Gerber: Flood of response on 'Tempest'

Gerber: Flood of response on 'Tempest'

July 1st, 2012 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

More than 50,000 page views.

Upwards of 300 emails.

Nearly 20 letters to the editor.

More than a dozen tearful phone calls.

We weren't sure how readers would react to the newspaper's front-page centerpiece last Sunday, "Tempest in My Soul," a story about the clash between faith and homosexuality.

Truth be told, we were a little nervous about how the story would be received in this town, where more than few people can name all the books of the Bible and grocery stores are empty on Sunday morning.

But starting Sunday morning, the day the story ran, the emails started rolling in. They came from Red Bank and Hixson and Ringgold, from Atlanta and Knoxville and Nashville.

Then from Oklahoma and Wisconsin, San Diego and Palo Alto in California. And from places like Nicaragua and Kenya.

A handful -- fewer than a dozen -- were angry, disappointed, even disgusted. But most people wrote to thank reporter Joan Garrett for a beautiful story, to tell her they read all the way to the end, to say they found her storytelling to be dispassionate and fair.

Many said they empathized with Matt Nevels, the Southern Baptist minister who lost his son to AIDS, and respected the position of Dr. Fred Steelman, former pastor of Red Bank Baptist Church, who never wavered from the stance of his church but in the end extended a hand of friendship to Nevels.

Some thanked the newspaper for having the courage to publish the story.

The letters came from members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and from parents of gay children. From numerous ministers, a rabbi and one monk. From those who think homosexuality is a sin and those who think church teachings on homosexuality cause division and pain. From believers and nonbelievers.

And some came from people who haven't decided where they stand on homosexuality, but said the story prompted them to think about their beliefs.

Many email writers and callers said they had never before contacted a reporter, but felt compelled to do so. One caller told me he picked the paper up early Sunday morning and read the whole story standing in his driveway in his pajamas.

The story went viral. Fast. Some teachers used it to spur discussion in their classes Monday morning. Pastors forwarded the link to their church members, children to their parents.

MSNBC.com picked up the story and novelist Anne Rice posted it on her Facebook page. Blogs and aggregator websites picked it up. Even Baptists Today magazine linked to it.

The reaction reaffirms my faith in the power of newspapers.

It offers a loud-and-clear statement: Readers want stories about how the issues we struggle with as a society really impact individual lives. With complex topics, they want storytelling and not talking points.

They desire to understand the community they live in and don't just want to read journalism that validates their opinions. They want stories that help them make sense of the walls that divide us but are still respectful and fair.

They will read long stories, if they're compelling, even in a day of quick-hit Web stories, tweets and Facebook posts.

There are a lot of topics that cause friction between people. Maybe some people think it best not to risk writing about them. But we don't shy away from these stories because we believe in their impact.

On Saturday night, the staff that put this story together felt like they had done good journalism, but they didn't know what to expect. Every day since then, we have been humbled by the response.

There is nothing that an editor or reporter wants to hear more than this: I wasn't bored. I read to the end. It was fair. It was accurate. I was moved. I will look at my neighbors differently now.

Thank you for reading.

Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@timesfreepress.com. To read "Tempest in My Soul," go to timesfreepress.com/tempest.