By Lamar White, Jr.
I am thrilled to introduce the debut edition of The Bayou Brief.
Four months ago, I announced my intention of launching a one-of-a-kind publication: a 501(c)(4) non-profit, progressively-minded, online-only, and free source for news and commentary about the people and the politics of Louisiana. All of Louisiana. Almost immediately after the announcement, donations began pouring in, and in a span of only two weeks, more than 130 people had contributed over $40,000 to turn this vision into a reality, which meant I had to go to work, pronto.
Before I could do anything, though, I needed to assemble a Board of Directors. Then, together, we’d need to find an attorney who could draft Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws, secure a domain name, advertise an RFP for branding and web design, award a contract for site development, hire an editor, and recruit a small team of researchers and freelance contributors. We had to do all of this before any of us could ever know what, exactly, we would publish for the debut. In fact, late last week, we decided to table a story in which we had already invested a significant amount of time and resources, out of respect for Congressman Steve Scalise, whose office has demonstrated nothing but total professionalism in their correspondence with The Bayou Brief.
Over the last four months, we’ve received dozens of pitches for stories: the juvenile justice system in Shreveport, the Indivisible movement all across the state, allegations of corruption in the Department of Education, the solvency of the state employee retirement system, and the politics of I-49 expansion, among many others. Suffice it to say, we are fortunate to have a backlog of important stories that are still under development.
Our debut features two fascinating and informative works of freelance journalism. Nick Pittman crafted a brilliant 6,000-word investigation into a government-owned historical marker praising the Reconstruction-era massacre of 150 African Americans in a small town in Central Louisiana named Colfax. Ben Arnon and Erika Alexander wrote an important and evocative report about the traditions of Mardi Gras Indians, complete with more than a dozen stunning photographs.
All told, our debut is more than 20,000 words long, and we are just getting started.
Make no mistake: This was a team effort, from the very beginning.
Although the birth announcement was published four months ago, The Bayou Brief was actually conceived on December 5, 2015 during a private gathering of progressive leaders at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication. It was an event that my friend Matt Bailey and I had planned and organized in the immediate aftermath of John Bel Edwards’ landslide victory over the most powerful Republican politician in Louisiana. We brought together more than three dozen progressive leaders from all corners of the state. We weren’t there to talk party politics; this was about honestly assessing the capacity of Louisiana’s burgeoning progressive movement. And it was all off the record in order to encourage people to be completely candid, which is why you’re only hearing about it now.
Throughout the day-long event, nearly every participant made some form of the same argument: Progressives may have the facts on their side, but because the Louisiana media is dominated almost entirely either by conservatives or out-of-state corporations, their message has almost no chance of being heard. If they were to have any chance of succeeding in the long term, something needed to change. We needed a new source for statewide news and information, an outlet that wasn’t beholden to advertisers and could be free to operate without fear of financial retribution. To work, it had to be authentic to Louisiana; it had to be funded by ordinary people, and it had to be free to read.
During the last eleven years, I published a blog, CenLamar, which, in its initial iteration, focused entirely on the politics of Central Louisiana, and eventually expanded to tackle statewide and national news. During those eleven years, I learned first hand that there is, in fact, an enormous audience, here in Louisiana, for stories that challenge the conventional wisdom of the far-right.
Something else happened during the last eleven years: Our media changed. During the presidential election of 2008, the mainstream media used the term “blogger” as a pejorative against anyone who wrote almost exclusively on the Internet. Today, that definition of the word “blogger” could apply to the majority of American journalists. Newspapers like New Orleans’ Times-Picayune and Alexandria’s Town Talk can no longer justify the costs associated with printing a daily and are attempting to reinvent their business model as primarily online publication-focused. For most of these institutions, the transition has not been easy, because they never understood a fundamental truth about the digital age: Even if you build an elaborate paywall around it, the news is ultimately always free online.
The dilemma, of course, is that the news is never free to produce. We could have launched a publication that pays for itself through pop-ups and cluttered advertisements, or we could have sold our mailing lists to businesses who specialize in spamming your inbox with get-rich-quick schemes. That is the business model employed by the vast majority of conservative online publications, and although it may pay the bills, it destroys any claim of journalistic credibility.
From the very beginning, we knew that The Bayou Brief had to be a non-profit publication, and it had to be completely sustained by people who believe in the role and responsibility of a free press, particularly at a time in which the Fourth Estate is under attack by a President who has labeled the media as “the enemy of the American people” and repeatedly refers to critical coverage as “fake news.”
Unfortunately, Louisiana is ripe for a “post-factual” narrative. With very few exceptions, our media institutions are too weak, too calcified, and too scared to even challenge the outlandish bigotry that readers publish on their own social media feeds. In 2013, more Louisiana Republicans blamed President Obama for the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina than President Bush. This isn’t merely a symptom of racism or toxic partisan politics (when Katrina hit, Barack Obama was a state senator in Illinois); it is also a reflection of the failure of our news media.
Louisiana is one of the poorest states in the nation, yet the majority of its elected officials, both in Baton Rouge and in Washington, D.C., advance a policy agenda that seeks to worsen economic inequality. They propose taking away health insurance for more than 500,000 people in exchange for tax cuts that benefit only a very small handful of enormously wealthy families. Even though the oil and gas industry has legally conceded to causing billions of dollars in damages to the state’s coast and despite the fact that many of the companies responsible for this destruction are both willing and able to resolve their outstanding liability, many of our elected officials would rather protect the profits of Big Oil than provide for the future of our environment.
Louisiana is the prison capital of the world, and although we have recently made some progress in reforming our criminal justice system, it’s still easier for a politician to get elected by vowing to be “tough on crime” than by promising to be smart on policy.
During Bobby Jindal’s eight years as governor, Republican leaders in Baton Rouge thought they could cut their way to prosperity, only to leave behind a massive, structural deficit, a downgraded credit rating, and billions of dollars in backlogged infrastructure projects. Even though their grand experiment in anti-tax radicalism failed just as abysmally as it did for lawmakers in Kansas, their top leaders in the Louisiana House refuse to accept reality, all the while claiming to be advocates of “fiscal responsibility.”
Facts are important, and they are not owned exclusively by any single political party. The Bayou Brief is unapologetically guided and informed by progressive values, but we will never be blinded by partisan politics. Two of the five members of our Board of Directors are registered Republicans.
Our mission here is simple. We are here to combat misinformation, to champion our shared future, and to promote the stories and the voices of people in all corners of Louisiana.
When Edwin Edwards ran for a third term as governor in 1983, he returned to his hometown of Marksville for a big campaign rally. The late writer John Maginnis brilliantly documented the event in his book The Last Hayride, a magical and ephemeral moment in the complicated life of one of the most controversial men in Louisiana history.
This passage, more than anything else, articulates the mission we hope to accomplish here at The Bayou Brief.
Un de nous autres. One of us.
To be one of us is to cover a lot of ground.