‘Times-Picayune,’ ProPublica, Frontline Launch Joint Project

By: Jennifer Saba

Frontline, ProPublica and The Times-Picayune of New Orleans have joined forces for an ongoing investigative report on New Orleans and its police department, resulting in a series called “Law & Disorder.”

The project is an unusual one for Frontline because it marks the most “robust collaboration” it has produced with a local paper, said Raney Aronson, a Frontline producer on the series that launched last week.

“Law & Disorder” uses video, social networking tools, photos and documents resulting in an in-depth package of several cases involving New Orleans police and civilians that occurred days after Hurricane Katrina.

The project came about last fall when Frontline was on the hunt for stories about New Orleans that would coincide with the upcoming five-year anniversary of Katrina. Frontline turned to ProPublica, the non-profit investigative site for help. “We are just committed to this territory,” Aronson said.

Meanwhile, the Times-Picayune was interested in working with ProPublica particularly after The New York Times magazine had published one of ProPublica’s investigative pieces this past summer about a New Orleans hospital and how it dealt with its patients during the immediate aftermath of Katrina.

That New York Times piece caught the attention of Times-Picayune Managing Editor Peter Kovacs. “I wanted them to work with us,” he said about ProPublica. “I thought very highly of the organization.”

In the course of conversations with ProPublica, Kovacs found out that ProPublica was working on the some of the same stories as the Times-Picayune. “We were independently beavering away on different parts of the same dam,” Kovacs said. “My feeling was I wanted to see that information in the Times-Picayune.”

“[ProPublica] had dedicated a lot of time to an archipelago of cases in which people were shot by police after Hurricane Katrina in ways that have not been thoroughly investigated. They had done some good research on that,” Kovacs said. “The idea was to take all the information and cases and put them into a family and uniting theme. These were cases where police shot people under circumstances of which it would have been difficult for police to follow normal protocol.”

Five reporters worked on Law & Disorder: three from the Times-Picayune, one from Frontline and one from ProPublica. The Frontline and ProPublica reporters, Tom Jennings and A.C. Thompson, respectively, worked together in offices in New York, while Times-Picayune staffers Gordon Russell, Brendan McCarthy, and Laura Maggi covered the story from New Orleans.

The site is going to be regularly updated. Part of the project involves a tip hotline that encourages people to phone in — which ProPublica is managing. Aronson said Frontline might dedicate a broadcast to the subject matter and that the organization is committed to the project as the year unfolds: “This would be a model to work with local reporters and local papers.”

While the joint project initially just launched, the Times-Picayune published its stories on the subject in December. The reason for the schedule, said Kovacs, was two-fold: They had a good hunch the Saints would win the Super Bowl, thus potentially lessening the impact of the stories. And the paper wanted to get the issue out there during the city’s mayoral election.

Kovacs said that each organization dedicated resources, that no money changed hands and that the Times-Picayune is still working on all aspects of the project: “I thought it was terrific. I would recommend it to anybody.”

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