Ask a New Orleans blogger why they started blogging and you'll get a variety of responses: wanting to provide a written record of their life, striking out against the perceived inaccuracies of the mainstream media, connecting with friends and the thrill of seeing their work on the Internet. But if you ask them to pinpoint their inspiration, many will say the levee failures and a basic human need to give and receive information.
"The biggest thing that makes it an attractive medium is that interactivity," says Leigh Checkman, creator of the local blog Liprap's Lament. "You can constantly get responses from people."
Under normal circumstances, and even catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina, the blogging community is a virtual one: It's not face-to-face, but screen-to-screen. That won't be the case this Saturday, Aug. 22, however, when New Orleans bloggers get together for their fourth annual conference, Rising Tide, with comedian and writer Harry Shearer as the featured speaker. The event takes place at the Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center in Central City, and the main thrust is to provide and share information. It's not just for bloggers, but for anyone interested in New Orleans.
"We're trying to morph from a conference that was heavily about blogging to one that is more about the city, its culture and its past, future and present," says Rising Tide organizer Peter Athas, who writes his own blog, Adrastos.
Part of what inspired so many New Orleanians to become bloggers in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath was the high level of misinformation being promulgated by the national media, such as the levee failures being caused by improper maintenance by local officials. George "Loki" Williams — founder of the group blog Humid City and master of ceremonies of this year's conference — says he knew he had to give a local's perspective on the manmade disaster. He began live podcasts on the Humid City Web site via his cell phone the day after the storm.
"The first thing that went through my mind was, 'Oh my God, the mainstream media is going to screw this up.' And they did, across the board," Williams says.
According to Williams, blogging provided a forum for New Orleanians like Army Corps of Engineers watchdog Matt McBride and community activist Karen Gadbois to produce heavily researched citizen journalism that belied what was being reported in the national news, but didn't fit, as Williams puts it, "into a two-minute sound bite or a heavily biased Fox newscast." Others, like Checkman and Mark Folse, a New Orleans native who moved back to the city following the flood and wrote about his experience in his blog, Wet Bank Guide, offered a slice of life in the disaster zone.
By late 2005, local bloggers were finding each other. An Internet discussion group began, giving bloggers a chance to share tips and news. Someone suggested a conference, and Mark Moseley, aka Oyster, who writes Your Right Hand Thief spearheaded the effort with others, including Athas and Maitri Venkat-Ramani (Maitri's Vatul Blog). The inaugural Rising Tide conference was held Aug. 25-27, 2006, the weekend before the storm's first anniversary.
"The Rising Tide Conference will be a gathering for all who wish to learn more and do more to assist New Orleans' recovery in the aftermath of the natural disasters of both Hurricane Katrina and Rita, the manmade disaster of the levee and floodwall collapses, and the incompetence of government on all levels," Folse wrote on the first day of the conference.
Though local bloggers organize these conferences and the central theme is New Orleans' recovery and future, Rising Tide isn't for bloggers only, nor just for locals. Since the first conference, there has been an effort to get the information to a wider audience through live blogging, YouTube and other new media. Williams says he is promoting this year's event via Facebook and Twitter, two popular social media networks. Even if these efforts don't attract more attendees to the actual conference, it will create a permanent online record for anyone to access. Williams does, however, think this year's attendance could be the highest ever.
"This year we have the potential to break through and have a number of people there who wouldn't normally have come, simply because of the name recognition of Harry Shearer," he says.
Besides supplying many of the voices for characters on The Simpsons and partnering with fellow writer/actors Michael McKean and Christopher Guest on a number of films — most notably the pseudo-rockumentary classic This is Spinal Tap — Shearer, a part-time New Orleans resident, has blogged extensively on the city. He began as a media critic for the Huffington Post in May 2005, but like so many in the city, the levee failures and resulting devastation compelled Shearer to write multiple posts on a daily basis.
"I had already started this media criticism on the Huffington Post, and being privy to what New Orleanians were hearing in our media — The Times-Picayune and WWL (radio) — versus what people were getting from the national media, I saw a great and growing disparity," Shearer recalls. "Since I had this national platform, I had the opportunity to fill that hole or correct that disparity and say, 'Wait a minute. That's not what we're finding out here.'"
Shearer thinks there are many roles New Orleans bloggers play. Some are simply using their writing to vent frustration, a particularly therapeutic exercise during the long days and nights of the city's recovery. Others are part of an activist movement to bring attention to the plight of New Orleans, and some are trying to plug holes in the informational structure. Shearer casts himself with the third group, although he hesitates to call what he does citizen journalism.
"Basically, what I try to do is connect the work that real journalists do with a wider audience that might not be exposed to it because they think Anderson Cooper is really covering New Orleans," Shearer says.
Some in the local blogging community might argue with Shearer that there are true citizen journalists out there, such as the anonymous American Zombie, who has exposed much of the controversy surrounding City Hall's contracts for crime cameras. What most would agree with, however, are the reliable sources the organizers have gathered for the discussion panels.
Each year the Rising Tide committee comes up with a number of topics for panelists to discuss. The only subject that is repeated each year is politics, because, as Athas puts it, "we all touch on politics and everyone is interested." He chairs this year's politics panel, which will include Gambit's Clancy DuBos and John Slade, a local political cartoonist and host of a talk show on WBOK 1230-AM. Other panel topics include New Orleans culture, sports and health care.
Since these subjects are so far-ranging and could warrant their own separate conferences, organizers often try to limit the conversation to specific aspects of a particular topic. When Checkman thought about New Orleans and health care, she kept coming up with one word: stress. So she decided to arrange her panel with experts that deal constantly with this now-everyday feature of life in the city.
"Just through my own struggles with depression, even before the storm, and the things that I'm seeing now where I live, how can you not talk about this in some way?" Checkman says about the panel, which will be moderated by Holly Scheib, a doctoral candidate in public health. Panelists include Cecile Tebo, a mental health advocate and crisis unit coordinator for the New Orleans Police Department; Dr. Elmore Rigamer, medical director for Catholic Charities; and Sean Fitzmorris, an emergency medical technician.
Williams, a professional blogger who produces Web content for businesses, says the New Orleans blogging experience continues to be unique, and the grassroots phenomenon has shown its effectiveness as a populist movement.
"We've probably got more local bloggers in New Orleans than they do in New York City's five boroughs," Williams says. "It's unlike anything else that I know of, although if restrictions start loosening up in Iran, you might see more happening over there."