HISD Makes a Deal With the Chron (KTRU's Ghost Walks the Halls) (UPDATED)

Categories: Education

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Special access for a former colleague
At 4 p.m. today, the Houston ISD board will meet to review an independent audit of its magnet schools done by Magnet Schools of America. As Richard Connelly detailed in our report last week, there's a lot to be concerned about what with the report (still to be endorsed by the district) calling for some magnet programs to be shut down and transportation discontinued.

What was amazing last week, though, besides the report itself, was the depth of knowledge displayed by Ericka Mellon, education reporter for the Houston Chronicle. At the exact moment that most of the press was sitting down at a Friday press conference called by Superintendent Terry Grier, someone at the Chron pushed the go-button and Mellon's complete report appeared on line.

As it turns out, Mellon was given an "embargoed" copy of the report around 9 o'clock the night before and new head PR person Jason Spencer (he recently transferred over from the Chronicle where he was Mellon's immediate supervisor and editor) walked Mellon through it and any questions she had.

Naturally enough, other media outlets in town including the Houston Press were not happy. Embargoed reports are usually distributed en masse to the media to give them a chance to carefully read them over before publishing anything. And a lot of media outlets had been waiting on the magnet school report -- which HISD certainly knew, otherwise why call a press conference?

Granted, sometimes exclusive embargo deals are made -- as in the one the Chronicle did with the University of Houston and Rice University not to spill the beans about the sale of Rice's radio station KTRU to UH in return for an exclusive so that it could write a (very supportive) article about the business deal. (The difference in the two examples is that the magnet school study is one that everyone who covers HISD has been waiting for weeks for while the KTRU sale -- hey, which actually our blog Rocks Off got first -- was a secret business deal, a "scoop.")

So what, you say. That's just journalism in-fighting; who cares? Well, the explanation might make you care. HISD and Spencer have determined that since the Chronicle is "far and away the most read media outlet in the city" that it should be the one HISD hands its important stories to first -- and if instead you prefer to read the Press, or the Bellaire Examiner or Channel 13 or listen to the radio for your news or if you're a Spanish-language reader or viewer, well, you'll just have to wait.

And having hours upon hours, not to mention a spirit guide to help you digest the report, would tend to make it more accurate, as opposed to the rest of the media that had to scramble to put things together on deadline and then were taken to task by Spencer if they got something wrong. Can anyone say Catch-22? How about "transparency" -- the much ballyhooed word at HISD these days?

We caught up with Spencer today and he was not the least bit apologetic about what HISD had done; in fact, he gave us a "reality" check and basically told us to get used to it.

"It was part of our media strategy in the release of the report, and we decided that it would be in everyone's best interest for the report to go out for some reporter to have some time to analyze the report before it was released and to do a thorough examination of it, and we felt the Chronicle, because it has the largest reach, far and away the largest reach, in the city and because they have a reporter who's dedicated to covering education full time, that they would be the best ones to do it," he said.

Asked who the "our" was in "our media strategy," Spencer waffled a bit. "It was my decision. By 'our' I mean HISD. It was my decision. Dr. Grier knew it was my decision." When asked who else was involved, Spencer replied, somewhat, we assume, hyperbolically: "You could name however many tens of thousands of employees we have."

Then he set us straight:

"I know you'd like that it's just this big fair thing and everybody gets treated the same and everybody is the same, but that's not the case. If the New York Times had been covering this issue and wanted the story first, we would strongly consider giving them the story first. If 60 Minutes wanted the story first, we would strongly consider that. Those are gigantic media outlets who are going to set the tone for the discussion of the issue for days to come. The Houston Press isn't that.

"You got the news...it wouldn't be feasible for us to sit down with everybody individually in such a short time period to go through it. She [Mellon] got a copy of the report a little after 9 p.m. the night before it was released. ... I handed her the report, then went over it with her. You're acting like this is some big, nefarious, weird thing that never happens and the fact of the matter is this happens all the time. It's not uncommon for an entity to give an embargoed copy of a news story to a major media outlet. I'm sorry you don't like the reality and the reality is that you guys don't have the reach anywhere close to the reach that the guys at the Chronicle have," he said.

"The agreement was it wouldn't be published till noon at the time we started the press conference."

