We talk to the reporters behind a deeply disturbing NYTimes story, plus a great local investigation and print cuts in Pittsburgh

October 2, 2019
Category: Newsletters

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Good morning. Today, we take a break from impeachment stories to take you behind the scenes of an important but appalling story from The New York Times.

‘So much of this is disturbing and depraved’

The story is horrifying. The details are sickening.

Children, in some cases only 3 or 4 years old, sexually abused and tortured. Images of this abuse — some 45 million in video and photos — have overrun the internet.

How does this exploitation happen?

This is the incredible yet disturbing report from The New York Times written by Michael H. Keller and Gabriel J.X. Dance. They write that their investigation found “an insatiable criminal underworld that had exploited the flawed and insufficient efforts to contain it. As with hate speech and terrorist propaganda, many tech companies failed to adequately police sexual abuse imagery on their platforms, or failed to cooperate sufficiently with the authorities when they found it.”

To tell the full story, Keller and Dance had to describe what some of these images looked like, to detail the exact abuse that goes on. In an email exchange, Keller told me the process he, Dance and the Times went through to tell a story that needed to be told, but that readers might not want to know.

Frankly, there are moments when the story becomes almost too difficult to read because of the nature of the crimes.

“We worked with multiple editors, including the head of standards, to decide how best to describe these crimes both in the writing and the visuals,” Keller said. “We don’t describe the specific instances of abuse until the reader is well into the piece, for example. We did not want to sensationalize the crimes, but we also did not want to overly sanitize them. This was an investigative story that revealed significant failings in combating the spread of this explicit imagery, so we felt it was essential to make clear what was at stake.”

That meant talking to survivors of these heinous crimes. That meant talking to a pedophile who runs a site that houses some of the awful images. But most of all, it meant not backing away from the gruesome details.

“In our reporting, we heard over and over again that downplaying these crimes was part of the problem because too few people really understood how violent and destructive this abuse is,” Keller said. “For the same reason, we limited our use of the term ‘child pornography’ and instead used the terms that more accurately describe the crimes, such ‘child sex abuse imagery’ or ‘child exploitation.’”

But this story revealed even things that hardened and experienced journalists could not have been prepared for.

“It was good to have reporting partners and editors who could help process what we learned,” Keller said. “So much of this is disturbing and depraved, but our goal was to channel that horrible information into a constructive purpose by exposing a broken system and drawing attention to the people it had failed. And it goes without saying, there are so many good people out there trying to set this straight. They are just being outrun by the criminals.”

The reaction to the story has been strong, Keller said.

“We’ve received a lot of positive messages from readers who feel this is an important story to be told even if they didn’t always like reading it,” Keller said. “We knew it was a subject that would make people uncomfortable, but we tried to make it accessible in presentation and noteworthy in its conclusions so it would be worth the effort. People get that silence, or just hoping the problem will go away, aren’t going to help these kids.”

It’s not an easy story to read, but it’s one you absolutely should.

Another smart idea by the NYTimes

OK, sorry, I will have one impeachment item today. The New York Times has started an Impeachment Briefing, which is a special edition of the Morning Briefing newsletter that explains the latest in the impeachment inquiry. The newsletter typically goes out early in the evening Eastern time.

Items usually include what happened that day, what to expect next and a roundup of stories to read, including links to stories printed by other publications such as The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. You can sign up here.

Print cuts are just a sign of the times


(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Starting this week, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is publishing a print product just three days a week — Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays. More than a year ago, in August 2018, the paper cut the Tuesday and Saturday editions. The Post-Gazette announced earlier this year that it was going down to three print days a week.

The Post-Gazette continues to produce journalism around the clock on its website.

In a statement, Post-Gazette general manager and vice president Lisa Hurm said, “While we know that many of our readers are comfortable with print, we encourage them to try our digital products. Digital is a superior means of delivery for what we intend to be, an even better and more in-depth journalistic product.”

What’s interesting is the Post-Gazette’s decision to kill the Monday print product now, thus eliminating a print version of what is consistently one of the biggest stories in the area: Pittsburgh Steelers’ games, which are typically played on Sundays.

In fact,  Pittsburgh Newspaper Guild president Michael Fuoco has been quoted as saying that making this move during Steelers’ season was a “bullying tactic.” Fuoco said he has concern for older readers who don’t use the digital product.

Three takeaways:

One, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Post-Gazette did time this change to football season. What better way to drive digital traffic than have the biggest story in town available only on the website?

Two, while the Guild might be concerned about older readers who prefer the print product to digital, the idea here is to attract younger readers. They are the future.

Three, the Post-Gazette will not be the last major metropolitan newspaper to cut its print product to three (or fewer) days a week. This is just the start of what someday could become the norm rather than the exception.

Tweet of the day

My favorite tweet Tuesday came from Dallas Morning News staffer Nataly Keomoungkhoun, who linked to the DMN story about former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger being found guilty of murdering her neighbor.

Her tweet included a link on how to subscribe to the Morning News and she added:

“Reporters at @dallasnews have been covering #AmberGuyger‘s murder trial from the very beginning. Many national outlets swoop in to cover the story. We’ve been here. Support local news.”

A local investigation done right

I typically put some of the best journalism of the day in the Hot Type section at the bottom of each day’s newsletter, but today I want to give a little extra recommendation to an excellent project from The Greenville (South Carolina) News.

Lethal Force is an 11-part series looking at police shootings in South Carolina. The project shows that the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office has pulled the trigger more than any other police department in that state over the past decade. In its six-month investigation, The News, looking at data from the past 10 years, found that blacks are shot more often than whites, some officers fail to use their body cameras, and some go weeks without telling their version of the shooting to investigators. In addition, some shootings are never reported to state authorities.

This is important, well-done, local-level work that tells a story that’s critical for readers.

Hot type


Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar )

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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