It might come as a surprise to readers of The Leader that the people charged with putting it together every week – namely me – do not always choose the type of news we include. We strive to keep our community informed, engaged and entertained, and sometimes that entails reporting the most significant things that happen in the days leading up to publication.
The top two stories in last week’s edition, for example, were not even on our radar when we put the finishing touches on the previous newspaper. And in a perfect world, we wish we would not have had to tell either story.
We found out July 3 that a well-known and well-liked restaurateur in the area had died suddenly and unexpectedly the night before, and we knew immediately that it was a story we needed to relay to our readers and display prominently in our next edition. I wanted to do justice to the life and legacy of Tony Vega, who embodied the quintessential American dream while owning Tony’s Mexican Restaurant in Shady Acres and serving as pastor at a church next door, so I made it our centerpiece story with the big, bold headline, “Welcome home,” which Vega was known to say to customers as they entered his dining room.
What ended up being the second-most viewed story on theleadernews.com last week was the unrelated story we stripped across the top of the front page, a space that’s usually reserved for punchy, hard-hitting news that you may not have seen or read about elsewhere. I had gotten a tip from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office about a man who is accused of assaulting or exposing himself to multiple women as well as a minor in the Heights area earlier this year. Considering the nature of the alleged offenses and the possibility there could be more community members who had been victimized, it also was a no-brainer of a story.
That led to a small backlash from readers that I believe is important to address.
We received emails from Humphrey Hughes and Jean Neundorfer, who both complimented the story about Vega and said it was tarnished by being placed below a story about a man accused of stalking female joggers and gratifying himself while riding a bicycle.
When I read the second email that was sent by Neundorfer, who suggested the latter story was sensational and “could have been hidden inside” the paper, I thought the criticism might have been called for and perhaps we should have given that story a less-prominent spot.
Then, about an hour later, I got an email from an area woman who will remain anonymous. That’s because she claimed to have been victimized by the same man we wrote about, the one already charged with six misdemeanors and one felony related to indecency. She reached out after reading my story and asked for contact information for the Houston Police Department so she could file a complaint.
I knew right then that we had made the right call after all. Because while crime stories aren’t always enjoyable to read, and they can be gut-wrenching to write, they serve a critical function in our role as community journalists.
It’s our duty to the neighborhoods we serve to help keep them safe and let them know when there might be a threat to their wellbeing or that of their families and friends. And if we can have a hand in removing such a threat or at least minimizing it, well, we take that responsibility seriously.
We take much the same approach to the COVID-19 stories we’ve reported during the last four months. We know many of you are tired of hearing about it, but we still have a responsibility to keep you informed so you can keep you and your loved ones safe. It would be irresponsible of us not to relay the concerns and recommendations of local elected officials and the medical professionals who help to inform their decisions.
Could we have made the decision to put the story about alleged sex crimes somewhere other than the top of the front page? Of course we could have, and we almost did.
I debated whether to put a more lighthearted crime story in that spot, one about a burglary in the Heights in which the suspect took scented oils, candles and a can of soda, among other things. But a mentor suggested that the other crime story, in which people were harmed as opposed to possessions, would better serve the public interest. The mentor also mentioned that such a story could bring related incidents to light.
Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.
If we had to do it over again, I’m not sure we could have done it any differently. One thing our publisher, Jonathan McElvy, stresses in our newspaper is that our job is never to seek out the news we want to tell. Our job is to relay the most important stories of the day.
In this case, it’s unfortunate that we lost a community icon around the same time law enforcement was building a case against someone accused of perverting our streets. Sexual predators have been a consistent issue in our community, and our ability to help create awareness and ease public concern is just as important as telling the story of one of the most respected men in our area.
We don’t always get it right in The Leader, as hard as we may try. In this case, we did our best to present readers with the most important news of the week. Sometimes, that responsibility creates an enormous juxtaposition in the stories we present, but we take that job seriously.
Neither was a story we wanted to tell in the first place. Both deserved your attention.