If your idea of investigative journalism puts it in a giant newsroom with an array of reporters and layers of editors with numerous resources at their disposal, guess again. In a small downtown office with three reporters, one editor and borrowed furniture, The Lens, a Web site centered on New Orleans, hopes to become part of a new model for investigative reporting. Like others in a burgeoning field that includes Voice of San Diego, Texas Tribune and the St. Louis Beacon, it is regionally based and is trying to take up and expand in-depth reporting, which many newspapers have cut back on due to dwindling profits and staff cuts. It's an attempt to solve the question: With so much access to free information through the Internet, why would anyone want to pay for journalism?
Steve Beatty, managing editor at The Lens, says the answer lies in the fact that while paid subscriptions to daily newspapers are dramatically dropping, almost as many people are still reading a paper, either in print or online. Next month, The Lens Web site (www.thelensnola.org) launches officially, although it is currently up and reporters Brentin Mock, Karen Gadbois and Ariella Cohen are posting stories. For Beatty, it's a matter of convincing the public that some news is worth paying for, and he's betting The Lens will become part of the solution.
"It's probably a jump-start, a bridge to get us to a mechanism where people will realize if they want reliable information, they'll have to pay for it somehow," Beatty says. "It's a life preserver right now for journalism."
Beatty has impressive reporting credentials. He worked as an assistant city editor at The Times-Picayune for 15 years before he left in 2005 to join the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC). He eventually became AJC's watchdog editor with a team of four reporters. Their articles, featured in the paper's Sunday edition, usually took four to five weeks to complete and were long investigative pieces covering politics, education and public policy. Beatty says the AJC position was his dream job, but it was in the wrong city. While he no longer has the resources of a large city paper like AJC, he does see an advantage for The Lens.
"Even if we spent two, three, four weeks on one story, which I think we'll be able to do, that's far more time than most newspapers are able to afford these days," Beatty says. "Most newspapers are shutting down their investigative teams per se and doing away with these month or yearlong investigations that result in a four-day running series. That's one thing we have. We don't have the burden of a daily deadline."
The Lens, which also will offer shorter news items and some opinion pieces by bloggers, has time on its side because, unlike commercial media outlets, it isn't dependent on advertising revenue to pay its bills. For the most part, the Open Society Institute (OSI), a charitable foundation started by billionaire philanthropist George Soros, is financing the site. The Lens received a grant of $150,000 for its first year with consideration for continued funding based on an annual review. (The Lens also has two smaller sponsors, The Zeitoun Foundation and Transforma Projects.) While this article was being written, Soros visited New Orleans, and The Lens interviewed him and reported on the conversation through a series of videos and a written piece.
"George Soros is a world figure," Mock says, adding that any media outlet would want to interview him. "We had to beat the trees. I was not guaranteed (an interview) — we cried and bitched and whined. It was the same as if (President Barack) Obama came in."
The idea for The Lens began with Cohen and Gadbois. Cohen moved to New Orleans in 2008 to work as a reporter for New Orleans CityBusiness, a weekly paper, and met Gadbois through Cohen's coverage of land-use stories. Gadbois was recognized for advocating historical preservation through her Web site, www.squanderedheritage.com, which tracks building demolitions. In the summer of 2008, Gadbois became known as a "citizen journalist" as well when she uncovered the initial material on a scandal involving the New Orleans Affordable Homeownership program. Gadbois turned the information over to then-WWL-TV investigative reporter Lee Zurik, who broke the story and then collaborated with Gadbois to develop it into an award-winning investigative series.
Cohen left CityBusiness in January, and she and Gadbois began talking about starting a Web site where the public could find information about land-use developments. With input from Ethan Brown, journalist and author of the post-Katrina book Shake the Devil Off, and as a result of their work with the New Orleans Institute, however, Gadbois and Cohen expanded their vision to include other public concerns including criminal justice, the economy, the environment and politics. In the spring, Gadbois brought the revised idea to Jed Horne, a former city editor for The Times-Picayune who left the paper in 2007.
