In New Orleans, a comprehensive schools coverage hiatus

The Lens is in the midst of a funding crunch

Before hurricane Katrina, New Orleans education reporters covered one big, famously dysfunctional public school board. As the city now becomes the first in the country to shift from a public school system to a mostly charter—albeit public charter—school system, local news organizations struggle with how to cover almost 50 boards presiding over just under 70 schools.

Months after the New Orleans news site The Lens debuted in early 2010, its editor in chief, Steve Beatty, created a team of freelancers called the Charter School Reporting Corps to cover the dozens of new school boards. I joined that crew of around 15 reporters, mostly newbies, who were paid $50 a pop to cover each and every monthly board meeting.

“We’ve had about 35 people move in and out of the Charter School Reporting Corps over the last three years,” says Beatty, a Times-Picayune and Atlanta Journal-Constitution alumnus. “We used some students as freelancers, and some of the coverage was a little uneven. But we were getting to about 93 percent of the meetings.”

But now, three years after its debut, the CSRC is being put on hiatus, a reflection of larger financial woes at what is locally considered the best of the many news sites created to cover tumultuous, post-Katrina New Orleans. Those watching to see how The Lens adjusts to these shortfalls fear charter school coverage in the city will suffer.

In the years right after the flood, the Picayune was contracting, and The New Orleans Advocate wasn’t around yet. Even today, as the national spotlight shines on New Orleans’ charter school movement, most local news outlets only jump on bigger charter school stories. The CSRC, on the other hand, reported every detail.

“[The CSRC] kept track of the issues that were facing each school’s governance, whether that meant them just adding a new school bus route, or whether they follow the fresh food guidelines instead of using canned peas,” says Beatty. “Lots of stuff that might not interest the average general reader outside of that school community, but it helped parents know that they were welcome at meetings, that it was okay to walk in.”

The CSRC was also invaluable in terms of teaching all these new school boards the laws, and what was expected from them in terms of transparency. Though public charters make their own rules to some extent, they are partly funded by the federal government, and so they must abide by open meetings laws.

“A lot of the boards operated in a kind of clubby way and didn’t follow all the open-meetings requirements, a simple but important thing that we latched onto early on,” says Mark Moseley, who coordinated the CSRC on and off for the last three years. “We were often the only members of the public represented at the meetings. And there was some noticeable progress in that area: A lot of boards became a lot more in tune with open meetings requirements. There was a sea change in compliance. We were the reason for that.”

Ostensibly, all of New Orleans’ roughly four dozen boards hold a monthly public meeting. Sending a CSRC reporter to each meeting at $50 per cost The Lens about $2,000 a month, says Beatty, plus a few hundred extra dollars per reporter for each summer’s school budget stories. In all, Beatty estimates The Lens spent about $28,000 a year on CSRC freelancers. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation funded the Corps for its first year, matching an initial Lens investment two to one, Beatty says. “We were told when it was given that it was a one year startup grant, not a continuing funding opportunity. Halfway through the first year, we started raising money for future years.”

Like a public radio station, The Lens has so far run on memberships and other donations, plus several bigger grants. Such a system is naturally vulnerable to funding inconsistencies. “We recently had about $170,000 promised by donors that didn’t come through,” says Beatty, who claims that the topic of charter schools alienated some potential donors. “It’s not just that some donors don’t like negative coverage, some don’t like coverage that isn’t very supportive of charters,” he says. “Then people who hate the charter schools think we’re shilling for the charter movement, because if test scores go up, we say, ‘Test scores went up.’ But we also did a lot of standardized test cheating stories.”

The Lens site was founded by area reporters Ariella Cohen and Karen Gadbois, who first hired former Times-Picayune city editor Jed Horne to preside over what was then a single-source land-use news blog covering only New Orleans. To appeal to more funding sources, The Lens’ focus grew to cover five core beats: land use, government politics, the environment, criminal justice, and schools. This year, The Lens and its reporters are finalists for nine different Press Club of New Orleans awards, including a community news nomination for the CSRC.

But this same award-worthy coverage seemed to cause a few of the site’s current financial troubles. It was directly after Lens reporter Tyler Bridges wrote some particularly harsh stories about Mayor Mitch Landrieu in the lead-up to the recent mayoral elections that The Lens began sending out SOS signals to the public via its email newsletter.

“I’m not in a position to know what donors said what things,” says Moseley, “but Steve said in staff meetings that some of our reporting had angered politicians, both locally and statewide.” Moseley also mentions a series of environmental stories that questioned the state’s Master Plan to restore the coast.

Either way, cuts became inevitable, and this June, The Lens was forced to lay off Bridges—though Beatty stresses the layoff had nothing to do with the Landrieu coverage. Bridges is currently up for a Press Club Award for his Lens coverage of downtown redevelopment. Still, when cuts had to be made, says Beatty, “We tried to get back to our main core mission to cover New Orleans, and I’d say 80 percent of [Bridges’] time was spent on capital stories.”

Mark Moseley was also laid off in June, when the CSRC was put on indefinite hiatus. Along with coordinating the Corps, Moseley also wrote an opinion column and served as The Lens’ engagement specialist.

Among other adjustments, Beatty says The Lens will soon have to start charging a fee to the many publications that reprint its content. The Lens had previously allowed local print publications like Gambit Weekly and Louisiana Weekly, and radio station WWNO, to run Lens content free of charge. “You might pick up The Advocate sometimes and the whole package on the first page might be a Lens story,” says Beatty. “It was brand-building and awareness…and also making sure the underserved community got us on the other side of the digital divide.” That divide is slowly closing, however; in 2012, The Lens and the Center for Public Integrity reported that New Orleans had just 10 percent fewer broadband subscribers than the national average.

Beatty also recently hired a marketing director to help raise revenue, as well as a data reporter to launch a public database, called The Vault, against which the site plans to sell ads. The Vault currently hosts around 5,500 city contracts for use by the public as well as by other news sources, with plans to expand and to unveil a salary database of all the teachers in New Orleans.

In the midst of all this change, ace Lens education reporter Jessica Williams recently announced she is leaving to work for the Times-Picayune. “It will be hard replacing Jessica, and it’s disconcerting that an extremely accomplished reporter like Tyler Bridges was laid off and won’t be replaced,” says Mark Moseley when asked about the The Lens’ future. “I’m hopeful, but I am definitely concerned.”

Steve Beatty, however, says The Lens is saving money to replace Williams at the end of the summer, and that the site’s focus on education will continue. He hopes to someday bring back the CSRC, but for now: “We won’t get to 93 percent of the meetings, just the ones that are hot right now, like if a school is deciding whether to buy another one and start a middle school—something that has heft to it.” Regarding the future of The Lens itself, Beatty says, “People look to us for certain stories. By this time we’ve become entrenched. We are planning on being here a long time.”

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Michael Patrick Welch is a New Orleans-based journalist and author of four books. His work has appeared in Salon, McSweeney's, The Oxford American, and Vice, among other publications. Follow him at @mpatrickwelch. Tags: , ,