The Lens is celebrating its seventh birthday tonight! Like all precocious seven-year-olds, we want to tell you what we’re working on. Maybe we’ll get an extra-special birthday gift.
What we’ve done
In New Orleans, there is no shortage of coverage about the latest shooting or Saints game. You may have noticed that we don’t focus on either, aiming instead to provide public-policy news that others don’t. Our coverage of last fall’s election is a good example.
In the weeks before the election, reporter Charles Maldonado used sophisticated mapping software to figure out how much farther voters must travel to cast a ballot than before Hurricane Katrina.
He found there are twice as many precincts with an average distance of more than a mile to vote. In the central part of New Orleans and the Lower Ninth Ward, the average distance has increased 50 percent. Researchers have found even a slight increase in distance can reduce voting turnout. Indeed, turnout has fallen in all the precincts where driving distance increased.
On Election Day, The Lens participated in Electionland, a nationwide effort to track voting problems using social media, a texting tool, a collaboration with a voting access hotline, and web search trends. This allowed us to find problems — or rumors of problems — in real time, so we could investigate them while people were voting. That’s how we quickly found out about a problem that delayed voting at a site in Algiers. We tracked down rumors and misinformation and debunked a video from Hammond — viewed hundreds of thousands of times — that purported to show poll workers discussing a machine that had votes on it before anyone had cast a ballot. (Again, to be clear: It didn’t.)
That night, we produced our one-of-a-kind live results map, enabling people to zoom into any neighborhood in the state to see how people voted. This seven-year-old outlet with a handful of editorial employees continues to produce the only election map that offers this much detail, this quickly, in the state. WWL-TV used our map that night, and we hope to work with them in the future.
What we’re doing
We continue to focus on our core subject areas: government accountability, charter schools, coastal restoration and land use.
Bob Marshall revealed that the latest edition of the state’s plan to restore the coast predicts that 27,000 homes will have to be flood-proofed, elevated or bought out to deal with rising seas. Last month, we published our latest collaboration, about Native Americans in coastal Louisiana who are trying to figure out how they can provide for themselves as the land around them crumbles into the water.
In the past month, reporter Marta Jewson has revealed that a charter school network broke the Open Meetings Law by gathering in private to interview CEO applicants. She has investigated close ties between Orleans Parish school district employees and a charter group that wants to take over several schools in the city.
Charles Maldonado told the story of a man on the front lines of President Donald Trump’s new immigration policies. They both dug into public records to report how a charter board member’s company received $120,000 in a school construction deal.
In each case, we were the only ones to bring you these stories. There are many news outlets in New Orleans, but there are many more stories. Every day, we think about how we can serve the community by looking where others aren’t, by explaining things that others assume you know. Every story we do is meaningful, contextual, and worth your time.
Meanwhile, our community-driven opinion section has re-examined the “Zulu blackface” blowup, described a parent’s terror at having her child’s daycare evacuated because of a bomb threat, and shared the story of a man who was jailed for five months outside New Orleans awaiting trial for three misdemeanors while his mother tried to figure out where he was.
What’s to come
Next month, a new law regulating short-term rental properties will go into effect in New Orleans, and anyone who wants to rent their home on Airbnb must have a city permit.
People started applying last week, and we’re mapping them as they come in. In less than a week, this has become our most popular feature of the year, demonstrating the intense interest in this issue. It shows you don’t need to write about sports or restaurant openings to get people to pay attention.
Most people are using the map to see if there are any Airbnb rentals in their neighborhood. This map also provides the foundation for public-policy reporting. The debate over short-term rentals has been heavy on anecdotes and light on data. We’ll use the data we are collecting to look for patterns: Where are rentals concentrated? Who’s running them? How can we see if short-term rentals are connected to rising rent?
We’re continuing to look at how President Trump’s policies could affect us, including immigration enforcement, coastal restoration, school funding, and federal grants for housing and development. And we’ll continue to help you understand the issues behind the jargon you hear in news stories every day.
Each of these stories demonstrates how The Lens is unique. We don’t spend time chasing clicks, so we think about what people need to know. We seek to fill the gaps left by traditional, ad-funded media, which means diving deep and taking the long view.
None of this is easy or cheap. The election map cost about $4,000. It took one reporter two weeks to report the voting distance story. On Election Day, two reporters and one editor worked all day to sift through half-truths.
If you’re reading this, you are a civically engaged, thoughtful person, and you value thoroughly reported, informative journalism. Please donate today. If you’re already a member, make sure you are signed up to give monthly. And consider whether you can increase your donation, even by $10 a month, to help provide essential, public-interest journalism for all of us in New Orleans.
Publisher and CEO of The Lens