Twice this week the staff of The Covington News has come together in fellowship to remember our colleagues at The Capital Gazette. Twice this week we have stopped what we were doing to purposefully think about the journalists who can no longer do their jobs. That’s a scary thought.
Next week, The News staff will go through active shooter training on Monday at 3:30 p.m. The office will be closed.
This stop in work for journalists around the world is nothing that we’re used to, I can guarantee that.
I’ve said it before in this very spot that news never sleeps. We are constantly on-call and always working. Whether, I am answering phone calls from an elected official on the verge of midnight in an effort to update a breaking news story or running into a police officer at Kroger and getting a news tip, I am always on the clock.
Thursday afternoon at 2:33 p.m., however, I was off the clock. In a national moment of silence for the victims of The Capital shooting, I talked to God. I asked for protection and I prayed for hope.
See, a few years ago I had an encounter that made me scared to come to work. That is something I never thought could happen. The office that used to be my sanctuary had turned into a constant reminder of how one story, one opinion column or one word could turn into a frightening situation.
Prior to working for The Covington News, I was an associate editor at the Lake Oconee News covering Greene County. The LON covered three counties in total and we had an office presence in each one. Because of this, we had only a few members of our staff based out of each location.
One morning, I was the first to arrive to work at my office location and a man came through the front door. This is not uncommon at all; we have people come to see us all the time for stories and advertisements so I went to talk to him.
It was March of 2016 and a man was there to announce his candidacy for president of the United States. As I continued to listen to his campaign plans and asked questions about his timing, I got an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. Something was wrong.
At one point, I asked a question that apparently did not go over well – I can’t remember what it was at this point – and the man reached to his hip and unholstered a gun that was once hidden by his suit jacket.
I immediately froze.
This gun was never pointed at me. He never said he was going to shoot me. He was just holding it by his side making sure I knew it was there.
A few minutes later, I told him I needed to go grab a notepad so I could jot down some information about his presidential campaign. I turned my back to the man and the gun and walked to my office.
Grabbing my cellphone, I sent a text to my boss. “Someone get to the office ASAP, please.”
I went back to talk to the man and a few minutes – that felt like a few hours – went by before in walked my boss.
The office visitor put his gun back on his hip and my boss took control of the situation. I walked away and eventually the man left.
I constantly thank God that my boss got my text and was close by. I am so thankful that he was not in a meeting or covering an event, but could come to my aid quickly.
After this whole encounter, I went to the sheriff’s office and spoke with Green County Sheriff Donnie Harrison. I told him what happened and we went over my options. Why not dial 911 in the first place? Yes, that was the first question Sheriff Harrison asked me as well. Not wanting to escalate the situation more than it already was, I did the only thing I could think to do in the few seconds I had to make a decision.
That man was later arrested after he went to the sheriff’s office that same day and threatened others. The LON got a criminal trespass warning against him and he was no longer allowed to come to our Greene County office.
A month later, he was arrested one more time after starting a fight outside of a local church and that was the last time I heard anything about the man.
I had never written about this man before. I had no previous encounters with him. He was just a man who was on a mission with a deadly weapon attached to his hip.
As journalists, we talk to people from all walks of life. We are constantly putting ourselves into unknown situations and hoping for the best.
I’ve never once thought of my job to be a scary one. Until now.
I ask you to pray for your community journalists. Pray for them as they tell your story. You don’t know what they’re going through to get it for you.
Jackie Gutknecht is the managing editor of The Covington News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 770-728-14009. Twitter: @jackieg1991