Tag Archives: NOLA

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.


Treme for Tourists: The Shell of the City Set to Music

00030065New Orleans Henry Butler, the well known New Orleans piano player, and his music were featured on the Treme episode in the regular HBO Sunday slot.  Early in the show, he said it was “good to be home.”  In the real world of post-Katrina, Butler had showed up with thousands of others on the porch of the ACORN building at the time on Elysian Fields near the corner of St. Claude.  He had waited his turn.  ACORN was one of the few places open and able with crews of workers and volunteers and running a home “gutting” program that ended up handling close to 6000 houses before all was said and done.  There was no FEMA money, city money, federal money, or anything but what people put forward or what ACORN had raised.  Butler got all of this.  He didn’t mince words.  He wanted ACORN to do the gutting, he knew his place on the list, but was desperate to get home and be sure that his house was declared more than 50% damaged and therefore ineligible for recovery monies from the state Road Home disaster.  The real cost of gutting each house down to the studs so it could dry out and be prepped for rebuilding was $2500.  Butler paid it gladly and the day the work was finished came by and gave CD’s of his music to all of the workers and staff around the building.  He has been quoted frequently by reporters and others speaking about how much ACORN, the gutting, and its work fighting to rebuild the city meant to him.   This will never be a part of the story in the tourist version of Treme.

I loved David Simon’s The Wire, set in Baltimore.  I was never confused that it was “real” or some kind of docudrama about Baltimore.  It was good drama in an urban setting that was filled with straight talk, bent angles, and people from unions, politics, crime, and throughout the city that were multi-dimensional, complex, and felt real.  ACORN organizers and some other commentators in Baltimore felt slighted by the show because it didn’t depict the part of the world that included community organizing.  I got that, but I was a fan.

I’m having a harder time with Treme. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad the show is on the air, and I’m delighted to see it set in New Orleans.  When they film in front of my house at Fredrick Douglass High School or elsewhere in the Bywater neighborhood where I live, I’m happy to move my truck out of the way.  I’m friendly to the caterers, truck drivers, security and duty cops.   I shake hands and give the thumbs up at local bars and restaurants featured as background for the action.  On that score it’s all good and thanks, Mr. Simon.

With The Wire I knew it was all just made up stuff, but I liked the gritty slices of the Baltimore we knew being part of the action.   Simon doesn’t know New Orleans, but in Treme he tries to compensate with more “historical” and “contemporary” references to substitute for the real New Orleans, the city he seems to like, but can’t quite grip, except from a tourist perspective, which just grates on me.  Even as great as New Orleans music is and as much as I like the exposure given to some of the local players as a stalwart citizen of the hometown, I often have trouble with the one-dimensional minstrel show aspects of all of this, which sometimes are just painful to watch.

One of the things that worked in The Wire was the nuanced and complex way that Simon, a former police and beat reporter up there, handled the bad guys.  They were real people.  He drew you in.  You rooted for some of the guys and against other guys.  There is no day in the streets of any city where I wouldn’t want to make sure that Omar had my back and was a block or two behind me.

New Orleans is a violent city, even more so that Baltimore, but after a year a half it is amateurish how Treme deals with this intrinsic part of the patter n of the city.  One of the main characters is the Indian chief whose struggle and cultural rectitude is supposed to attract some of our sympathy despite the fact that he is invariably a cranky son-of-a-bitch.  In the first season we watched him lay in wait and then beat up a young fellow within an inch of his life, and possibly to his death, who had stolen his tools.  Nothing more on that…it was all just left hanging and random.  In Treme the cops are plastic, tinny, and nothing more than crooks with a badge, save for one hero, who seems largely our hero because he gets along with the sniveling, heart on her sleeve lawyer, who is so committed to the truth that she can’t tell her teenage daughter about her father’s suicide.

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