Pictured: Sharon Jean Bell
LEXINGTON PARK, Md. — The first time I met Sharon Bell was on September 20, 2018. I remember the day well because I walked into TheBayNet.com’s previous office to interview for a freelance writer position, and in the lobby was a man in a suit wearing sunglasses.
I thought I was in the right place, but this made me skeptical. I thought maybe he could have been private security, or perhaps on the off chance, he too dabbled in writing. I peered my head into what sounded like a busy newsroom only to find two more men in suits and a few others dressed to the nines. I was somewhat confused and worried I may be in over my head.
But that is when I realized that in a packed room(including a security detail), all eyes were on two people: Sharon Bell and Steny Hoyer.
Amid election season, Sharon had overlapped the time I was supposed to interview with her for a job, and the time she was interviewing the second-ranking Democrat in the United States.
In college and eager for a job in the news industry, I told her I could come back in an hour and proceeded to wait in a nearby Burger King parking lot. I enjoyed a vibrantly green cup of Surge soda while I waited.
When I came back, she took out her leather-bound yellow notepad and started asking me questions like I was the politician who came in moments before. Hurling mottos at me like “The news doesn’t sleep” and “I have got some big ideas,” and asking me if I have tough skin yet because I probably would after a couple of days of reading Facebook comments. I don’t think I knew what I was getting myself into that day.
Nevertheless, she and my former editor Marty Madden gave me a chance to cover local news.
But when I think about Sharon now, I think about a few things. I think about how she decided to start an online news organization before people had fully accepted the internet. I think about how much influence she had through TheBayNet. I think about how she often took risks and how she often told me that a lot of people didn’t like her. And I think about someone who always had questions and always wanted answers.
All of this helps paint the picture of the short and sometimes scary woman who gave me a chance to start my career while I was still in college. And as if building my resume wasn’t enough, she taught me a few valuable lessons.
1. You are never going to please everyone.
In a world where people want everything to align with their personal narrative, objectivity will often still be criticized. You can try your best to do everything right in the news industry, and still, end up making people angry. It is refreshing to find common ground on issues, but it is easier said than done. We repeatedly embrace the facts we have and hope the community will too.
2. No idea is a bad idea, but some ideas remain ideas.
Sharon would tell you that she was a dreamer, with plans for TheBayNet to take over the world. And if she had a few more years, I have hardly any doubt that it would have happened. She saw the possibilities for us to be as endless as the internet, and even then she wouldn’t let that stop her. She would sooner take over a television network or find a way to expand the internet before she let it stop her.
She often prefaced ideas with “you’re going to think I am crazy,” but I think she knew we already thought she was. She was a visionary, unlike anything else I have ever personally seen.
3. The news doesn’t sleep, and it doesn’t wait.
From gut-wrenching accidents to house fires to shootings, we try to cover everything that happens as soon as we can and to the greatest extent we can. I found out last week that Sharon passed away and proceeded to write down everything I remember about the first time I met her. I debated putting this letter out at around 1 a.m. because I think she would have run it but decided to hold off this time. She allowed me to cover news in Southern Maryland, and now I do that full-time as the managing editor of her company.
Over the past few years, I, like many others closer to her, watched her health decline. Still, she continued fighting until the end, and she will live on in my memory for the rest of my life.
After she sold her portion of the company last year, I remember going and picking up all the books in her office. Three-ring binders that tracked every business decision she made, hundreds of books and writing tools, and of course stacks of yellow notepads with all the pages filled.
I now use that same leather-bound notepad she used. Just last month, I accidentally broke the clip of the matching pen that went with it. But I don’t think Sharon would throw it away just yet.
I think she would use every last drop of ink first.
I invite everyone who knew Sharon to keep her and her family in your thoughts and prayers. We are slowly turning the page to a new chapter with TheBayNet.com, but I can only hope we maintain a sliver of passion, creativity, and love for the community that Sharon Bell had.
— Zach Hill, Managing Editor