Mea culpa: Houston, this time the problem was me

I screwed up.

In a post Tuesday, I reported wrongly that the Houston Chronicle managed only 262 words of coverage on a major religion story in its own city — the narrow decision by the First Presbyterian Church of Houston to remain in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). “A glorified news brief,” I disparagingly referred to it.

In fact, the Chronicle devoted more than 800 words to Sunday’s vote and gave the decision front-page play.

I apologize to the Chronicle and senior reporter Mike Tolson, who handled the story. Neither deserved the negative treatment I gave them.

“No news outlet gave this matter more coverage than the Chronicle,” Tolson said in an email pointing out my “glaring error.”

My original post suggested — erroneously — that The Texas Tribune gave three times more space to the story than the Chronicle. 

How did I mess up so badly? I’ll attempt to explain. But first, more from Tolson:

What Mr. Ross saw, obviously, (were) the quick few paragraphs we put up on our website shortly after the results were known. News outlets that publish every day often will quickly update their websites with breaking news, then come back later with lengthier articles. The Texas Tribune put out a lengthier story quicker than we did, including background material that we had already put in our earlier stories. On Sunday, we waited to speak with Pastor (Jim) Birchfield and a leader of the opposition before going up with the longer piece. I would have thought your reporter would have made at least a cursory effort to see if the Chronicle had published anything else but those few paragraphs.

I encourage Mr. Ross to do a bit of research before he slams a news organization for all but ignoring a local issue of significance.

Here’s what happened: Matt Curry, a former colleague from my days with The Associated Press in Dallas and now a Presbyterian pastor in Waxahachie, Texas, posted a link to the Tribune story on his Facebook page. When I Googled for other coverage of the decision, the short Chronicle report was the only one that showed up.

In the past, we at GetReligion have had trouble reading Chronicle stories because they’re typically buried behind a paywall. As our editor Terry Mattingly notes, “Clearly, we cannot pay the fees for every newspaper in the country. Often, readers send us a full text and then we write about that text — while clearly noting to readers that the product is firewall protected.”

In this case, I saw that the Chronicle story was dated Sunday, Feb. 23 — with a note that it had been updated at 6:23 a.m. Monday, Feb. 24 — so I assumed that it was the version that appeared in the paper. We all know bad things happen when a journalist “assumes.” I did a few other quick searches to see if perhaps the Houston paper had produced more in-depth coverage in advance, but those searches turned up nothing. In retrospect, that’s probably because the excellent work that Tolson did previewing the vote was hidden behind a paywall.

In fact, a week before the Presbyterian vote, Tolson and the Chronicle produced a gigantic Sunday takeout — roughly 2,800 words starting on the front page. The piece outlined the key issues and players involved. Since the link probably will take you to a single paragraph with a note that you will need to be a digital subscriber to keep reading, here’s a snippet:

Biblical vs. secular

To hear the members tell it, the fight is about the evils of relativism, inclusion and modernity itself — about the church’s national leaders slowly walking away from long-held beliefs even if they are rooted in God’s own word. Or it’s about narrow-mindedness and being told what to think instead of a shared journey marked by thoughtful inquiry — about those with narrower views shutting out a different take on Scripture because of blind allegiance to orthodoxy.

PCUSA is a hindrance to the church’s purpose of increasing the size of Christ’s Kingdom, claim some members pushing for the breakaway who sent out a booklet to the congregation outlining the “drift” away from sound theology into secular concerns. Opponents say the people who started this rebellion were behind a similar effort more than 20 years ago and are interested in pushing FPC, perhaps unwittingly, into the realm of the Christian Right and causes that have little to do with the definition of marriage.

First Pres members who advocate leaving PCUSA speak of the importance of aligning with “like-minded” churches. “Like-minded” makes perfect sense to those who think that Scriptural interpretation has to be uniform one church to another, one worshipper to another. Otherwise, what is a denomination?

This past weekend, before the vote, Tolson produced another front-page report, this one on Birchfield proposing a new ministry called Lead Them Home aimed at helping gay people turn away from their same-sex orientation.

For those counting, that’s three front-page stories in nine days — hefty coverage by Tolson and the Chronicle.

I’ll say it again: I screwed up.

I beg your forgiveness and commit to do better.

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • tmatt

    Frankly, I am amazed this doesn’t happen more often, with the firewall era on the rise, with varying results on search engines.

    Do readers have suggestions on how to handle that?

    • Darren Blair

      Back when I was in high school, something was brought to my attention that might help with matters. Shoot me an e-mail if you want more details.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      The NYTimes has a 10-article per month limit if you link to a piece via their home page. However, if you get to it through a search engine, there is no limit. So what I do is look at their home page, copy the title of an article, paste it into DuckDuckGo and then read the piece. I’ve found this to be true for other pubs as well, except for the WSJ, which has a very high, wide and deep paywall. And Nick’s suggestion also works pretty well for me, too.

      • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

        Thanks for the insight, Thomas.

        On NYT, when I reach the 10-article limit on one browser (such as Chrome), I switch to another browser (such as Firefox) and so on. Or I change from my laptop to my iPad.

        On WSJ, I’ve found that if you copy and paste the headline or opening paragraph into Google and reach the story that way, it’ll show you the entire article.

        Alas, as a journalist, I hope the paywalls ensure bright futures for the industry. But as a reader, I enjoy as much free access as possible on the Internet. :-)

    • N. Gin Year

      There is no easy way around it. It is up to the news organization to make sure they publish new revisions of their article on the same pages – otherwise, the revisions get spread out as multiple articles and it can be difficult to find the latest revision in a search engine.

      Also, the publish dates on an article can be inaccurate or prone to error – I’m not familiar with the inner workings, but some organizations are probably trying to game Google News (and acquire more visitors) by messing with the publish times.

      Another way around some paywalls is, in Google Chrome, to right click a link and “Open in a New Incognito Window”. Each site is different. If you like the material you should pay for it.

      I speak as a technical engineer who has been interested in news reporting.

  • Nick Liao

    I was able to find the full article when I Googled “First Presbyterian” and “Houston Chronicle.” I find that some publications allow you to get behind the paywall if you go through Google.

  • Kimberly Winston

    Dude, s#!t happens. I know how you feel tho – there is nothing worse as a reporter than getting it wrong. We go on . . . .

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Thanks, Kimberly!


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