Asked if this was how HISD and its press office were going to operate from now on, that the Chronicle would always get the important reports first, Spencer said: "Each case we'll look at on its own merits and make the decision based on its own merits." Asked whatever other outcome could there ever be in the local market, given his previous statements, he responded: "I don't know, Margaret. All I can tell you is we're looking at everything on a case by case basis and what we think will just aid in getting our story out there for the most eyeballs to see it. "

So the Chronicle helps the school district to "aid in getting our [HISD's] story out there." Can't beat that.

By the way, the principals of the district got a briefing on the magnet school report around 9 a.m. that Friday -- three hours before the rest of the media, but 12 hours after Mellon.

Update: The Examiner chain of papers weighs in nicely with a strong editorial.


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26 comments
Reality Check
Reality Check

In other words, the Houston Press is using an entire column to whine that it did not receive special treatment like the Chron. This happens every day in journalism: big outlet gets spoon-fed the story because it sets the template for all smaller outlets to follow. This is PR 101 and I am laughing that the Houston Press is throwing a tizzy fit in public about it.

Sean Allen Suggs
Sean Allen Suggs

HA! Houston Press... Shame on you. sour grapes trumped up to conspiracy, classic Houston Press "Reporting"

Mliebrum
Mliebrum

I think the reasoning is poor, at best. HISD should want EVERY media outlet to report this hot topic correctly. So instead of a private meeting with Mellon, Spencer should have called everybody in to get that private tutoring. All he's done is make the other outlets mad. What's the Chronicle going to do, NOT report it?, if they don't get it first. Spencer gave away good will for nothing. And HISD needs good will as it flounders around at the moment.

Martha Liebrum

citizens
citizens

Media conglomerates like Hearst Corporation (Houston Chron) and Corporation for Public Broadcasting (NPR) are known for "shaping" the news. Smaller news outlets tend to be more independent and self-determining in their operating methods.

joel2
joel2

shame, the chronicle sucks really hard these days.

Robustonag1
Robustonag1

Maybe HISD would argue that education is NOT really about a free marketplace of ideas, and critical debate, but rather about spin aided by our local handmaiden of news, Houston's Leading Information Source.

Both are just businesses, right?

Guess there's a certain transparency about that.

Katy
Katy

Hmm... So they get exclusive rights to print a fluff piece simultaneous with the evtn happening in exchange for keeping a lid on things until the parties say "Go?"

Didn't that used to be called advertising?

Steve Olafson
Steve Olafson

Introspection has nothing to do with anything in this story. Clearly, HISD has decided to treat the local daily newspaper differently than all other media outlets. The wrinkle is that Mr. Spencer admits just that, and doesn't apologize for it.

You can argue that a fairer approach would be to invite all media to a background briefing and place an embargo on release of the report. That's what I would favor. Why they don't do it that way I have no idea, but I suppose it's to curry favor with Houston's leading information source.

Vitron32
Vitron32

Can someone more versed in journalism and PR clarify what the point is of an embargoed release?

Does it imply a quid pro quo in the sense of favorable coverage for getting the low-down in advance? When and why is this technique used?

MeyersMouthpiece
MeyersMouthpiece

Seriously? Everyone is just finding this out now? Mellon is probably on their payroll. She reports nothing but positive fake HISD news with Meyers as her source.

Observer
Observer

" . . . new head PR person Jason Spencer (he recently transferred over from the Chronicle where he was Mellon's immediate supervisor and editor) . . ."

That may be the most amazing part of the article. Mellon knows far more about HISD and journalism than Spencer ever did, or probably ever will, and yet he was her supervisor? HISD clearly recruits for non-talent.

Banjo Jones
Banjo Jones

Brutally honest, that Mr. Spencer chap.

Ruthie J Miller
Ruthie J Miller

The Chronicle's story about the Lamar high school library: http://www.chron.com/disp/stor...

The Houston Press's story about the Lamar high school library: http://blogs.houstonpress.com/...

I've been following Ericka Mellon for years. She writes clear, fair, balanced stories on the educational goings-on of Houston and Texas. She live-Tweets school board meetings. She is incredibly well versed in the social and political aspects of our schools -- all of them.

