The Lens: A Small Paper Reporting Large News

A closer look behind New Orleans’ first nonprofit newspaper.

I n late December 2014, Loyola University’s president stepped down as the chairman of the New Orleans Civil Service Commission. His resignation was made promptly before a story was published concerning his partial political contribution. This story contained politically biased emails sent from the president. Rev. Kevin Wildes served as the chairman since 2011, stepping down earlier than his term required. Furthermore, Wildes’s role on Mayor Landrieu’s administration was unveiled. This close relationship with the Mayor questioned his credibility as a public leader.

Charles Maldonado, a Staff writer for The Lens, published this exposé on Wildes. Maldonado is a, “government accountability reporter, covering the city of New Orleans and other local government bodies.” In his well-examined article, Maldonado dissects the university president’s emails from all angles. This includes reaching out Wildes for his reasoning behind his statements and relationship with Mayor Landrieu. Maldonado further states how the emails, “show his relationship with the Landrieu administration to be cozy, deferential and even reliant.”

Flash forward to after the story is published, and the backlash from Maldonado’s story is made clear. Not only is Rev. Kevin Wildes no longer serving New Orleans on the Civil Service Commission, but also The Lens has lost their offices.

However, this loss did not come as a surprise to Maldonado and his team.

Up until the article was published, The Lens made its’ home at Loyola University. According to The Advocate, the online nonprofit newspaper had access to all the resources the School of Mass Communications had to offer. Additionally, the office space cost The Lens nothing to rent.

Rev. Kevin Wildes has functioned as the university’s president since 2004. However, after finding out The Lens held offices on Loyola’s campus, the relationship between the nonprofit newspaper and the university changed.

After meeting with Steve Myers, the editor-in-chief at The Lens, this relationship was further made clear. Myers commented on the, “delicate situation,” of reporting about sponsors and donors. This delicacy was well defined when the paper made the decision to write the article about Wildes. The Lens, “has definitely faced retaliation for our reporting,” Myers states.

This story helps to demonstrate the paper’s independence as an organization. The Lens prides itself on being different from other New Orleans papers, such as The Times-Picayune or The Advocate. These differences help to better define The Lens.

What are these differences?

The Lens’ style of reporting is what separates this small local paper from the pack. Since its’ founding in 2009, the nonprofit paper has contributed to its’ readers with specific news stories. Stylistically, their journalistic approach provides New Orleans with in-depth coverage on important facets of the city.

A picture of The Lens’ new office space.
“We only do local news,” states Myers, “and we only do certain kinds of local news … we want to get an accurate report of New Orleans out.”

The topics covered are extremely relevant to New Orleans current culture. Criminal justice, local government, school reform, and environmental issues are the major components that make up The Lens’ editorial content. Internally, The Lens works with a distinct purpose to remain unique to its’ readers.

Go Big, or Go Home

This past year, the highly broadcasted presidential election brought about much news and debate. All media outlets were eagerly seeking new and inventive ways to reach the public. The Lens’ reporting efforts during 2016 highly reflect this energy. “We wanted a nice well-presented story to roll out either directly before or on Election Day,” states Charles Maldonado.

Therefore, the paper partnered with ProPublica via their Election Land project. This project works to uncover election problems on a wide scale.

The Lens’s original idea was to, “measure and map the distance to polling places around the city,” states Maldonado, “increasing distance to polls, even by small amounts, can have an effect on turnout.” Maldonado states that this problem is, “particularly acute in areas that are of high poverty and have relatively low access to cars, which is basically New Orleans.”

This image shows average distances to polling locations throughout the city in 2004.” — Charles Maldonado / The Lens

After a tireless process, Maldonado published his findings on Election Day. The reporter worked with a particular software that required him to learn code and analyze numerous amounts of data.

This image shows average distances to polling locations throughout the city in 2016.” — Charles Maldonado / The Lens

“When it really came together was when we compared it to pre-Katrina maps,” Maldonado said. The answer is clear; after Hurricane Katrina occurred, the amount of polls in New Orleans, “was cut in half.” To be exact, New Orleans saw a decrease from 230 polls to 121. This information was then used to show how spread out polling places are in the community.

Maldonado’s project broke away from traditional election coverage, providing the city a spin on a topic that can often times sound like a broken-record. This different perspective is how The Lens stands out from a traditional newsroom.

Taking New Orleans National

“We have done things that other larger, more well-funded, news organizations have not done,” Myers states.

This can be seen through the paper’s collaborations with national news organizations. Bob Marshall, an acclaimed environmental reporter at The Lens, helped create the piece “Losing Ground”. The partnership with ProPublica maps the land loss occurring of the Louisiana boot. The message is obvious; the coast of Louisiana is not the same as it once was in 1922. Marshall elaborates the significance of the land loss through his writing and the interactive time-lapse map.

Impact, according to Myers, is how The Lens measures their success. “We want to know that something has happened as a result of our work,” he says. The “Losing Ground piece was widely distributed to the public, creating considerable attention towards the paper. In fact, Myers stated it was ProPublica’s, “largest story of the year.”

“We are able to reach a much larger audience,” Myers states about their partnerships. Not only do they collaborate with national affiliates, but also other New Orleans newspapers. Most recently The Advocate published a story by Marshall on their front page. Partnerships with other members in the New Orleans press have further helped gain following from the community.

These partnerships are what keep The Lens functioning. However, it should not negate their strong independence as a newspaper. The Lens strategically balances the obstacles that come with a nonprofit organization through their constant strive to serve the New Orleans community.

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