Community Impact Series: The Lens

Jun 5, 2012

A nonprofit investigative journalism outlet is zeroing in on some of the changes around post-Katrina New Orleans in a new way.

New Orleanians who had to rely on national news coverage after Hurricane Katrina to learn the fate of their city can probably identity with the frustration that the Lens co-founder Karen Gadbois felt each time an out-of-town reporter got a street name wrong or mixed up a certain ward or neighborhood.

“It was knowing that it was really valuable and important for us to get real specific news about streets and intersections and zip codes, etc.,” Gadbois says. “So I think that the birth of the Lens came from that crisis of reporting during Katrina, and continued because we saw that not just some things were different, but that everything was different.”

That “everything” included the level of specificity people wanted from news and public information, the way technology and online networks empowered more people to access and share that information, and the heightened level of civic engagement around New Orleans in response to all the failures Katrina laid bare. Gadbois has been at the forefront of that change locally, first as an independent blogger who blew the lid off a housing demolition scandal at City Hall, which led to an investigation by the FBI. Later, in 2009, she and journalist Ariella Cohen founded the Lens as a nonprofit, online investigative journalism outlet. The Lens joined the scene just as other changes were hitting the more traditional media market.

“We’re here to try to fill the gaps that are caused by economic downturns that have forced other news outlets to cut back on their staff,” says Steve Beatty, managing editor of the Lens. “So we kind of follow the traditional beat structure that other newspapers or TV stations have, but what we’re trying to do is look where others aren’t."

Beatty is a seasoned journalist who was once assistant city editor at The Times-Picayune, and later led an investigative team at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He says one area in particular where the Lens with its nonprofit model is making an impact is coverage of the city’s new and evermore complicated public school system. 

“There are 45 school boards in town that run charter schools and there’s no news outlet that can afford to go to 45 meetings a month,” Beatty says. “Through a series of grants we’ve been able to set up a freelance reporting corps. And we are able to cover each of those meetings every month and it provides information to the parents at the schools and to anyone interested in those schools or in the charter movement in general. It gives them a place to turn to where they can keep up with these things.”

While it was initially launched as a web site, concerns about digital access across the city led the Lens to partner with local TV news station Fox 8, with community newspapers, and with others to help reach a broader audience. And as post-Katrina change and reform movements roll on, Gadbois believes the local stories the Lens tracks have a resonance beyond the New Orleans area.

“We are sometimes seen as the canaries in the coal mine, so I think this is a great laboratory for these kinds of projects,” she says. “New Orleans is a compelling city, a compelling story, and I think we’re part of that compelling story.”

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