Living Stories

  • Remembering the Alamo — and the media’s role in its fate

    Reading Scott Huddleston’s latest update about the turmoil at the Alamo, I wondered how many people remember the roots of the problem and why the state of Texas got involved in the first place. I doubt casual readers know Scott deserves some of the credit for the changes — or the blame, depending on how you view the Alamo’s caretakers, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

    Scott Huddleston, reporter for the San Antonio Express-News
    Newspapers are very good at producing something we all know: the news article. But Scott has been writing article after article about the problems at the Alamo. In fact, his first story was published two years ago. Like many newspapers, we haven’t done a very good job tying those stories together online to give readers the context and history of the controversy. We’re not answering a basic question about the issue: How did we get here?

    Scott got involved when a tipster told him that some members of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas questioned the group’s leadership, and were forming their own splinter group to raise money for the Alamo.

    “I wanted the story to be more than ‘she said, she said,'” Scott told me. He began obtaining copies of contracts, emails, letters — anything that would shed light on what was going on at the Alamo. He found examples of questionable spending and a lack of focus. “Their biggest challenge was an inability to raise money for capital improvements,” Scott said.

    Sometimes a story is bigger than a single article

    Before his first article was published, Scott heard that the Dallas Morning News was working on its own story about troubles at the Alamo. Nothing gets a reporter’s heart pumping like another reporter chasing down the same story. He kept digging, partly because he didn’t want to get scooped by the Morning News.

    “I felt like I needed to be shaking the bushes just to keep up with them,” Scott said.

    After his first story about the rift was published, he filed an open records request with the state of Texas to find out how the Daughters were spending funds raised from license plates with Alamo themes. It turned out the Alamo only received a portion of the funds for upkeep.

    As more members of the Daughters publicly criticized the group’s leadership, some were expelled for speaking with the media, which led to more follow-up stories.

    Scott wrote at least 60 articles in the past two years that mentioned the Alamo and its troubled caretaker.

    “They deserve a lot of credit,” Scott said of the outspoken critics. State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, also took a keen interest in the issue and eventually wrote a bill that shifted more oversight of the Alamo to the state. The bill became law on Sept. 1 and significantly altered the role of the Daughters. The Texas General Land Office now oversees the Alamo, and will determine what role the Daughters will play as a contractor of the state. If a contract between the state and the Daughters isn’t signed by Jan. 1, control of the Alamo and the site’s equipment and property acquired with state funds must be transferred to the Land Office.

    Scott wrote at least 60 articles in the past two years that mentioned the Alamo and its troubled caretaker. Most stories were about the turmoil within the organization and its track record at the Alamo. For long, seemingly never-ending sagas like this, newspapers really need to devise a way to help readers see the whole picture.

    Google’s Living Stories project tried to address this problem. It’s no longer supported but it inspired ProPublica to generate a similar design that gives readers a timeline and easy access to past posts about the topic they’re interested in.

    Dipity is also cool — I made this timeline compiling most of Scott’s stories.

    It’d be great if newspapers came up with something like Living Stories. Sometimes a story is bigger than a single article. We ought to figure out a way to systematically tell that story in a compelling way.