In New Orleans, a pioneering nonprofit newsroom ponders a future beyond its founder

Karen Gadbois has kept The Lens alive as other newsrooms have crumbled. Her next move is important not just for her outlet, but a whole industry.

March 26, 2024

A year of chemotherapy lay ahead for Karen Gadbois. Once a week, she would spend time in a big room at New Orleans’ Ochsner Medical Center with other cancer patients. They’d sit on recliners, drugs flowing into their bodies through thin tubes.

“Everyone’s in their space — some people with families, some people alone,” Gadbois said. “Some people sleeping, some people not.”

She opted to use her time differently. There was Wi-Fi in the chemo lounge, so she set up shop and started a blog. “I was trying to generate an environment for myself, and the computer helped me do that,” she recalled. “It just sort of took me away.”

New Orleans was reeling from Katrina. The Category 5 hurricane in 2005 that killed people and destroyed communities had also ushered in a new threat to the city’s architectural legacy. Months after Katrina made landfall, Gadbois began noticing what she described as opportunistic demolitions. She found them unsettling.

So as her chemo infusion dripped, Gadbois documented properties that had applied for demolition permits. Between treatments, she rushed to photograph them.

It was mid-2006. Gadbois was a 51-year-old textile artist with no background in journalism. She named her project Squandered Heritage.

Before long, that project transformed into something else. Something new. Together, Gadbois and Ariella Cohen — a young reporter and recent transplant from New York — founded The Lens, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public-interest newsroom. It was a first for the New Orleans area and among the earliest nonprofit news organizations in the United States.

With a roster of strong, experienced journalists and an emphasis on investigative and explanatory journalism, the news site has for nearly 15 years published work that held government to account, watchdogged how charter schools spend taxpayer money, and investigated Louisiana’s coastal land loss. Along the way, it has garnered dozens of local, regional and national awards and accolades.

And through it all, Gadbois has kept The Lens alive as other for- and nonprofit newsrooms have crumbled.

“She is the only constant,” said Cohen, who left The Lens in 2012 but remains on the board of directors. “She has been the person there from the very beginning, who has kept it going through what many would have seen as insurmountable challenges. And she always believed in it, when people didn’t — or when people gave up. She just kept doing it.”

In a time of growing news deserts, local newsroom closures, and what feels like a never-ending stream of job cuts at legacy news publications, The Lens — a pioneer in nonprofit news — operates with a newer and attention-grabbing business model.

What comes next for it and for its co-founder? Even Gadbois herself seems unsure. But the answer is important for this newsroom and for an entire industry, where nonprofits are seen as a new way forward, but founders play an outsized role — and their retirement or departure can upend even successful endeavors.

An artist finds an outlet

Karen Gadbois has been called numerous things — citizen journalist, gadfly, activist.

Gadbois prefers truth-teller.

“She has a first-class BS detector, if you know what I mean,” said Mark Moseley, one of The Lens’ earliest hires. “She’s a good judge of people. … She’s a great judge of talent.”

Gadbois never planned to become a journalist. She was always an avid newspaper reader, though, hunting down local papers whenever she traveled.

Her childhood in Danvers, Massachusetts, was steeped in creativity and design. Gadbois said art “was always there.”

She developed an attachment to fiber. Gadbois loves the interplay of color in weaving and its endless possibilities.

“Weaving seems, specifically and especially, mysterious,” she said. “I just felt this sort of simplicity and the intricacy of weaving.”

When she was in her early 20s, Gadbois found an old loom at a barn sale in New Hampshire.

“I was living out with some friends, and I put this thing together. This was pre-internet, so it was a mystery to how to do it,” she said.

Weaving is one of the oldest production techniques in the world. There are many ways to do it, but the simplest is when two sets of yarns or threads are interlaced to form fabric or cloth. One set of threads is stretched on pegs along a loom. Each thread of the other set is then passed over and under horizontally.

Karen Gadbois shows some work from her loom in her home in New Orleans, La., in February 2024 (Emily Kask/Poynter)

Gadbois “figured out a very rudimentary methodology and then read some books.” Years later, she would navigate the inner workings of journalism.

Her interest in textile design led to a trip to Mexico to study weaving techniques. What was meant to be a year turned into nearly two decades in San Miguel de Allende, in the state of Guanajuato. She met a fellow artist and got married. They had a daughter and named her Aida.

By the time Aida turned 12, Gadbois realized her daughter would have to travel far for high school. She wanted Aida to have a “U.S. experience” and began looking to relocate. Gadbois sought a place in the United States with similar cultural values.

She decided on New Orleans. In both cities, she felt, people congregated within their families and celebrated with the larger community. “They were both places that had long-rooted traditions,” she said, “and people weren’t as interested in what you did for a living.”

