Put the damn paper out: Why the newsroom is a bedrock of American democracy

A copy of the Capital Gazette is displayed in a newspaper box the day after a gunman killed five people and injuring several others at the publication's offices in Annapolis, Maryland, U.S., June 29, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts - RC1B67B7C9D0

Although I know none of the five journalists who were murdered when a vengeful gunman attacked the Annapolis Capital Gazette Thursday, I know a lot about the place where they died. Though today I work at a think tank, I am a product of the newsroom. It is one of the most important institutions of American life. Thursday, again, we saw why.

The newsroom is the defining institution of journalism and a miracle of social organization. It teaches young people the practices and values of responsible, accurate journalism; it applies multiple layers of professional judgment to prevent error and make difficult editorial calls; it creates the sense of mission and teamwork that inspire professionalism and dedication; it sifts news sources from all over the world while staying minutely tuned to the local community; it organizes and sustains complex investigative projects; it provides accountability and discipline when things go wrong. And, somehow, it melds all of that into a coherent product.

My own career is a tale of lessons learned in the newsroom, at the Yale Daily News, the Winston-Salem Journal, National Journal, and others. All of them drummed into me that good journalists serve their communities (not just the bottom line), always check before publishing (as the legendary Washington Post reporter David Broder used to say, “If your mother says she loves you, check it”), understand and respect the difference between fact and opinion, write with economy and clarity, and, above all, put the damn paper out.

In the tweets sent by Capital Gazette staff members as they hid under their desks, we saw the distillation of all those values. Even as the gunman roamed the room and reloaded, they were reporting:

They reasserted their values and drew strength from them:

They kept their promise:

President Trump’s attacks on the press (“enemies of the American people”) seem to have inspired something of a pro-media backlash. A poll conducted by the Freedom Forum Institute last year found 43 percent of respondents said that the media try to report the news without bias, an impressive 20-point increase over 2016. If sustained, that trend is heartening, and it reflects a heartening reality: In the face of an unprecedented demagogic onslaught, the mainstream media have done an extraordinary job. Though my own newspaper days are long past, I have never been as proud of my newsroom training as I am right now, and those five people who died in Annapolis show why.