February 6, 2020

Joshua McKerrow spent his last day as a photojournalist for The (Annapolis, Maryland) Capital on assignment.

At the downtown government building, politicians, lobbyists, news crews and tour groups buzzed around him as he stopped to talk about news of his own — he took a Tribune Publishing buyout.

And that, he said, was extremely difficult.

“Photojournalism has been my life, and for most of that, it’s been the Capital newspaper. Even before the shooting, I lived and breathed it,” said McKerrow, who started at the paper in 2004. “And then after the shooting, it became so much more meaningful and important to who I was, and to who I am. So leaving it is pretty huge for me.”

Reporter Pat Furgurson also took the buyout offered by the paper’s Tribune ownership.

On the day a gunman attacked the newsroom and killed five colleagues, he worked alongside McKerrow and reporter Chase Cook. Those three journalists covered the story from a truck in a parking garage that day.

On Twitter, high school sports editor Bob Hough shared that he’d also taken a buyout.

Related: I survived a mass shooting. Here’s my advice to other journalists

Poynter’s Rick Edmonds reported that the Capital’s corporate owner, Tribune Publishing, started offering buyouts last month. This week, the company’s CEO left as Alden Global Capital, “tightens its grip,” on the company, as Edmonds put it, with a 32% stake in the company. On Wednesday, Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo wrote a piece titled “The Hedge Fund Vampire That Bleeds Newspapers Dry Now Has the Chicago Tribune by the Throat” about Alden.

Layoffs, buyouts and media consolidation have withered local newspapers across the country. Pew Research reported that between 2004 and 2018, newsroom employment shrunk by 47%.

McKerrow, a single father of three, took the buyout, he said, because “I have to do what’s best for my family.”

He and the staff of the Capital Gazette were among the journalists named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2018.

“Still intact, indeed strengthened after the mass shooting, are the bonds of trust and community that for national news outlets have been eroded on strikingly partisan lines, never more than this year,” Karl Vick wrote for Time.

In 2019, the newsroom won a special citation from the Pulitzer Prizes for their response to that attack “and for demonstrating unflagging commitment to covering the news and serving their community at a time of unspeakable grief.”

In November of 2018, The Chesapeake News Guild formed with journalists from the Capital Gazette newspapers, the Baltimore Sun Media Group and The Carroll County Times “to demand from our owners — Tribune Publishing — better pay, greater representation and stronger investment in our newsrooms.” In January, reporters at the Tribune-owned Chicago Tribune published an op-ed in The New York Times in search of a new local owner to save the paper from being gutted.

Despite his own buyout, McKerrow said he’s still hopeful about journalism and the people making it, particularly his younger colleagues.

“I know that the next couple years are going to be rough,” he said. “They may be the roughest years that American journalism has ever had. I don’t think ever before has journalism in this country been on the defense on so many sides. But at the same time, I’ve never been prouder of journalism and being a journalist. The reporters and the photographers and editors in the trenches have risen to the occasion gloriously. It’s a new golden age for journalism in this country.”

Related: Grieve, but don’t give up, and other lessons from layoffs

McKerrow doesn’t yet know what he’ll do next, but, he said, “I still have a lot of stories to tell.”

In an email to the newsroom that Poynter obtained, Furgurson expressed hope for and belief in his colleagues, too.

“I nominate all you young’ns. As I check out via buyout, I know journalism will be in good hands after witnessing the pluck, guts, and compassion every one of you bring to the daily grind,” he wrote. “I am confident each of you will continue to kick ass …”

That nomination was for a weekly newsroom award. It used to be run by Wendi Winters, one of the journalists who died in the newsroom attack. After that, McKerrow gave out the awards.

Now, the newsroom will have to find someone else to take that over.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a third member of staff who took a buyout. 

Kristen Hare covers the transformation of local news for Poynter.org. She can be reached at khare@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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  • I worked with Joshua McKerrow at The Aegis and The Record (other BSMG publications) before he joined Capital/Gazette and, in many respects, he was the conscience of our newsroom and one of the most principled people I have had the pleasure to be associated with. It’s unfortunate that folks like Josh are what we need more of in journalism, but we seem to be all to reticent about letting them get away. Best of luck, Josh. Your moving tribute to your friend and fallen colleague Wendi Winters are words I shall never forget.