BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. As the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina receded five years ago this month, they exposed the corruption and incompetence of a local government that had failed its people. The resulting civic outrage galvanized a growing number of citizen journalists in New Orleans to help reclaim the city for the people who remained. As Nathan Rothstein wrote in the current issue of GOOD magazine, some of the most exciting reporting in New Orleans has been the result of independent voices, alone or in partnership with traditional media. Nathan, welcome to the show.
NATHAN ROTHSTEIN: Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: You worked for several years on post-Katrina recovery projects and got a pretty good sense of the media ecology of New Orleans. Tell me first about the relationship between bloggers and organizations like The Times-Picayune, which did award-winning coverage in the wake of Katrina.
NATHAN ROTHSTEIN: I think citizens around the city were happy with a good amount of the coverage that different issues were getting in The Times-Picayune, but since the stakes were very high, where there were problems with housing, there were problems with the criminal justice system, there were problems in education, and there were so, so many neighborhood meetings, city meetings that The Times-Picayune could not possibly be at every single one. But with the invention of blogs and new media, people, if they see a problem, they can report it right away. So the bloggers were able to be the first line and then The Times-Picayune could broadcast to a much wider audience.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you about the redevelopment map that was brought to the attention of New Orleans citizen and the traditional media by a blogger. Tell me about it.
NATHAN ROTHSTEIN: So right after the storm, the mayor hired the Urban Land Institute to develop a plan and then put together a commission, the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, made up of mostly wealthy business people in the city. And they held a series of meetings, but most of it was done behind closed doors. Well, in January of 2006, New Orleanians woke up to a map of their city with green dots over primarily African-American areas and also Broadmoor, which was pretty mixed. And when you don't tell people something, they assume the worst, so people assumed – and probably correct in this assumption – that this space was going to be turned maybe into green space.
BOB GARFIELD: Redlining with green dots in other words.
NATHAN ROTHSTEIN: [LAUGHS] Yeah. So they started turning to blogs and they started coming out in large, large numbers to city planning meetings. And when people started reading this and listening to these people voice their concerns, they felt that something needed to change. And the Rockefeller Foundation stepped in and put about seven million dollars into a new plan that called for a citizen engagement process. So the first meeting had over 500 people there, and people were waiting in line to get in. So New Orleans saw a new type of activism and citizen engagement post-Katrina, partly because there was a disconnect between what citizens wanted and what the city, state and federal government wanted to do.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s an amazing story. It’s not necessarily the most amazing. There was an example of a blogger whose name, I believe, is Karen Gadbois, who had been taking photographs of the many, many untold numbers of blighted properties around town, and blundered upon a story. Tell me that story and how it played out.
NATHAN ROTHSTEIN: Thousands and thousands of volunteers for a lot of the relief organizations did gutting work, so that meant that they came down to the city, they went into a house and they went at the sheetrock. They tore it off the stubs and then they did mold remediation. And the city also had a smaller department, for mostly elderly citizens, to help with their gutting, so if they couldn't get onto a volunteer list, the city would contract with a series of contractors to do that work. So Karen started looking through it, and she started seeing that properties that were on the city’s gutted list had not been touched. The city had paid people to do work that was not being done. She had also connected with Lee Zurik, who at the time worked for WWL-TV, the CBS affiliate.
BOB GARFIELD: He was a TV anchor.
NATHAN ROTHSTEIN: Correct. And he wanted to make sure that it was valid, because if they did go after it, his name was on the line. So he first actually did a story on Karen, on her work in making sure the city was preserving homes that should be preserved and demolishing houses that needed to be demolished. And then they started to go into the stories that she was uncovering. And almost every weekend they did these stories, and finally the federal government stepped in and closed down the office in, I think, late July of 2008. So this started from a citizen journalist, trickled up to the traditional media and then led to a federal investigation. And that was a pattern that you can see across the city.
BOB GARFIELD: I wanted to ask you one last thing. The Big Easy, and the state of Louisiana in general, are notorious for political corruption. I want to ask you about Karen Gadbois. Her investigative journalism site is called The Lens, and The Lens for now has funding from a national foundation. But when that runs out, does she have any reason to expect that she'll be able to go into the New Orleans community and come away with money to do yet more digging?
NATHAN ROTHSTEIN: There are some people who have money in New Orleans who care a lot about good government practices, and they have a vested interest in Karen and her organization being a watchdog for city government. And David Simon, who’s spent a lot of time in New Orleans, recently did a fundraiser for The Lens, and he talks about its importance and -
BOB GARFIELD: This is the TV producer, creator of Treme on HBO.
NATHAN ROTHSTEIN: Someone like that gets other people on board, and they're seeing how having journalism like that really helps city government find priorities in their work. And what the blogs provide is a voice from citizens so that people at City Hall are able to see this and hopefully build programs that work for all people.
BOB GARFIELD: Nathan, thank you very much.
NATHAN ROTHSTEIN: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Nathan Rothstein is a graduate student in nonprofit management at Brandeis University. His article about the influence of new media in New Orleans is in the summer 2010 issue of GOOD magazine.