Official statistics show that New Orleans’ population is 360,740. Make that 360,741.
When I left New Orleans in 1996, driving my battered Toyota Tercel to a new job in Tallahassee with The Miami Herald, I never imagined I might return.
Racial politics had left me in despair about New Orleans. The soaring homicide rate seemed impossible to reverse. Louisiana was last on just about every list where you didn’t want to be last and first in every list where you didn’t want to be first. I couldn’t make peace with that.
In the following years, I covered governor’s elections in Florida and mayoral races in Miami. In 2003, I became a foreign correspondent in South America. I enjoyed my years away.
Still, I visited Louisiana repeatedly. Sometimes, it was for Jazz Fest. Other times, it was to do reporting for magazine articles or my book on ex-governor Edwin Edwards and the advent of casino gambling. I came to visit old friends or to lecture at LSU’s journalism program.
I guess it was not enough.
I began to have a visceral reaction every time I heard the city’s unofficial anthem: “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?” My subscription to OffBeat magazine became a monthly taunt. The good times were rolling. All that food and dancing and music was going down, a celebration of life itself – and I was missing out on it.
Katrina deepened those sentiments. In the last couple of years, friends told me that the influx of young people to the city had brought new ideas and new approaches. That gave me hope.
One time James Carville said something that stayed with me: Louisiana is like a bad mistress. Once she’s in your blood, you can’t stop thinking about her. Carville knew what he was talking about. Within a year he had left Washington and moved back here.
Early this year, midway through a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, I made up my mind: I would return to Louisiana, one way or another, as a journalist.
Cutbacks in coverage over recent years had been severe. Major issues were scarcely being addressed, and some of them affect New Orleans’ very viability as a place to live and work. Important decisions by politicians have not gotten the attention they deserve – and Louisiana is a state where you need to pay very close attention to what the politicians are up to.
I wanted to get back in the game. Desperately. Come on, coach! Gimme a break!
The drastic changes at The Times-Picayune only strengthened that feeling.
The Lens is a perfect fit. I spent my year at Harvard studying how to cover politics and government in the digital age and now get to put what I learned into practice. Lens founder Karen Gadbois and Managing Editor Steve Beatty believe deeply in having The Lens shine a spotlight on government, to make sure it’s serving the public and democracy, not just the politicians and their cronies.
Some things have changed, but I guess some things remain the same.
I can’t wait to get started. All over again.
Bridges will start Oct. 1. Until then, drop him a line at editor@TheLensNola.org, and we’ll pass it on.