Alternative News, The Lens, and Hope for the Future

New Orleans For some time I had been getting a fairly regular email from something in New Orleans called The Lens. It was something like a web newspaper without being on paper and normally being slim pickings of just a couple of stories.  They seemed to have some stories worth a look on the Orleans Sheriff’s operation and I passed on a couple.  More often, it was one of those emails I just left unread and passed over.  More recently they hired Jed Horne, the former city manager of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and a respected – and known – reporter and author in the city, who I had always found fair and straight up, so The Lens worth a closer look, and when they announced a public event of sorts only blocks away from me, all excuses were gone, and it was time to check it out.

Along with about 50 to 100 folks I slipped to the back of the sweltering art space and sweated out the presentation and question and answers.  The Lens people seemed affable and enthusiastic.  The web-paper seems to have been founded by Ariella Cohen and Karen Gadbois, whose names I did not recognize, but Ms. Cohen jumped up to answer several questions and seemed energetic.  They placed themselves along with ProPublica and other alternative sources among about 50 efforts around the country that were trying to independently gather news or offer alternatives on a regular, perhaps even weekly basis like The Lens. They were huge fans of the local Fox affiliate which was hard to follow though it seem more about the space and occasional air time than any kind of political affinity.  They spoke of partnerships with other outlets that appealed to special and historic interests in the city like the Louisiana Weekly and the local Spanish paper.  They seemed to see their mission as filling gaps that the larger outlets either were not able or uninterested in filling.   A card passed out joined them to the New Orleans rebuilding project as “media watchdogs.”  There was goodwill in the room, and best wishes for their success.

Listening the questions from the crowd was worrisome.  Too many were looking for too much, and certainly more than they could offer.  Many seemed to want a one-stop solution or competitor for the local paper, which Lens folks were sympathetic too, but correctly tried to dampen with a focus on their smaller niche.  It was troubling that many looking for more, might not find enough in the niche to develop their support, and though the Lens people were careful to deflate (“interested in who is reading, not how man y ‘clicks’”), to survive there has to be a significant base of readers and real sustainability.

Sustainability seemed the Achilles heel of this great effort.  They were excited and proud of their foundation funding, which seemed to be mostly, if not all, from larger foundations in Miami, New York, and elsewhere, but god knows foundation funding defines short term and unsustainability.   Hopefully they have a plan, since the work seems so valuable, though I wonder if this is not more of the ongoing media crises in our country.

Not long ago talking with the Patch.com folks who have been expanding rapidly around the country as a piece of AOL and have an interesting model as well, but when I talked to their top dogs, they were clearly stretched to the gills trying to push the money in the door and the product to eyeballs.

The wonder of the web is the easy and cheap access, but the bridge we all seem still searching to cross successfully is how to achieve even support and resource sustainability to match the ambition of the project to the value of the dollar.  As newspapers become more fragile and segmented, it is unclear that any of us have found the secret sauce to really serve as alternatives, much less to take steps beyond the meager efforts we are already chafing to read as the local papers downsize steadily and surely.

It was all good vibes and love in the room along with all the sweaty brows on a New Orleans night, but it was hard not to see the clouds everywhere around and wonder how long The Lens and others like it might last without finding the answers to the bottom line.

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