As the community foundation leaders gather in New Orleans for their annual conference, it’s a good moment to catch up on the changing state of local news in the city.
Changes in the media landscape of New Orleans likely foreshadow what is coming to other communities and may show how community foundations can help foster healthy local information.
Later this fall, New Orleans will become the largest metropolitan area in the United States without a daily newspaper. The Newhouse chain, owner of The Times-Picayune, is cutting the newsroom staff in half and plans reduce print publication to three days a week.
The move is not surprising. Print advertising revenues are in decline, and we can expect to see similar reductions in print schedules in other cities as newspapers shift more effort into their digital platforms – Web, mobile and tablets. But those, too, have unproven revenue potential and are unlikely to support the large newspaper staffs of the past any time soon.
“In a city where not much of anything works, the newspaper does.
“I return to New Orleans often — to fish, eat and dance. But it is a particular pleasure to sit in one of the city’s many coffee shops and watch plain old folks jaw over The Times-Picayune, brandishing it like a weapon when they want to make a point.”
Some have questioned the cutting back from daily in New Orleans in particular – the newspaper reports one of the highest penetration rates (the proportion of potential readers who read the paper) in the country – more than 75 percent.
By contrast, many households lack broadband access, according to The Lens, a nonprofit news start up.
“There's a large part of this city that is very poor and not computer literate. For them, the newspaper, radio and TV are their regular sources of news. And one is now cutting back,” said Steve Beatty, managing editor of The Lens.
Also troubling are staff cut backs at The Times-Picayune, a storied news organization that has distinguished itself with tough award-winning investigations of police and other issues in the wake of Katrina.
The decline of the newspaper does set the stage for new experiments in producing local news and information in the community.
That is starting to happen in New Orleans, with considerable help from the Greater New Orleans Foundation.
The change began well before Newhouse announced the cutbacks earlier this year.
Josephine Everly, senior development officer at the Greater New Orleans Foundation, said that in the aftermath of Katrina, residents became more active and that meant their appetite for good information grew.
Before the storm, Everly said, “If people thought they were doing OK, and graft or misuse of funds didn’t impact them directly, they just went about their business.”
That changed after Katrina put the city in the national spotlight.
“It was just like someone flipped a switch. We had had enough,” Everly said. “There was just this general desire to hold individuals and organizations accountable. It was the citizenry. Civic engagement was off the charts. People were showing up for meetings. Neighborhood associations exploded. People realized that if they were going to get their lives back something had to happen at the grassroots level. Feeding into this was the need for information.”
That’s why the foundation got involved even though it does not have a media grant making program, Everly said. Instead, many of its news and information grantees generally focus on topics that are important to the foundation, such as education and governance. Everly said the foundation has invested more than $5 million in news and information work since 2006, nearly 5 percent of its total grant making for that time.
For example, the foundation has supported The Lens, the nonprofit news site founded in late 2009. With a 2012 budget of $480,000 and a staff of six full-time and two part-time, The Lens, produces investigative journalism with a focus on government and politics, environment, schools and land use – key topics in the post-Katrina recovery.
It describes its mission this way:
"Our aim is to report stories that others aren’t or can’t. Increasingly, traditional newsrooms are facing budget cuts and have been curtailing longterm investigative reporting because it tends to be the most expensive kind of work. We’re here to fill that gap. Without the pressures of filling a daily newspaper or newscast, our staff is able to dedicate significant time and effort into deeply reporting and analyzing information."
The Lens has won prestigious journalism awards and is a two-time recipient of Knight Community Information Challenge funding with sponsorship of the Greater New Orleans Foundation.
A 2010 grant from the Info Challenge enabled The Lens to create data visualizations in order to increase understanding of recovery spending. A 2011 grant enabled The Lens to increase transparency in local education with regular coverage of the city’s dozens of charter schools.
The Greater New Orleans Foundation has just won a 2012 information challenge grant. This one will fund the creation of news programming on WWNO, the local public radio outlet, which is currently devoted almost entirely to classical music.
Paul Maassen, general manager of WWNO, is leading that effort. The Lens and another foundation grantee, the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, will collaborate on producing content for the new effort.
Maassen hopes the effort will lay a foundation for a more ambitious plan to create a new nonprofit news website, The New Orleans Reporter.
The University of New Orleans announced in July that it would create the new site in partnership with WWNO and that the new organization will produce online, mobile and radio content.
Maassen said the new organization hopes to raise an annual budget of $1 million and have a staff of 10 when it launches. Launch date has not been set. Like many nonprofit news start ups, Maassen said, the expectation is that The Reporter will start with foundation funding and large donations to operate for about three years while developing other revenue streams.
“The key is to be able to diversity revenue sources." Maassen said. "Being too dependent on one revenue stream is not a good situation."
Sustainability is a puzzle that dozens of nonprofit news organizations are trying to solve. Interestingly, the Reporter starts with an advantage most do not have.
As a partnership with the public radio station, the Reporter, can immediately tap into WWNO’s development and membership expertise, Maassen said.
Maassen is also exploring collaborations with other news organizations and Beatty said The Lens will be a contributor.
These fledgling efforts won’t replace what the local newspaper is doing. The Times-Picayune will remain the largest news organization in the city, and hopefully will continue to do significant work.
But Maassen said local residents seem energized by the prospect of a new type of news organization.
“There seems to be real feeling of that this would be a good time to step up and do something. There's a certain amount of energy. It's always great to see that. I've been very inspired, talking to people and hearing what they're plans are and how we can work collaboratively,” he said.
While New Orleans does not provide a prescription for other local communities, early experience does suggest some ways community foundations can support local news and information:
- Help increase internet access in unconnected populations. (And don’t forget mobile phones as a key access point for many.)
- Support innovation in making information more accessible and interactive than the old newspaper story, such as data visualization.
- Foster collaborations that make effective use of limited resources and encourage community participation.
- Support development of business and revenue expertise for news start ups.
Update, Sept. 14: Instead of creating The New Orleans Reporter as a new nonprofit site, WWNO and New Orelans University will partner with The Lens, to strengthen the work of that existing site. Here's the announcement.