New Media: Citizen Journalists and Bloggers in New Orleans New Media: Citizen Journalists and Bloggers in New Orleans
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New Media: Citizen Journalists and Bloggers in New Orleans

by Nathan Rothstein

July 19, 2010

How an influential group of citizen journalists and bloggers are keeping New Orleans honest.



 

New Orleans’s politicians and business leaders have always made backroom deals, but post-Katrina citizen journalism has finally established a means for holding public figures accountable. Take Karen Gadbois, who spent months during the spring of 2008 toiling over city property records and photographing blighted properties for her blog. She discovered that the New Orleans Affordable Homeownership Corporation (NOAH), created by the city to distribute $15 million to poor and elderly homeowners who needed their houses gutted and mold removed, had little to no oversight. Gadbois noticed that some properties on NOAH’s list of completed projects had not actually been touched; contractors were getting paid by the city for work that was not being done.

While she continued to blog about the story, she cultivated a working relationship with a local news anchor, Lee Zurik. At first, Zurik was hesitant to do the story. The mayor had recently threatened to “coldcock” him in a parking lot over a public-records request of his schedule, and he was uneasy about how viewers would react. Despite Zurik’s apprehension, WWL-TV quickly gave the story the green light. Inspired by Gadbois’s initial reporting, Zurick produced more than 50 segments about the NOAH issue. Before long, the program was shut down and the FBI began a criminal investigation.

Gadbois attributes her success to the fact that she signed her name to the blog: “If I’m going to call someone else out on something, I’m going to be right. I was willing to own what I say.” Her diligence and the traditional media’s willingness to trust her as a legitimate partner quickly led to significant change, and opened the door for a new investigative-journalism model for the city of New Orleans.

This year, Gadbois, with the help of Ariella Cohen and GOOD contributor Brentin Mock, launched the nonprofit website The Lens. The goal of the site is to provide room for the writers to explore and investigate stories related to New Orleans politics. The Lens staffers talk enthusiastically about the time they are given to work the stories they are interested in, which gives them a new type of independence.

“In New Orleans, you can’t get information over the phone. You need to meet with people face-to-face,” Thompson told me, face-to-face in New Orleans.

The ways in which new media have altered New Orleans illustrate the necessary bond between traditional media outlets, new journalism, and public policy. As the first five years after Katrina conclude, citizens of New Orleans hope their greater participation has created a city government that is more open, transparent, and accountable.

As the new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, begins his work, The Lens will continue to view city decisions closely, as its logo—a magnifying glass—suggests. In late May, The Lens requested a number of public records from the new administration, information regarding who received city credit cards and take-home cars, issues which had previously led to the resignation of several Nagin officials. Two days later, it received a form letter practically identical to Nagin’s public-records response, with none of the requested information provided. It reported the story online, and blogs from around the city have continued the reporting. By the time you read this, it may be a story on the front page of The Times-Picayune.

This article originally appeared in GOOD Issue 020: The New Orleans Issue, on newsstands now. Read more from The New Orleans Issue here.

Illustrations by Mitchell Paone.

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New Media: Citizen Journalists and Bloggers in New Orleans