My first assignment at the Gazette was to cover the Navy Yard shooting in DC, which had taken place just the day before. Going door to door, I had to ask relatives and neighbors of the two victims who had lived in Montgomery County what it was like to lose a loved one in a horrific mass shooting. I had no idea what I was doing.
That was my second day at the Gazette, the free community paper that has covered the Maryland suburbs for the last 60 years, and which will publish its last edition this week.
“We have made a sincere and earnest effort to keep our free two community newspapers financially viable,” management wrote in an email to employees. “However, as we’ve seen across the country with suburban newspapers that border markets with strong major market papers, even extensive expense reductions and the development of new products are not enough to offset declining advertising revenue for individual papers.” The Gazette thrived on community news, sending (mostly) young reporters, fresh out of school, to report on the towns and cities that dot Montgomery County. We interviewed local students about their latest accomplishments and sat in town hall meetings where local politicians debated past midnight. Editors at the paper—and there were only a few—divvied up the stories into more than half a dozen, hyper-local, editions. There was one for Rockville, one for Gaithersburg, one for Silver Spring, another for the western towns of Potomac and Bethesda, even one for Poolesville, 20 miles northwest, in the Agricultural Reserve, which Washingtonians might know for its pick-your-own apple and pumpkin farms. There had been even more editions before I arrived in 2013, when the paper had moved its offices to a stale office park in Gaithersburg just off I-270.
The newsroom was a dank, beige windowless room with cold fluorescent lighting. It was clear the paper was in trouble. It had merged previous editions and shuttered its Frederick edition. Its website was anemic. When I arrived it was still replacing reporters, who turned over faster than Taylor Swift’s love interests, drawn elsewhere by higher wages and new opportunities. Management started counting bylines, demanding we write at least 6 stories a week—no easy task when you’re schlepping all across the county looking for stories. It was tiring and stressful, but an education on finding sources, describing small town disputes, and cranking out copy. The Gazette gave me my start as it did for generations of reporters. It took 10 minutes to load a webpage on my clunky old laptop, but I got to write about artists and hippies and 16-year-olds voting in Takoma Park. A Buddhist acupuncturist in Poolesville told me about her past working on Black Hawk helicopters in the Army National Guard. I listened to residents plead in meeting after meeting for the county to build a new rec center for their kids in Wheaton, while others defended the dilapidated building’s historic importance to the community. Ten months later I took a job in the hotter, swampier landscape of Houston, when I began covering business for the Houston Chronicle. My world of parks-department meetings and amiable town mayors was replaced with the balance sheets of Fortune 1000 public companies and corporate spokespeople. On Facebook, current and former Gazette reporters have posted memories of stories they covered, as well as photos from our potluck holiday parties. “Though we knew this day was coming, it's still difficult to stomach the news that The Gazette will be putting out its last edition next week,” a former Gazette reporter wrote on Facebook last week. “So many wonderful memories and lifelong friendships were made in that windowless dungeon. Best of luck to those reporters and photographers who received the bad news.”