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

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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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing