At the Capital Gazette, the Death of a Reporter’s Reporter

Rob Hiaasen

I believe there are two kinds of reporters — ones who can find a story by pointing to a random name in the phone book, and those who would rather impale themselves on an old-fashioned newsroom spike than do business that way.

Rob Hiaasen, who was killed at work at The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., on Thursday along with four of his colleagues, was a member of the first camp. I know that because we worked together for almost 10 years in The Baltimore Sun features department, where we were definitely Team Random, Team Quotidian.

Who were those people in surgical masks harvesting berries from that tree outside our office? Rob found out. What if we tried to combat the dog days of summer, when so little happened, by writing a series of dispatches from other places called Baltimore? Rob headed to Baltimore Avenue in Las Vegas, a decidedly unglamorous area.

Now Rob is the subject of the stories, and people are combing through his life, along with the lives of his colleagues, to find the telling details.

The thing is, almost no one does it as well as Rob, who had a keen sense for the kind of human-scale stories that resonate with everyone. My father, a Baltimore Sun journalist for 30 years, once wrote a column praising the annual holiday letters people send, saying they were the real news of the year, the things that really mattered to people. Rob always understood that.

He made everyone and everything interesting. Our coffee runs, a lunchtime trip to buy the new Steely Dan CD. (Phone books, newsroom spikes, new Steely Dan CDs — Rob could have written a charming column about how my invocation of these items dated us, one in which he would have made sure to note I was nine days older than he was.)

He was extraordinarily tall — his friends called him “the taller, handsomer Hiaasen,” a reference to his famous writer brother, Carl. I always thought that his height was part of the reason he tended to be soft-spoken, watchful.

It’s hard to be a fly on the wall when you’re as tall as Rob, but he managed it. Very little got by him. When I left The Sun in 2001, Rob wrote one of the pieces for the traditional fake front page prepared for departing journalists. He cheerfully mocked awards I had won for my crime novels and newspaper work, making references to incidents I had long forgotten.

The most shocking thing about the fact that he is gone, I guess, is how shocked I am. Mass shootings, whether in workplaces, schools or communal spaces, have become so common that it seems inevitable that everyone in the United States will eventually have one degree of separation from one.

Every time I press the buzzer to enter my 8-year-old daughter’s public school, I wonder how safe anyone is, anywhere. Before Thursday, I would have assumed that newspaper offices have better security than most places; I can’t get past the front desk at The Baltimore Sun without an escort, and I worked there for 12 years.

Then again, it never occurred to me to bring a shotgun.

Like almost all of us at The Sun, Rob had started out at smaller papers. Unlike most of us, he returned to one when he took the job in Annapolis in 2010. Smaller papers are interwoven into their communities in a way big-city papers are not. My first day at The Waco Tribune-Herald, where I worked in the 1980s, I covered a Rotary Club luncheon and filed eight inches of copy — or about 400 words. Readers expect to see themselves celebrated within the pages of smaller newspapers, to have every award and triumph covered. And when you get stuff wrong, you might end up hearing about it at the grocery store.

But then Baltimore, a.k.a. Smalltimore, has that kind of vibe too. Not even a month ago, I ran into some women who are still holding a grudge about a piece my husband reported back in the early 1990s.

I can’t imagine anyone holding a grudge against Rob. There are so many ironies about the shooting in Annapolis and the lives of five talented, dedicated people — people who loved their jobs and the community they served — cut short. But the irony that sticks with me is that Rob would be the perfect person to write about the suspect. And he would do it with abundant empathy and curiosity. He never condescended in his copy. Again, I think that might have been a byproduct of seeing things from a great height: He was determined never to look down on anyone.

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