The Future of the Bayou Brief

Dec. 9, 2020

Newspapers write about other newspapers with circumspection (and) about themselves with awe, and only after mature reflection.”
A.J. Liebling

Dear Readers—

A long, long time ago, back when Americans would visit something called a “multiplex” whenever they wanted to catch the latest blockbuster movie and the airport in town offered “gate passes” to the non-flying public so that they could spend an afternoon shopping and dining inside of the new terminal, when people would leave their homes even if they didn’t have to and it would have been considered ridiculous to expect every restaurant in town to offer delivery, before our president warned us what he had already warned Bob Woodward about a virus that “goes through the air, Bob,” a virus that made the air our enemy because “you just breathe the air (and) that’s how it’s passed,” back when thousands of Americans dying every single day from a mysterious new infectious disease would have seemed unfathomable and when a mandate prohibiting a person from holding a loved one on their death bed would have been the kind of cruel policy only imaginable in a bad horror movie—can you remember that far back?—March 8, 2020, eons ago, I began drafting a letter to you, dear reader, announcing the Bayou Brief’s plans for an upcoming fundraising campaign.

That day, March 8, marked the opening of this year’s state legislative session at the Capitol in Baton Rouge, where a 54-year-old freshman state representative from Raceland, Louisiana named Reggie Bagala sat alongside his colleagues and listened as the recently-reelected governor, John Bel Edwards, broke some news during his opening address. The Louisiana Department of Health, he said, had recently identified someone who they believed had the state’s very first case of the coronavirus. Only a month later, state Rep. Bagala would die from the same illness.

Back on March 8, I decided to wait before publishing my letter and to cancel the Bayou Brief’s planned fundraising campaign. Soon, it became clear that other things, like securing enough PPE for our healthcare workers and first responders, would be a much more important and urgent priority for all of us.

As of this writing, 6,652 Louisianians, including Rep. Bagala, have lost their lives from the coronavirus pandemic That’s more than those from Louisiana who died from the 1918 influenza pandemic. Most staggeringly, in a span of only nine months, the death toll in Louisiana from covid-19 is greater than all of the Louisianians who have died as a result of all hurricanes during the past 200 years, combined.

Still, Louisiana’s death toll represents only a fraction of the national total, which is approaching 300,000 and certain to get much worse before it gets better. This, of course, is hardly reassuring. By now, most of us know someone, whether it’s a close family member or a dear friend or an old colleague or a casual acquaintance, who has lost their life from this horrific pandemic.

On a personal level, I can certainly empathize with those who’ve had their own lives turned upside down by what I’ve jokingly come to call “our ongoing apocalypse.” Fortunately, I’ve been spared from the virus (knocks on wood), but because I was born with a physical disability, cerebral palsy, and am uniquely susceptible to all sorts of other health issues, the specter of an overextended hospital system in New Orleans required me to relocate to my family’s home in Dallas in April and May, only returning when the situation in Dallas became just as bad as it was here in Louisiana. And last month, when a painful hiatal hernia landed me in the Emergency Room, I ended up spending four days in the ICU because of a severe allergic reaction to a medication I’d been given to suppress hiccups. It’s taken me the better part of the past month to get back on my feet.

I suspect it will take years before America and the rest of the world—but particularly America, where its devastation has been disproportionate—can fully emerge from the collective and the personal trauma we’ve had to endure because of the pandemic.

This year has been challenging for all of us, and here on the Bayou Brief, we haven’t been spared or insulated from the financial constraints that hundreds of millions of Americans are also facing. While we continue to attract new supporters every week, we still need to generate another $10,000 a year just to bring us back to where we were at the beginning of the year.

Here’s a quick and easy way to donate now.

For those of you who are new to the Bayou Brief and unfamiliar with our mission and our previous work, I hope you’ll indulge me for a little bit longer.

To be one of us is to cover a lot of ground.”
John Maginnis, The Last Hayride

In 2017, the Bayou Brief was conceived as a free, digital publication that would focus on long-form, reality-based, and fact-intensive journalism and commentary about the people, politics, history, and culture of Louisiana. We hoped to be nimble enough to ensure our ability to tackle stories and issues across the entire state, not simply in New Orleans or Baton Rouge, but perhaps most radically, we hoped to rely entirely on the financial contributions of our readers.

As we enter our fourth year, I first wanted to reflect on what we have been able to accomplish and to express my own profound appreciation for each and everyone of you who has supported us financially. Our accomplishments are yours as well, because this publication only exists because of the generosity of our readers.

In our first three years, the Bayou Brief has averaged more than one million unique visitors a year. We have published more than 700 stories, reports, essays, profiles, and galleries from more than three dozen contributing writers, and we’ve been able to provide our roster of freelance writers the kind of fair compensation their talents deserve.

Our coverage of state and local politics and elections has repeatedly made a measurable difference in building a better informed electorate and in exposing public corruption, conflicts of interests, and partisan chicanery. Our long-form stories about Louisiana history have forced us to confront the shameful and cruel racism of an obscure Virginia aristocrat who became eventually celebrated as “the father of LSU” and given us a reason to honor the extraordinary lives and contributions of a once-forgotten generation of Black ship captains. We’ve profiled Louisiana legends like Clementine Hunter and the Lost Bayou Ramblers, the Grammy-winning Cajun French band.

More than anything else, I am especially proud of the willingness of so many of our contributors to speak truth to power, particularly when those truths may be uncomfortable to hear and difficult to express without fear of retaliation. Just last week, in his debut column, contributing writer Jules Bentley demanded accountability from a handful of progressive nonprofit organizations in New Orleans who had lent their imprimatur in support of a demonstrably misleading millage reallocation proposition that would have decimated 40% of the funding for the city’s public libraries in exchange for funding 100 school vouchers for an early childhood education pilot program. As an immediate result of his commentary, one of the most influential of those nonprofits withdrew its support, and thanks to an energized grassroots coalition and the inspired reporting of others in the media as well, the effort failed, and the funding was spared, at least for now.

Brutal honesty sometimes requires vulnerability, but when it does, it typically results in something empowering and insightful, as Frederick Bell’s interview with James Carville proved this summer.

For us to continue in 2021, we will need your support now. You may have noticed that we recently completed a total renovation of our front page, packing in a bunch more content and ensuring the design is intuitive and easily navigable. There’s a lot more in store. With your support, we will bring on a new slate of contributing writers and columnists, talented and insightful folks like Michael Patrick Welch and Jules Bentley and people who are passionate about arts and culture like film critic Bill Arceneaux. With some luck, we hope to land a music columnist too. We’ll also be able to renew 13th Ward Rambler, Peter Athas’ zany and encyclopedic column, for another season, and continue offering freelance writers a home for fascinating, long-form feature stories and investigative series.

We are excited about 2021, not just because 2020 will finally be over but also because we have some tremendous things on deck and in store.

All the best,

Lamar White, Jr.

Founder and Publisher