David Dudley is the executive editor of CityLab. He is the former editor in chief of Urbanite magazine and a former features editor for AARP: The Magazine.
Remembering Rob Hiaasen, and the work of community journalism in a polarized time.
There’s something tragicomic about the fact that the worst attack on the free press in American history claimed Rob Hiaasen, of all people. The writer and editor, who was killed alongside his colleagues at the Annapolis Capital on Thursday, was a towering goofball of a man who lived only to tell funny-sad stories about the un-famous; his being and his work exuded a fundamental benevolence. Among his last columns: A tribute to his late mother, a meditation on a high-school girlfriend, and a letter to a missing local cat named Athena, written in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting. “We need a warm splinter of good news in these gun-riddled days,” Hiaasen wrote, addressing the cat. “Just come home to tell us your story.” In a editor’s note added later, we learn that the cat does indeed make it home.
“You’re a maudlin S.O.B., aren’t you?” a friend once said of Hiaasen, who was fond of folk-rock ballads and called up a pal out of the blue on his anniversary to thank him for being the best man at his wedding, 33 years earlier. At his memorial in a Baltimore suburb on Monday evening, hundreds gathered to share these kinds of stories—childhood friends, current and former colleagues, family members, and folks like me who’d crossed professional paths with the man. The crowd packed a sweltering tent, spilling into the surrounding woods. After the speeches, they drank beer and listened to James Taylor and got maudlin together long into the humid night.
I met Hiaasen a decade ago, when he turned up in my office at a small magazine in Baltimore. His longtime employer, the Baltimore Sun, was chopping newsroom jobs, and Rob wanted work. I couldn’t believe my luck. His was among the best-known bylines at the Sun in the 1990s and 2000s, when the paper boasted a formidable lineup of feature writers. He specialized in thoughtful and elegantly composed stories about oddballs, of which Baltimore had no shortage. Rob folded his 6-foot-5 frame into my tiny office and I gave him an assignment to profile a teenage musical prodigy. About a week later, the story turned up in my inbox and it was terrific beyond my hopes—full of wry asides, delightful details, and sneakily difficult questions about where genius resides and the joys of doing the one thing in life that you’re really good at. Rob seemed to relate to that last theme. Barely a comma was out of place.
The many appreciations of Hiaasen that have appeared since Thursday night often note his kindness and generosity. The details are telling: the newsroom pizza he sprung for on Tuesday’s election night; the wrapped birthday present he left for his wife on the dining room table Thursday morning, still unopened. I knew him only well enough to confirm this broad outline—especially the preternatural affability—but can certainly speak to his craftsmanship. The handful of features he wrote for me in the weeks before he was hired away by the Capital were among the cleanest and most precisely written drafts I’d ever seen anyone turn in.
The mystery novelist and former Sun colleague Laura Lippman ended her appreciation of Hiaasen in the New York Times by noting a cruel irony about the man who killed him, a 38-year-old man named Jarrod Ramos who’d nursed a long grudge against the newspaper. “Rob would be the perfect person to write about the suspect. And he would do it with abundant empathy and curiosity.”
Of course, that’s the gig in local journalism—telling the community’s story, warts and all. Rob and his slain Capital colleagues embraced that mission, with the understanding that the stories of the people they found outside their door, no matter how beautiful or banal or reprehensible, were worth all the skill and rigor and poetry and professionalism they could summon. And they paid an unprecedented price for their service.
At Rob’s memorial, I found the new mayor of Annapolis, Gavin Buckley. He was, he warned me, “fired up”: There would be profanity. He’d submitted a request to President Donald Trump, via Maryland’s congressional delegation, to fly the U.S. flag at half-staff and had yet to receive permission. The city and state flags had already been lowered. (This morning, the Trump administration granted permission.) Like many observers, he saw the attack against the Capital as a blow not only against one town’s journalists, but against journalism itself, the profession that the U.S. president had tagged as an “enemy of the people.” Buckley resisted that characterization, strongly. “They’re not left or right. They’re us.”
Earlier in the day, he had proposed a fundraiser and festival for press freedom in Annapolis. “They sit through our boring-ass city council meetings, and then they lose their lives in the newsroom,” he said of the Capital’s staffers. “This world has gone mad.”
Buckley is a local restaurateur, raised in Australia; he’d gained the mayor’s post a few months ago. “This was not part of the job description,” he told me of the whirlwind of media attention he’s faced in the past days. But he is determined not to let the larger implications of the attack pass once the news cycle moves on. “I don’t want us to do just do what we’ve always done,” he said. “This is an issue I’m passionate about. It’s an attack on free speech. That’s not all right. I don’t want the story to end. We can’t let it end.”
Later, Susan O’Brien, the mayor’s press officer, talked to me about the paper’s role in the city—how everyone knew communities reporter Wendi Winters and writer John McNamara. The Capital, like so many smaller-market papers, had faced years of downsizing, but thousands of well-wishers were now signing up for subscriptions in the wake of the shootings. “Hopefully, all that money will be going back to that staff,” O’Brien said. “We want the Capital to be around.”
On Wednesday, the surviving staff will march in Annapolis’s Fourth of July Parade, which seems apt. The publication’s roots—which go back to the Maryland Gazette, founded in 1727—predate the nation itself; it will no doubt endure even this dark time. “Here’s a paper that just had the worst-ever attack on the First Amendment in U.S. history,” O’Brien said. “This is an opportunity for this small town to say thanks.”