it hard to stay focused – three rounds in less than two years during my time at the paper. I’ve never seen so many talented people suddenly without a job to do.
The empty desks soon started to become gruesome daily reminders of what it used to be like. Toward the end of 2012, the quiet really started to set in.
We knew a hefty investment had to be made in order to bring back the lively coverage we had once provided. We also knew that wouldn’t happen.
I can’t tell you what The Gazette was like at its heyday, or what it was like in its last two years as I wasn’t there. So maybe I'm not qualified to write this. I started in 2010, in the midst of the great recession and after the newsroom had already faced cutbacks. I left in 2013, mad that no one was doing anything to save the paper.
I do know what made it special. Individual papers served each neighborhood, and each reporter knew that neighborhood in and out. Longtime reporters had built incredible source lists that included everyone you needed to know: the politicos, the government moles, the gadflies, the everyday people.
We broke big stories. We did good work. We really did think we mattered.
At public government meetings when I was at the paper, often Gazette reporters were the only ones there. On big issues, we were sometimes accompanied by reporters from The Washington Post or local websites or TV/media stations. But only sometimes.
With the departure of The Gazette, there will no longer be a team of trained journalists who work for an impartial company and watch over a county of 1 million people. No local newspaper will be covering breaking news around one of the busiest areas of the Washington Beltway. No one will be specifically assigned to watch over the decisions of lawmakers in arguably the most politically influential county in Maryland. The government officials who will not be held daily to any sort of accountability include: 8 senators, 21 state delegates, the board of education, the county council, two city councils, and several town councils.
This is a sad day, not only because great journalists lost their jobs, and one more local newspaper has vanished, but also because a community who truly cares has been left in the dark.
(Note: If you’re reading this and you know of any job openings for talented copy desk editors, editors, reporters, writers and photographers, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.)