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:

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Houston, we have a Presbyterian ‘evangelist’ problem (correction)

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Correction: The Houston Chronicle’s coverage was much more extensive than reported below. Read our apology to the Chronicle and senior reporter Mike Tolson.

In her recent “State of the Godbeat 2014″ report for GetReligion, Julia Duin noted that the Houston Chronicle once had two full-time religion writers. These days, that big Texas paper has one writer covering religion, along with some other beats, Duin reported.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that a major religion news story in the nation’s fourth-largest city — the narrow decision by the First Presbyterian Church of Houston to remain in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — generated 262 words in the Chronicle. That’s a glorified news brief, folks.

I was pleased to see that The Texas Tribune gave about three times that much space to the story, although I found the headline and lede paragraph a bit misleading.

The Tribune’s headline:

Houston Church Opts Not to Defect From Denomination

The lede:

HOUSTON — An influential Houston church voted on Sunday not to defect from the nation’s largest Presbyterian body. The vote stands in marked contrast to a slate of wealthy Texas congregations that have left the denomination over a disagreement about biblical interpretation and homosexuality.

Here’s my question: At this point, wouldn’t most readers assume that a majority of members voted to stay in the denomination?

It’s not until the fourth paragraph that we learn otherwise:

The results were tight. Of the 1,681 members voting, 1,085 cast ballots in favor of leaving PCUSA. That was just 36 votes shy of the necessary two-thirds to align with the new evangelical denomination.

So, in other words, 65 percent of the church supported leaving the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), but the total fell just shy of the supermajority. Yes, that’s far below the 89 percent of Highland Park Presbyterian Church of Dallas members who voted last fall to leave the denomination. Still, the actual vote breakdown is a crucial detail that belongs in the first sentence, not the fourth, if you ask me. To the Chronicle’s credit, its short report did just that:

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Universalism at play? Or is this church split only about sex?

The Dallas Morning News — which dropped its paywall Oct. 1 — had an interesting story this week on a mainline Presbyterian church split. This is a big one, folks:

Members of Highland Park Presbyterian Church voted overwhelmingly Sunday to disassociate with its national body to join a more conservative denomination.

With a vote of 1,337 to 170, the church decided to leave Presbyterian Church (USA), the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country. Another vote cemented the church majority’s desire to join A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO), which was formed by former PCUSA congregations in 2012. Other churches, including First Presbyterian Church in Amarillo, have also recently made the move.

“By joining ECO, we are not walking away from our Presbyterian values; we are restoring them,” the Rev. Joe Rightmyer, interim senior pastor of Highland Park Presbyterian, said in a statement on the church’s website. “With this vote to change, we will still be in the rich stream of Presbyterian theology, and we are ready to begin working with other churches in a growing denomination that is guided by the same beliefs and tenets that direct us.”

At this point, here’s what I want to know: What exactly makes the new denomination more conservative? Conservative is such a subjective word.

Will the rest of the story provide insight into the specific theological and doctrinal issues at play?

Sort of.

But in general, this 630-word report (read: not a lot of space for a reporter to provide deep background) seems pretty disjointed and disorganized.

For example, the Morning News quotes a supporter of leaving the PCUSA up high:

Kent Krause, a church elder, said the debate about leaving PCUSA has been bubbling for decades.

Many members of the congregation disagree with the a la carte religious beliefs taken by the national body, he said.

“There’s disagreement to the extent that the church believes the PCUSA has adopted the universal approach that there may be lots of ways to salvation as opposed to what is the basic reformed belief that salvation through Christ is kind of the main [path],” he said.

OK. Universalism is, according to the church elder, a key issue. How do the opponents of the split respond to that claim?

Go ahead and cue the crickets, or click this link if you’re really curious.

The story moves from that issue into a paragraph of background on property issues related to the decision. (The Morning News does not mention this, but my GetReligion colleague Father George Conger tells me that Highland Park Presbyterian’s leaders have been talking to the breakaway Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth about how to leave. The diocese won a recent victory against the national Episcopal Church in the Texas Supreme Court. The court held ownership of church property is governed by what the deeds to the building say, not what the denominational hierarchy says. According to Conger, the Anglican wars in Texas appear to have cleared the way for conservative Presbyterians to quit the PCUSA and keep their buildings.)

But back to the real reason for the split …

Later in the story, there’s this:

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