NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA — Launched in January 2010, The Lens is an eight-person nonprofit investigative news website partnered with weekly papers and a local television station in New Orleans. The site aims to fill the gaps that are no longer being covered by New Orleans’s cash-strapped traditional news operations. Right now, The Lens’s goal is to produce big, investigative stories every two weeks, and to fill the gaps with daily web updates on stories it has already done.
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The Lens grew out of a collaboration between Karen Gadbois and Ariella Cohen, who met while covering land use stories in 2008. At the time, Cohen was a reporter for New Orleans CityBusiness. Gadbois, a textile artist by training, had started a website to photograph and write about neighborhoods and houses slated for demolition. In the course of her work, she revealed a corruption scandal in which contractors were not renovating abandoned homes despite being paid to do so. Gadbois took her findings to Lee Zurik, a reporter for WVUE Fox 8 TV. The resulting stories led to the renovation program being shut down, a federal investigation, and a Peabody award for Zurik.
(Zurik now sits on The Lens’s board, and WVUE partners with The Lens on investigative projects and republishes material on its website.)
At the start of 2009, Gadbois and Cohen decided to collaborate on a land-use website, a project that grew into The Lens. Before The Lens launched in 2010, they hired Steve Beatty to be their managing editor—in other words, their boss.
Beatty worked for fifteen years at the Times-Picayune as an editor, four years at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as an editor, and, directly before The Lens, nine months as an investigative reporter for the Pelican Institute, a libertarian-leaning New Orleans think tank.
Beatty says the Lens’ biggest stories so far have been on giveaways of city-seized property, the effect of the BP oil spill on an enclave of black fishermen, and a controversial new jail in Orleans Parish. Beatty says that while The Lens’s website is averaging about 500 unique visitors per day (“It’s nothing to write home about now”), he estimates that reprints of The Lens’s stories in the Louisiana Weekly newspaper and the bimonthly Trumpet Magazine, plus web and broadcast collaborations with WVUE, mean that The Lens’s name is being put out to 10,000 people a week.
The Lens is also a member of the Investigative News Network, a network of forty nonprofit journalism organizations that hope to pool together for reasons of libel insurance and story distribution. Major funding for The Lens has come from the George Soros-backed Open Society Foundation, the Knight Foundation, the Surdna Foundation, and the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation. Beatty says he hopes to expand The Lens’s financial support and perhaps try for a public broadcasting-style membership drive. He also hopes to hire a professional fundraiser soon.
“Twenty two years as a journalist and now I’m asking somebody for money. It’s very strange,” Beatty says. The hours, at least, are a reasonable 9 a.m to 6 or 6:30 pm. Beatty says “In a city like this, we’ve got to go out and support our local restaurants—to the detriment of our waistlines.”
The Lens Data
Name: The Lens
City: New Orleans
Principal Staff: Steve Beatty, managing editor; Jed Horne, news editor; Ariella Cohen, co-founder and reporter; Karen Gadbois, co-founder and reporter.
Affiliations: WVUE-TV FOX8, a television station in New Orleans; The Investigative News Network; The Louisiana Weekly, one of the oldest African American newspapers in the country; The Jambalaya News, a dual language bi-monthly newspaper for the Hispanic community; The Trumpet, a monthly publication of the Neighborhood Partnership Network, a grassroots activist group in New Orleans; Zeitoun Foundation.