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Partnership boosts accountability in New Orleans

by: Sally Duros |

The City of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana have a history of non-transparent governance and budgeting. But that is changing rapidly through a public media transformation — supported by a community foundation — that could be a model for other places reeling from environmental and economic storms. 

Eight years after Hurricane Katrina, post the BP oil spill and in the midst of a stressed economy, the Greater New Orleans Foundation took action to fortify a budding media system that serves its 13-parish region. GNOF’S goal was to avert a potential information desert.

The effort included winning a $100,000 Knight Community Information Challenge Grant to help expand the city’s NPR affiliate, WWNO, so it could provide local news.

A few short months later, in May 2012, the local newspaper, New Orleans Times-Picayune announced it would print only three days a week, making New Orleans the largest US city without a daily newspaper.

The potential information desert loomed more closely. Fortunately, other sources of news are emerging and partnering. Here are key lessons so far:

1. Identify gaps

“WWNO is the local NPR station — they are the only [public] news station of their size — of audience and reach— without local news programming,” said Josephine Wolfe Everly, Senior Development Officer for the Greater New Orleans Foundation.

The Knight grant will help change that.

Previously devoted almost exclusively to classical music, the station will build a news service to cover issues like education reform, arts and culture. WWNO will add a reporting staff and will partner with two local online news organizations, one of which – The Lens – is a Knight Community Information Challenge winner. - Knight Announcement

The Knight Challenge grant requires a one-to-one match. WWNO contributed $90,000 and The Lens contributed $10,000, bringing the total committed to this program to $180,000 and $20,000 respectively.

In addition to WWNO and TheLens, other collaborators include NOLAVie, a cultural and arts site, and the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. 

“Partnerships are always tricky to negotiate but in New Orleans they make sense economically and programmatically, said Paul Maassen, General Manager of  WWNO. “If I partner here I will get a lot more done – the economics make sense.”

“[Partnerships are] starting to happen in some other communities across the country. We may be one of the places where we see the first wave of this. Perhaps we can help develop a kind of model. Here’s what worked for us. Here’s what didn’t. Here’s what public media can do for your community, “ he said.

2. Assess the pace of news and need for information

New Orleans has seen a lot of news in a short time. Maaseen cites major changes in the schools, the police, the politicians.

“It is hard to find an area that hasn’t somehow been transformed or isn’t working differently from before and it’s changing fairly rapidly,” Maassen said. “Rapid change creates a lot of stories,” he said. 

Partnerships also arise from need. New Orleans has had a surplus of need, as well as heightened awareness among the residents that things needed to change.

“After Katrina, residents had had quite enough,” said Everly. “Once Katrina happened everyone had to start focusing on the needs of the city collectively,” she said. “There was this heightened sense of needing to understand “What is the funding? Who are the decisionmakers. And data, reliable data became so important,” she said.

The data was essential for any stakeholder who had to decide whether they were going to come back and rebuild.  And it was essential to document and tell the stories of New Orleans in recovery.

“This heightened sense of civic engagement and interest and that strong need for reliable data really fed into the genesis of the community information work we are seeing now,” said Everly.

3. Work with powerful players; encourage partnerships

Today’s current information landscape did not assemble on its own. It emerged from fertile ground supported in 2007-2008 by The New Orleans Coalition on Open Governance, which has funding from George Soros’ The Open Society Foundations.  

Post Katrina, the call went out from Soros folks saying they wanted to help create a coalition. Soros took a strong stand on collaboration, saying Open Society would not fund any one of the members if they did not agree to work with each other.

It was an all or one proposition.  

The Lens was a founding member of that coalition.

“George Soros' progressive politics might give some reason to pause as might the fact that The Lens is housed in the offices of a Fox news affiliate,” said Steve Beatty, Editor for The Lens.

“The combination [of Rupert Murdock and George Soros] kind of makes people's heads explode,” Beatty said. But "we play it as straight as we can.”

