Gun-owner report turns N.Y. newspaper into target

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WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. -- Local newspapers across the country look for stories that will bring them national attention, but The Journal News, a daily nestled in a wooded office park in a suburb north of New York City, may have gotten more than it bargained for.

Two weeks ago, the paper published the names and addresses of handgun permit holders -- a total of 33,614 -- in two suburban counties, Westchester and Rockland, and included an online map of their locations. The article, "The Gun Owner Next Door: What You Don't Know About the Weapons in Your Neighborhood," was accompanied by an interactive map that received more than 1 million views on the website of The Journal News -- more than twice as many as the paper's previous record, about a councilman who had two boys arrested for running a cupcake stand.

But the article, which left gun owners feeling vulnerable to harassment or break-ins, also drew outrage from across the country. Calls and emails grew so threatening that the paper's president and publisher, Janet Hasson, hired armed guards to monitor the newspaper's headquarters in White Plains and its bureau in West Nyack, N.Y.

Personal information about editors and writers at the paper has been posted online, including their home addresses and information about where their children attended school; some reporters have received notes saying they would be shot on the way to their cars; bloggers have encouraged people to steal credit card information of Journal News employees; and two packages containing white powder have been sent to the newsroom and a third to a reporter's home (all were tested by the police and proved to be harmless)

"As journalists, we are prepared for criticism," Ms. Hasson said, as she sat in her meticulously tended office and described the ways her 225 employees have been harassed since the article was published. "But in the U.S., journalists should not be threatened."

She has paid for staff members who do not feel safe in their homes to stay at hotels, offered guards to walk employees to their cars, encouraged employees to change their home telephone numbers and has been coordinating with the local police.

The decision to report and publish the data happened within a week of the school massacre in nearby Newtown, Conn. On Dec. 17, Dwight Worley, a tax reporter who had previously covered business and education, returned from trying to interview the families of victims in Newtown with an idea to obtain and publish local gun permit data. He discussed his idea with his immediate editor, Kathy Moore, who talked to her bosses, according to CynDee Royle, the paper's editor.

All the editors involved said there were not any formal meetings about the article, although it came up at several regular news meetings. Later in the week, Mr. Worley did talk with Ms. Royle, who was at The Journal News in 2006 when the newspaper published similar data, without mapping it or providing street numbers.

While Ms. Hasson had not been at the paper in 2006, she knew there had been some controversy then. She made sure to be available on Dec. 23 by email, and accessible to the staff if any problems came up.

"We've run this content before," Ms. Hasson said. "I supported it, and I supported the publishing of the info."

By Dec. 26, employees had begun receiving threatening calls and emails, and by the next day, reporters not involved in the article were being threatened. The reaction did not stop at the local paper: Gracia Martore, the chief executive of Gannett, also received threatening messages.

Many of the threats, Ms. Hasson said, were coming from across the country, and not from the paper's own community. But local gun owners and supporters are encouraging an advertiser boycott of The Journal News.

The paper's decision has drawn criticism from journalists who question whether The Journal News should have provided more context and whether it was useful to publish individual names and addresses.

Journalists with specialties in computer-assisted reporting have argued that just because public data have become more readily available in recent years does not mean that it should be published raw. In ways, they argued, it would have been more productive to publish data by ZIP code or block.



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