Horne was enthusiastic and agreed to become the project's editor, although Gadbois says Horne, who isn't currently being paid by The Lens, is more of a mentor than "a day-to-day guy." Horne helped Gadbois and Cohen organize a plan to present to potential investors, and in August, Soros' OSI agreed to finance the project. At first, Horne says, the idea was to call the site "Public Record" and have it serve as a communication and research tool for the New Orleans Coalition on Open Governance, an alliance of several local organizations concerned with transparency in government. Basically, the site would provide the public with records centered on the coalition's concerns. It became apparent, however, that simply posting government data wouldn't be enough; a narrative was needed.
"There is this interpretative function that has to happen between a raw document and the reading public," Horne says.
Once Gadbois and Cohen had secured initial funding, they had to find a managing editor (who would basically be their boss), and Horne recommended Beatty, his former assistant. Since his return to New Orleans, Beatty has been working as an investigative reporter for the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a conservative libertarian nonprofit organization, and has covered stories such as incorrect or exaggerated job figures reported under Obama's stimulus package or problems surrounding ACORN. Although the organization he worked for has a political agenda, Beatty says he wrote these articles in a straightforward and unbiased manner.
He isn't the only Lens staff member who has written for groups with an ideological bent. Mock has covered New Orleans and the Gulf Coast for The American Prospect, a progressive magazine, and he is a regular contributor to the online African-American magazine The Root, for which he has written a number of opinion pieces. Cohen says she's not shy about her values, and Gadbois is regularly described by the local press as "an activist." None of this bothers Horne, who maintains The Lens will take a nonideological posture.
"You don't get cutting-edge journalists that don't have strong opinions," he says. "Good cutting-edge editors are able to challenge those opinions and preconceptions to make sure that they don't become lazy thinking."
As a veteran newspaperman, Horne still sees the daily paper as a central point of information. He thinks, however, that The Lens will be able to cover items The Times-Picayune misses, and that those articles will be aimed at what he refers to as "the realm of decision makers," with a more analytical approach to the news. He hopes the new Web site will add to public discourse, "something everyone can share in."
For The Lens, sharing will extend to other media organizations. Rather than strictly competing with other media outlets, The Lens hopes to partner with some of them and has had discussions with local radio stations as well as The Louisiana Weekly and The Louisiana Data News Weekly papers. Gadbois already has enlisted Zurik, who is now at WVUE-TV. Beatty says The Lens and the television station have a joint reporting agreement, which Zurik confirmed.
"We'll have kind of co-bylines on each other's publications, theirs being television and ours being a Web site," Beatty says. "So you might tune in one night and find a continuing investigation by Fox 8 and then 'The Lens has discovered' such and such rather than 'a local Web site has reported this.' We will have an authoritative voice with them."
The Lens also is collaborating with a several organizations on a national level, including Investigative News Network, Project on Government Oversight and the Center for Public Integrity (CPG). Currently, CPG serves as The Lens' fiscal agent — Cohen says they are working on getting nonprofit status — and its mission is similar to what the New Orleans Web site aspires to be. CPG, located in Washington, D.C., was established in 1989 and has a large staff of experienced journalists that produces online nonpartisan investigative reports in order to make government more transparent and accountable. It is funded through foundations and individual contributions, the type of network The Lens wants to develop.
"Our hope, I think it's true of these news sites generally, is that we can combine sponsorships and memberships in the way public radio has, for example," Horne says.
The Lens isn't intended to compete with the daily papers, but instead wants to fill in some of the news holes created by the shrinking newspaper business. Staff sizes have plummeted in the past years. When Beatty started at AJC, there were 530 people in the editorial department, and just 230 when he left four years later. Many newspapers no longer can afford to invest reporters' and editors' time in the kind of in-depth stories that can take as long as a year to investigate and write. In 2002, The Times-Picayune published the award-winning five-part series "Washing Away," which warned of New Orleans' vulnerabilities should a major hurricane hit the area. Veteran reporters Mark Schleifstein and John McQuaid co-wrote the piece, which took numerous staff hours, extensive interviewing and a host of other resources to complete. Whether or not the city's daily newspaper still has the means to undertake such a story is difficult to answer, but Beatty sees the landscape of journalism changing for both journalists and the public.
"You need to read it all if you want to be informed," Beatty says, "and I think that's what we hope to be: a supplemental piece of information for the city that takes a deeper look at things."