4. Forget ownership. Loosely couple – then disengage

The community foundation had a limited but key role convening the coalition.

“We do not have wealth in New Orleans. Our philanthropic sector is very poor. We are home to only three fortune 500 companies. And we do not have the corporate wealth that you see in other cities,” said Everly.

“The programmatic view point of the coalition was ‘How do we promote, sustain and support the nonprofit ecosystem in New Orleans with trainings, technical assistance, grants and other outreach?’ ” said Everly.

“We were approached and asked to convene the group and serve as fiscal agent for the funding. Early on, we did sit at that table to help get the group off the ground but then we stepped back and let them take ownership of their mission and vision and goals,” she said.

Early on GNOF provided technical assistance with proposal writing, budgeting and capacity building. The community foundation’s vice president for marketing helped the coalition create an identity and a brand.  

5. Open your rolodex and connect across silos

Like many community foundations, GNOF has little funding capacity of its own.

“Most of our assets are tied up in donor-advised funds that we do not control,” said Everly.  “So we have had to find other ways to build local capacity in the non-profit sector by connecting, by encouraging partnerships and really breaking down the silos.”

Much of their work is connecting national funders to the needs they see in their region, and holding donor education events to inform and engage philanthropists from all sectors.

“It’s at that level of personal connection,” said Everly.

The grant comes at a possible tipping point for the New Orleans news and information ecosystem.

It’s been a long ride to independence for The Lens, which finally received its 501©3 status in December 2012 after waiting more than two years. 

The Lens has 10 people on staff and is looking to hire two more probably in the first year. If some grants come through, The Lens budget will be approaching $1 million. The metro area is 1.3 million for radio and TV reach, and The Lens website is attracting  2,000 people per day.

With this new partnership, local news from The Lens will be featured on radio, television and print, Beatty said. 

“It gives us a bigger megaphone and it gives us access to a different audience,” Beatty said. “Right now we focus on the City of New Orleans. We are adhering to the notion of ‘Write once and publish many.’ ” 

The Lens plans to spend their $20,000 to hire a part-time radio producer, who will teach the Lens  “how to fish.” 

“After 20 years in the print journalism business it’s like witchcraft to me how they get things on the radio,” Beatty said.

(The Lens was previously awarded two Knight Community Information Challenge grants with sponsorship by the Greater New Orleans Foundation.)

6. Build on existing success; Applaud new ones

The grant builds on some recent collaborative successes between WWNO and The Lens. One example is a recent school board race, where the partners held a candidates forum that was covered by both radio and video. Historically WWNO has been almost exclusively classical music and had never done election coverage, although they have offered shows like Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

The Lens will be producing at least one weekly feature for WWNO.

Everly  applauds The Lens for bringing on seasoned partners like Bob Marshall – formerly an environmental reporter with the New Orleans Times Picayune who has won a Pullitzer prize.  He’s reporting for the Lens on the BP settlement and how it will affect communities. 

She credits his work for bringing openness to the court. At the BP trial, the judge opened up the courtroom in an unprecedented way, putting documents online for the first time, and allowing reporters to bring laptops and other digital tools into the courtroom. 

“We have access to what is going on in this trial. This is critical to the settlement that will impact our region for the years to come,” said Everly. “It’s delightful to look at this news in the morning and see this new way of doing business that we would have not seen before Katrina.”

7. Work from a culturally appropriate lens

One of the biggest remaining issues in New Orleans is one shared by many places: limited internet access.

“We conduct our work through a social justice lens,” said Everly. “We consider who are the individuals who have been left out of these conversations and how can we connect them or enable them.”

“Half of our residents earn less than $35,00 per year,” said Everly.  “More than a third of New Orleans residents do not have internet access in their homes.”

So they’ve established a fund called the NOLA Access Initiative. “It is a critical issue for us,” said Everly.

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Sally Duros

Sally Duros is a writer, editor and digital strategist. You can connect with her on Google+ and on Twitter at SaDuros. Her blog is SallyDuros.com. 
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