The education stories I've read from The Houston Press are mainly extreme, one-sided, and designed to secure page views, like the one linked above. I imagine HISD is tired of that as well.

Kleeverhaag
Kleeverhaag

That's insane policy, and Spencer defending it clearly sounds like someone's little bitch, as it were.

If, as many are saying, that the Chron pads its circulation by distributing to every podunk town to San Antonio, Dallas and the Louisiana border, couldn't any small school district outside Houston make the same case and choose the kid-gloves Chron treatment?

Hey, "We're bigger than the Huntsville Herald or Cold Springs Courier...give us your news now, and let us go easy on you!"

Brittanie Shey
Brittanie Shey

Not only did the Houston Press not get special access to the report, the elected members of the Board of Trustees did not get special access to it. Why favor the Chron over publicly elect figures?

Neethling32
Neethling32

Sean, 'conspiracy' just means an agreement to perform together wrongful, subversive or illegal acts.

I and plenty others think this agreement between the Chron and HISD is wrongful and subversive. Got a problem with that? Then tell us why. Don't use the sour grapes cliche; it makes it look like you have sour grapes against the Houston Press for not...well, I think you know.

Rpropiel69
Rpropiel69

Seems like a good idea, Banjo, that universal background briefing and simultaneous embargo. Why be so ham-handed about this, just to curry favor? Seems like the Chron wouldn't be that hard-hitting anyway, and now he's kicked a hornet's nest and risks alienating a bunch of media.

Brittanie Shey
Brittanie Shey

Exactly. Whether that's what really happens or not, that's certainly what's implied.

Jansansari
Jansansari

""Terry Grier has committed to running a transparent operation and I know he expects me to live out that philosophy. I wouldn't put my 14-year journalism career on the line for HISD otherwise."

-Jason Spencer

Brutally honest, perhaps. Introspective, perhaps not.

Fiorucci75
Fiorucci75

Ruthie,

Re the story you cite, there are 7 times the number of comments on the Houston Press site; couldn't one make the argument to Mr. Spencer that Houston Press readers are by far the more voracious, passionate consumers of educational news?

I suspect that HISD news is not a burning issue with Houston Chronicle readers, as most are empty-nesters or retired, with kids no longer in the system.

Reality Check
Reality Check

Well, I am not going to defend sharing this with a member of the media before your own trustees. If that indeed occurred, that's just dumb and shows that someone does not understand who they work for.

I'm just saying that giving large media outlets exclusives as a way to get your version of the story out and influence other subsequent versions is as old as news itself. Do you think the New York Times and CNN get all those scoops because of hard work? No, in many cases they are literally handed stories. That's not to say they don't seek to report them accurately and fairly, but there is a reason that happens: someone decided that they would be the best way to get the story out. The Houston Press surely knows this.

Clementdu
Clementdu

But I think the Chronicle has a strong, if not unparalleled, background of investigative reporting and watchdog journalism. Eclipsed perhaps only recently by its own on-the-ground coverage of Houston's cultural scene. Who in the world would suggest that they wouldn't be a completely honest broker with favored information?

Ruthie J Miller
Ruthie J Miller

That's my point -- The Houston Press puts up shocking, one-sided, inflammatory reports designed to incite. Those are the stories that get page views and comments. The same story on Chron has many fewer comments, but that's because the reporting is balanced and tells both sides.

FascianoR
FascianoR

Another thing the Press knows and has reported about, is what a softy the Chron is in so much of its coverage. That's one reason there's an alternative press to begin with: because dailies abandoned their franchise of investigative reporting and critical thinking long ago, when they found so many toes they'd rather not step on.

I don't think it's whining here by HP, even if embargoed releases are common in connection to the NYTimes and other nat'l media pacesetters.

And agree with you about the utter, utter dumbness of not sharing with your trustees before your media buddy.

Joliranchr
Joliranchr

Ruthie, truth be told: you seem easily shocked, inflamed and incited.

Little wonder you are writing about inanimate matter that can be consumed without push-back; voicelessly, defencelessly gazed upon and then swallowed, it's only recourse to place a small bone in your craw.

Scalian19
Scalian19

Is the flip-side that the Chronicle posts quotidian, balanced, sleep-inducing reports designed to soothe and smooth over any potential conflict?

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