Just before the 2016 presidential election, Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times, gave an interview that touched on the fragile, financially stressed condition of local journalism. In the interview, Ken Doctor, an expert on the business of news, asked whether The Times “could improve the local press in the country.”
“I would be game,” he responded. “It’s a crisis.”
He soon received a call from an executive at Advance Local, which owns the newspaper he once worked for in his hometown of New Orleans, now known as NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. The caller wanted to know, would he consider working with The Times-Picayune?
“That was an easy call,” Dean said, “given that the former editor is one of my closest friends, and that my brother works there.”
The conversation gave rise to an unusual project that occupied much of the rest of the year for me, for Kevin Sack, my Times colleague, and for some folks in New Orleans, who quickly became good friends.
It all led to a first-of-a-kind partnership between the newsrooms of The Times and NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune, to take on the most critical environmental issues facing the country: coastal erosion and sea-level rise, as experienced at its epicenter in South Louisiana. (The Times has teamed up with other news organizations in the past, including Pro Publica and The Guardian, but not local ones.)
From The Times came expertise and resources to produce visual journalism, not to mention Kevin, who has an uncanny ability to find personal stories that breathe life into thorny issues, and who has worked on projects that have earned three Pulitzer prizes. I’m part of the Times team that focuses on climate change, and I’ve written about New Orleans for more than 12 years — from the collapse of the city’s pre-Katrina protection system against hurricanes through its long process of rebuilding. I also grew up on the Gulf Coast, where the threat of hurricanes was part of my childhood.
The Times-Picayune brought its history of highly regarded environmental reporting — especially the prowess of Mark Schleifstein, who earned a Pulitzer in 1997 for stories on threats to the world’s oceans and fisheries. Mark was part of the newspaper’s team that produced “Washing Away,” a five-part series that predicted what would happen if a major hurricane struck South Louisiana. Three years later, Katrina proved him right, and he was on the Times-Picayune team that won a Pulitzer in 2006 for the coverage. Environmental reporters around the country revere Mark, and officials often defer to him on factual matters.
He was joined on the project by two Times-Picayune reporters whose work was paid for by the Fund for Environmental Journalism. “Honestly, I wanted to work at the Times-Pic because Mark was here,” said one of the reporters, Sara Sneath, a former Marine who served in embassies around the world before coming to journalism. Her counterpart, Tristan Baurick, is the kind of hands-on reporter who, when working at The Kitsap Sun in Washington State, trained in wilderness firefighting so that he could report on wildfires while working with crews on the ground — and taking photos and video, too. ( “Six arms would have come in handy,” he said.)
After 10 months, many trips to the Gulf Coast and some outstanding po’ boys and étouffée, three stories appear in a special section of today’s Times and in The Times-Picayune. First, a piece by Kevin and me, with contributions from Mark, Sara and Tristan, about the little town of Jean Lafitte, whose citizens live, fretfully, outside of the walls that protect New Orleans. Second, a report by Mark and me, with contributions from Sara, that asks whether the protection system built around New Orleans is strong enough. (Spoiler: It isn’t.) Tristan wrote the third article, about the critters plaguing South Louisiana’s wetlands.
Is this a model for future collaborations? Dean said yes. “The big institutions like The New York Times can’t just talk about the crisis of local journalism around the country — I think we should do something.”