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Capital Gazette Tragedy Close to Home for Washingtonian Owner

The author’s father, Phil Merrill, starts the presses in the 1980s. Photograph courtesy of Catherine Merrill Williams.

On June 28, five people were killed in a shooting inside the newsroom of the Annapolis Capital Gazette. As my phone vibrated, I went a little numb. My family owned the Capital for nearly 40 years, from 1968 to 2007. The place is burned deep in my heart.

My father, Phil Merrill, bought the paper three months before I was born. By age five, I’d started the presses more times than I can remember. A backlit green button was situated on a big panel. When I was very small, someone had to put his thumb on top of mine to help me hold it down. The presses roared to life, and the colossal machine slowly ground faster and faster. I invariably came home covered in ink. In middle school, I worked at the paper selling classifieds, and as a teen I spent two years as a photojournalist, shooting mostly high-school sports. Every day, I thought: “I get paid for this?” I learned photography, but even more than that, I learned how to walk up to strangers and find out how they were part of Annapolis’s story.

Anyone who has grown up in a small town or city can understand the power of the local newspaper. In Maryland’s capital, nine out of ten homes subscribed. If the paper screwed something up, such as who’d scored a winning lacrosse goal, I heard about it in school. If there was an op-ed about a tightly contested political election, I heard about it at home. If the sports columnist beat up on the Orioles, we’d be stopped on the street by someone complaining, “How dare you criticize Cal Ripken?” The paper and our lives were intertwined.

My brother and sister and I spent countless hours at the original location on West Street—a former bowling alley, with some of the original wooden lanes in my dad’s office. I’m not sure if OSHA laws weren’t as strict or if Dad just ignored them, but he let us have the run of the place. We were mostly drawn to the presses—the size of eight tractor-trailers, with five-foot-wide reams of paper and giant barrels of ink. They were so loud, they shook the building. The pressmen were kind and made us hats out of newspapers, or we might be allowed to pull a copy off the line as they came out. I see this in movies often, including The Post, but let me tell you, it isn’t easy to do without jamming the presses.

I believe the Capital has made a huge difference to the Annapolis community. Editorials have always helped balance the need for development with the importance of historic preservation, or for protecting the Chesapeake while allowing for its multiple uses. It has endorsed politicians from sheriff to judges to register of wills, and—something my family cared deeply about—advocated for the University of Maryland. All things it still does, and does well.

Over the past decade, the paper’s ownership, leadership, and location changed. It stopped printing on-site and moved near Annapolis Mall. Because I’d been away from its daily life so long, the hours after the tragedy were hard to process. I wondered if anyone I knew still worked there and was in the building (yes); if there was anything my family, as former owners, could immediately do (not much); and, most important, how my dad would have reacted. Then I saw a tweet from reporter Chase Cook: “I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.” I don’t know if he knew my father, but I’m certain those would have been Dad’s exact words. Mr. Cook’s statement flooded my siblings and me with pride, as it showed us that the paper still has the same commitment to journalistic integrity it had when our parents led it.

The shooting happened just after 2:30 pm on a Thursday. Friday morning at 6, I went to a Safeway in Annapolis, and on the newsstand—a true testament to ink-stained journalists everywhere—was the Capital.

This article appears in the August 2018 issue Washingtonian.

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CEO & President

Catherine Merrill Williams is CEO and President of Washingtonian Media, a media company that includes the flagship 53-year-old magazine, Washingtonian, the national capital region’s leading monthly with more than 300,000 readers and winner of five National Magazine Awards; Washingtonian.com—the region’s premier lifestyle website with popular blogs, restaurant recommendations, and more; Washingtonian Bride & Groom; Washingtonian Welcome Guide; Washingtonian Custom Media; and Washingtonian Events.

From 2002 to 2007, Ms. Williams served as Director of Operations for Affiliated Computer Services (ACS), where she helped manage and collect 60 percent of the nation’s tolls—$2.7 billion a year—including the majority of the E-ZPass network. Prior to joining ACS, from 1995 to 2002, she was a partner in the worldwide management consulting firm Oliver Wyman.

Ms. Williams is very active in the community and serves on the board of directors of multiple organizations including the University of Maryland College Park Foundation (where she also chairs the Board of Visitors for the School of Journalism), Cornell University’s College of Arts and Sciences, the City and Regional Magazine Association, Ford’s Theater, the Aspen Institute Socrates Society, the Greater Washington Board of Trade, and The Merrill Family Foundation. She is a member and former chapter chair of YPO (Young President’s Organization) as well as an active member of the Cornell University Council, the Economics Club of Washington and the Federal City Council. She has appeared on CNN, the Today Show, CNN Headline News, FOX, MSNBC, as well as other local Washington stations.

She holds a B.A. from Cornell University and a M.Sc. from the London School of Economics.

Ms. Williams resides in Washington, DC, with her two sons. She enjoys sailing, skiing, and travel.