Opinion
 

Busting Jon Johnson shows early promise of a new kind of news

The lack of progress repairing the Semmes Building on Jourdan Road was an early clue – first detected by The Lens – that FEMA money was being misused by a non-profit controlled by now indicted ex-City Councilman Jon Johnson. photo: Ariella Cohen

Councilman Jon Johnson’s indictment and abrupt resignation last week caught political observers off guard, but the gist of his wrongdoing was disclosed by my former colleagues at The Lens more than  a year ago. The Times-Picayune, which recently announced savage newsroom cuts as part of a transition away from daily print publication, only managed to cover the press conference.

So, kudos to The Lens! The site may be in its toddler phase, but it’s not the first time it has scooped the big boys, making the Johnson expose a hopeful milestone for local news coverage in New Orleans – and also a suggestive model for the way news operations in other cities might be structured during a time of wrenching transition.

The Lens, a non-profit investigative website, is in a partnership with the local Fox affiliate, WVUE. The station rents office space to The Lens and these two very different media feed off each other’s distinct strengths. WVUE regularly translates Lens stories into broadcast news segments and The Lens gains clout and added readership from the on-air exposure. It’s a kind of partnership we may be seeing more of in markets all across the nation.

The loss of daily Times-Picayune publication and the paper’s decision to push content to its truly abysmal website caused many to predict rain for the city’s less web-savvy population. As the newspaper shifts more of its operations online – which is already home to so many upstart news sites – many fear that without access to broadband, the poor and elderly will fall out of the loop. That’s what makes The Lens’ collaboration with TV  – and also with WWNO radio – so potent. Even those without access to the internet can stay abreast of investigations like the one that revealed that Johnson was misusing FEMA money intended for a housing non-profit he controlled.

But the sad truth about New Orleans, with its high level of poverty, is that even as a daily paper, the Times-Picayune has not been as accessible to marginal populations as is now claimed by those mourning its demise. A daily Times-Picayune subscription still costs money, about as much per month as an internet connection.  Television and radio are free. The alternative and African-American weeklies are free.

The folks who can’t afford television, radio, or internet have never comprised the Times-Picayune’s core readership, nor has the Times-Picayune ever been particularly responsive to this demographic’s political interests. Those on the wrong side of the digital divide tend to be on the wrong side of the economic, political, social, and education divides as well. Reducing the Times-Picayune’s publication schedule hardly seems as consequential as the Medicaid cuts just signed by Bobby Jindal, whom the Times-Picayune endorsed twice for Governor.

In addition to the Lens partnership with WVUE, there are other encouraging partnerships in the works. Rival television station WWL recently hired two of the Times-Picayune’s stars, crime beat reporter Brendan McCarthy and city hall reporter David Hammer. Not that those dudes aren’t handsome but perhaps the signal coming from New Orleans television stations is that stereotypical blow-dried Ken dolls are out; reporters are in.

Other online startups may fill additional gaps, including Uptown Messenger and Neighborland. Gambit, which publishes on paper as well as on line, will also be able to grow. Other local television or radio stations may wish to compete with WVUE and WWL for investigative chops. And who knows what may come of The (Baton Rouge) Advocate’s decision to begin publishing a New Orleans edition? These are green shoots for local journalism in the post-Picayune era.

Johnson is hardly the first public official whose corruption went unnoticed by the big media. Blogger Jason Berry, of American Zombie, for years was a voice crying in the wilderness about signs of corruption around ex-mayor Ray Nagin and his aides. Now we learn that Nagin is under federal investigation, while a key aide has been convicted and awaits sentencing. And it took a nudge from a New York-based reporter, the Nation’s A.C. Thompson before the Times-Picayune and other for-profit outlets gave their full attention to the epidemic of police violence that erupted in Katrina’s immediate aftermath. It’s been argued that the decline of print journalism in the metro area could unleash a torrent of corruption, but it’s hard to imagine things getting much more corrupt than they’ve been in the past few years.

That isn’t to say the death of the daily Times-Picayune should be celebrated; it shouldn’t. It’s just to say that the mourning might be a bit overwrought, a blow more to advertisers and the city’s identity than a clear-and-present threat to public awareness.  I love the daily paper. A daily, even if its editorials are tepid and its staff stretched thin provides far more coverage about far more subjects than any shoestring website can muster. The transition to whatever online or online/broadcast models emerge in New Orleans could well be messy. Important stories may go unwritten. Citizens who have never eaten breakfast without the smudgy, crinkly accompaniment of a newspaper will die a little inside.

Yet if the immediate fallout from the Times-Picayune’s announcement – The Lens’s Jon Johnson coup and the the hiring of great reporters by local television stations – is any indication, maybe the transition period won’t be as long or as disorganized as many fear. Maybe the only real losers will be curmudgeons like me, news junkies who prefer their bagels just a little ink-smeared.

Former Lens columnist Eli Ackerman recently graduated with a master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. 

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