May 23, 2012

Worth the wait

Having bad news appear on the front page of a local newspaper is easy.

Getting the attention of a reporter – and editor – for good news is the challenge.

When our bishop closed a local church in 2008, the handful of members took their fight to the press. Even though attendance had dipped to single digits, the church was important to those faithful few.

Our bishop acknowledged this attachment but felt strongly that the church building and facility could make a more meaningful contribution to the surrounding community. Located in a poverty-stricken neighborhood with high crime and few dreams, our bishop envisioned a place that would work with neighbors to transform the community.

Nevertheless the stories in the newspaper were wrenching tales of people losing their faith home. And the interview and subsequent reporting of the bishop’s comments were disappointing and misleading.

It’s easy for bad news to make the paper.

As this former church building began its new ministry, it was much harder to get the attention from the reporter and editors. Every three or four months, I would send an e-mail to the reporter, copied to the editor, telling them about the progress of the ministry. Now called Gabriel’s Place, the church building was being used nearly every day, instead of just Sundays. A dozen of more community partners joined forces, with an initial focus on food.

The urban neighborhood is known as a food desert, a place where healthy and affordable food is hard to attain. The last grocery store closed in 2008.  Today Gabriel’s Place offers garden plots for local residents, a greenhouse, fish hatchery for tilapia, an industrial kitchen and youth cooking classes. This mix of sustainable projects came from direct conversation with residents and leaders about their most pressing needs.

Four years after the initial stories ran – and a dozen or so story pitches, I received an e-mail from the reporter.

“Sorry to have been out of touch. Way too much going on here to stay sane. That said, I was struck and interested in Gabriel's Place when you pitched the idea to me late last summer … I now have a much better understanding of Gabriel's Place and the brilliance of the idea that the bishop and his committee put together.

“I am writing a story for the weekend … and I can't do it justice without a voice from the Episcopal Diocese. In a day and age of mega churches force-feeding their idea of goodwill down a neighborhood's throat, it is so nice to see a religious body listen to a community and work in collaboration to develop a ministry.”


We immediately set up a phone interview with the bishop. I prepped some talking points and at the close of the interview, the bishop asked the reporter about his new book on Haiti. They began to build a relationship.

The interview went well, we thought. But you never know how a story will shake out until it’s printed. So we waited.

Yesterday, patience and persistence paid off. On the front page of The Cincinnati Enquirer, above the fold, the headline read, “When Avondale said it needed healthier food and a community center, a church listened and created Gabriel’s Place.”

A How to Help box accompanied the story on the front page, and the jump of the story covered about two-thirds of the page and included a nice picture and great information about the ministry.

Working with the media is an inexact science. What appeals to one editor might be shot down by another. Reporters bear enormous stress to deliver dynamic stories, despite facing diminished news hole, possible lay-offs and competition by bloggers, TV, radio and Internet outlets.

But I learned two important lessons here:

  • We were really upset with how the initial story was handled. But you can’t break ties with a reporter or newspaper because you don’t like how they covered one story. Sometimes, you’ve got to suck it up and move on, repair the relationship and try again.
  • Keep planting the idea. God’s time (and that of newspapers) is different than ours. You never know when an idea might take root.

I don't know how many of the newspaper's 170,000 subscribers read the story, and we'll see how many respond. But no amount of marketing or advertising could have better shared our mission of who we are as a church and as a people trying to live into God’s call.

“A church listened.”

It was worth the wait.