Newspaper in crisis, rather than newspaper fomenting crisis

If you wait long enough, you’ll see everything.

We have a newspaper in crisis rather than a newspaper reporting on and exacerbating a crisis. How delicious.

The Journal News, based in White Plains, NY and serving the Westchester suburbs of New York City, is not far from Newtown, CN and the December shooting spree that killed 26 children, the shooter and his mother. Not long after, its editors decided to publish a story with an interactive map listing all 33,000 pistol permit holders in two counties the paper covers.

The reaction was immediate and furious. It’s not our role here to debate the relative merits of the First and Second amendments, especially when they clash like red plaid and purple polka dots.

But one thing became clear very fast: The newspaper made a lot of enemies. Law enforcement officers felt outed; citizens felt their privacy invaded; pistol owners worried about breakins to get their guns; people without guns wondered about their own vulnerability and what the crazy gunned-up neighbor across the street might do if they left the garbage cans out overnight again.

[Thanks to my EMA colleague and former Albany newspaper guy Matt Maguire for snagging this latest development:]

With all this happening the last month, now comes the delicious irony of a newspaper hiring a crisis management pro, DKC of Manhattan, to handle — and, let’s face it, fend off — the media hordes descending on the … media.

I’ve read a lot about this, not only because growing up I delivered one of the Journal News’ predecessors, or because I worked in newspapers for 30 years. Mainly because the gooey mess the paper put itself in is such a rare example of role reversal in a crisis. Newspapers usually keep the pressure on someone else in a crisis, until all the media gets all its answers.

So how ironic — and really not good tradecraft — for the former Journal News reporter handling the newspaper’s account to issue ‘no comment’ left and right and not make reporters and editors available for interviews? Publisher Janet Hasson had a few comments close to when the story ran, but has shied away since.

[One must suspect that Edmund Tagliaferri of DKC knows that’s not the best route to end the crisis, but that’s probably what the overlords at Gannett — owner of the paper — ruled. Gannett, for all its media properties, has never been known for its openness to the media.]

As Erik Wemple notes in his Washington Post blog, the New York Times elicited comment last week, from Hasson and an editor. But otherwise, they’ve hung up the “Gone Fishin'” sign. That’s the opposite way to end a crisis. The media, they should all know well, is not going away until the questions are answered. Not answering the questions prolongs the crisis. The longer the crisis, the worse the damage. Rinse and repeat.

I suspect that because the Journal-News decision to publish the permit holders’ names and home addresses has not received a lot of support even in the media, the White Plains team is defensive and lawyers are involved. [More on that relationship tomorrow]. Most commentators I’ve seen say the paper had the absolute right to publish the publicly available records. How smart a move it was — and, more crucially whether it advanced the gun-control debate at all — seems to be another story. A lot of writers asked what was the point, as former Times editor Bill Keller did in his column yesterday.

My hypothetical editor’s choice is inspired, of course, by an unhypothetical event: the decision by The Journal News in White Plains to map the names and addresses of 33,614 handgun permit holders in two surrounding counties, for a project called “The gun owner next door.” I’ll return to that decision, but the striking thing was the volume and venom of the reader backlash: thousands of comments — and not only from gun owners — overwhelmingly outraged, some of them suggesting that Journal News journalists deserved to have their identities stolen, their homes burgled, their children taunted or, predictably, to be shot…    

As a journalist, I’m more often on the side of the invaders than the invaded. I cherish the freedom to publish. But the freedom to publish includes the freedom not to publish when the cost outweighs the benefit.       

Which brings me back to The Journal News and its gun project. I sympathize with the paper’s effort to dramatize the commonplace reality of gun ownership at a time when the subject is so sadly on our minds. I don’t buy the gun owners’ assertion that the disclosure is an invitation to burglars in search of firearms; on the contrary, the publicity sends criminals the same message as those front-door notices of your home alarm system: Try next door. It’s also conceivable that the attention will prompt some owners to lock up unsecured weapons.

But when you are going to make a sizable population of law-abiding citizens feel violated, you have to ask yourself, what is the offsetting gain? In this case, I think, not much. The information The Journal News provided its readers is so far from complete as to be misleading. The public records identify only legal handguns. They tell you nothing about the neighbor who has an equally legal and equally lethal rifle or shotgun, let alone an illegal weapon. The publication has not spurred a healthy debate; it has merely escalated a shouting match, and given the N.R.A. a new rallying cry. The outcry may even provoke state legislatures to withdraw gun databases from public records, so they will not be available when they might really be useful. It’s a close call, but I’d have found a different way to make the point.   

As Keller writes, locating pistol permits does not pinpoint illegal guns, nor shotguns or semi-automatic assault rifles like the one used in Newtown. It’s like kicking over the hornet’s nest after the grizzly bear already tore up your camp site.

The final conclusion, after the newspaper’s role reversal irony, and ineffective crisis management, is that this is again an example of a self-induced crisis. It’s unnecessary. The paper could have served the public good without the invasive specificity it chose. And if outside accounts of the editorial decision-making process are accurate, no one really sat down and thought about the ramifications. Just because you have the right of public exposure doesn’t make it smart to exercise it.

Do you think otherwise? Then let’s watch how many other local papers around the country follow the Journal-News’ lead and also publish their own publicly available pistol permit data.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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