In addition to the three reporters currently on staff, the news organization aims to hire a data journalist, two additional reporters and a deputy editor. The unit is headed by Gordon Russell, managing editor for investigations.
The 3-year, $1.5 million effort will be supported by philanthropic donations to the Louisiana Investigative Journalism Fund, which will be administered by the Greater New Orleans Foundation.
It is part of an emerging business model in which independently owned newspapers partner with community foundations to solicit tax-deductible donations. The model grew out of the need for legacy news organizations to find ways to maintain their reporting strength in a punishing business environment.
Andy Kopplin, the foundation’s president and CEO, said he saw firsthand the consequences of a dwindling press corps during his years serving as chief of staff to two governors, executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority and a top deputy to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
“I saw personally how the dramatic drop in the ranks of reporters covering state and local government in Louisiana left the public worse off and less informed,” he said. “The business model for local print journalism has been turned upside down, leaving regions like ours with fewer of the benefits that accrue when newspapers have the resources they need to hold public and private institutions accountable to the community.”
The number of newsroom employees at American newspapers dropped by 51% between 2008 and 2019, from about 71,000 workers to 35,000, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Those trends did not spare Louisiana.
Even so, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate have managed to maintain the newspapers’ proud history of investigative reporting with numerous projects on corrupt government officials, tax incentive giveaways, the clergy sex abuse crisis and insider dealing in the state prison system. The news organization has also done significant work in the area of climate change and its impact on Louisiana’s rapidly eroding coastline.
In 2019, the papers won a Pulitzer Prize in local reporting for “Tilting the Scales,” a series that analyzed Louisiana’s unusual law allowing nonunanimous jury verdicts in felony cases. The painstaking investigation, which required reporters to hand-assemble a database of trials from courthouses around the state, found that the law was forged in racism and continued to exert racist effects on Black Louisianans into the 21st century. It prompted Louisiana voters to change the state constitution and in April, the U.S. Supreme Court, citing the newspaper’s work, declared nonunanimous juries unconstitutional.
The Times-Picayune also won two Pulitzers for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and another in 1997 for a series that examined the impacts of pollution, overfishing and habitat loss on fisheries around the world. Cartoonist Walt Handelsman was also honored with a Pulitzer that year.
Walter Isaacson, a best-selling author who was chair of CNN and the editor of Time, got his start at The New Orleans States-Item, which merged with The Times-Picayune, and now serves on the paper’s advisory board. He believes investigative journalism is the “core mission of the free press.”
“That’s especially true for local media,” Isaacson said. “As someone who started at this newspaper with Dean Baquet and others working on investigative pieces, I know how important they are to creating a strong community, informed citizenry and accountable leaders.”
Baquet, a native of New Orleans, is the editor of The New York Times.
The newspaper has chosen to seek donations to bolster its investigative unit because such specialty reporting requires sizable commitments of time and money. Reporters and editors can spend months on a single story, tracking down key sources, fighting for public records and synthesizing complex information.
Louisiana’s 4.5 million residents live in cities and rural areas, come from diverse backgrounds and hold varying political views. But they share a common desire to see that leaders in government, business and other positions of power act with honesty and integrity. Especially considering the state is one of the poorest in the nation.
While the news organization is primarily focused on the three metro areas in south Louisiana that it serves — New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Lafayette — it intends to bring its watchdog reporting into other areas of the state where news coverage has diminished.
“Good news coverage encourages government actors to draw closer to the people they serve and shines a greater light on institutions of power right in our backyard,” said Robert Travis Scott, a former Times-Picayune business editor who runs the nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council in Baton Rouge. “The more that local journalism can regain strength in Louisiana, the sturdier our society and democratic freedoms will be.”
The newspapers’ current owners, John and Dathel Georges, purchased The Advocate in Baton Rouge in 2013, in part to start a competing newspaper in New Orleans after The Times-Picayune announced massive layoffs and the end of daily delivery.
The New Orleans Advocate went head-to-head with The Times-Picayune until 2019, when the couple purchased the legacy newspaper and its website, NOLA.com. In Lafayette, the Georges rebranded The Acadiana Advocate in 2013 and recently expanded its news staff. All three newsrooms are led by Publisher Judi Terzotis and Editor Peter Kovacs.
The Times-Picayune and The Advocate will maintain full editorial control over the stories and other content financed by the Louisiana Investigative Journalism Fund. To learn more, visit investigate.nola.com.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on Dec. 17 to reflect that Walter Isaacson began his career at the New Orleans States-Item, which merged with The Times-Picayune.
From “The Times-Picayune and The Advocate to launch statewide investigative unit”, The Times-Picayune, Martha Carr, December 16, 2020