They moved into a fixer-upper with chipped white paint.

A few years later, in May 2005, Gadbois was diagnosed with breast cancer. Three months after that, Hurricane Katrina derailed everything.

Gadbois evacuated to Texas. She set up her daughter’s schooling and sought cancer treatment. The Lone Star state’s heat added to Gadbois’ misery, so she spent a lot of time indoors and online. That’s when she came across people blogging from the ground in New Orleans. Their work felt personal and trustworthy.

Gadbois felt the national media, in contrast, lacked details. The stories were often repetitive. “And of course, the reporting was like, ‘80% of the city’s destroyed,’” she said. “‘Destroyed’ is a big word. It’s a huge word.”

She and her family were desperate for information on whether or not their house was livable.

“The blog universe,” she said, “became my dependable space.”

‘I had to do something’

On New Year’s Eve in 2005 — four months after Katrina hit — Gadbois returned to Louisiana. Her downstairs had flooded. The upstairs was spared. Other homeowners weren’t as lucky. Demolitions began sprouting all over the city.

“At that point, I felt like I had to do something,” Gadbois said. “It was like wild town — ‘do what you want.’”

She began blogging on Squandered Heritage, cobbling together information on proposed demolitions and attending hearings. “They were crazy. The craziest public hearings ever,” she said. “They’d have like 26 properties on the docket, and the meeting would literally take 10 minutes.”

“I would post daily pretty much,” she said. “And then, occasionally, I would write essays. Sometimes just, ‘Here’s the house. And here’s the proposed demolition.’”

Some of the articles were about structures that stood out — like the home of Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated President John F. Kennedy.

In many ways, the endeavor was an art practice. Gadbois referred to it at the time as a memory project. “My motivation was that we move through the world with visual signals,” Gadbois said. When you pick your children up from school, she said, you don’t think. “You see. You see a tree. You see a house. You see something that’s there all the time — that guides you home without real thought.”

But in post-Katrina New Orleans, she felt lost. This new work was fulfilling. She learned how to create a blog, how to copy and paste code. “And then you look on the screen, and it’s this beautiful image,” she said. “In the backside, it’s just seemingly a mess. And it just made me think a lot about weaving and textile arts in general, where there’s a front and a back.”

Others began noticing her investigations into New Orleans’ blight. Mary W. Rowe, then vice president of programs for Blue Moon Fund — which has since sunsetted — met Gadbois at a community meeting. “She had been an artist prior to the levees failing, and so she was a person of great perception,” Rowe said. “She paid attention. She could visualize, the way artists can.”

Historic buildings in New Orleans, La., in February 2024. (Emily Kask/Poynter)

Cohen, then a reporter for New Orleans CityBusiness, also took note of Gadbois’ work. “I began reading her blog and was just really inspired by the kind of DIY work she was doing,” Cohen recalled, “and was really interested in reporting on it and understanding the larger systemic problems that she was working to eliminate.”

Blue Moon Fund was interested in supporting resourceful, creative approaches to how the community could recover. Rowe offered Gadbois some startup money — $25,000.

“We had no idea where it was going to go,” Rowe said.

Gadbois and Cohen began thinking about how to leverage the grant into a more sustainable project. Gadbois wanted it to focus on land use — how land is distributed and how the government and others make those decisions.

“Everyone laughs at me because I’ll be watching a movie and (say) ‘land use!’ because it’s at the core of so many issues,” she said.

The funders they met with early on said the topic was interesting, but she recalled them asking: “Can you expand it out?”

Gadbois was cautious about what she published. Her husband used to always ask her, “Why do you always win fights?” “I said, ‘I want to fight the ones I can win,’” she recalled. “So I wasn’t going to do something and find out that there was this big hole in my information.”

The project added education, criminal justice and the environment as beats.

At the time, Gadbois was using homeowners insurance money to support herself.

Then, a thought: “I should really get paid to do this.”

The challenge to ‘keep the damn thing afloat’

In the beginning, there was a lot of brainstorming. Cohen said she and Gadbois thought about the needs they saw in communities, and who was underserved by the media. Cohen wondered: What stories are missing?

In Cohen’s view, the duo’s outsider status was a challenge to this mission — “as it should have been. … We had a lot to learn and made some mistakes, and didn’t quite understand the audiences that we would be serving,” she said.

Gadbois, Cohen said, was a self-taught journalist and middle-aged woman who recently survived cancer. And Cohen, by her own account, was really young — a white transplant whose connections and experience mostly came from New York.

To mitigate the issue, they found allies.

A sign at The Lens offices in New Orleans, La., in February 2024. (Emily Kask/The Lens)

Jed Horne, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and editor who spent years working at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, recalled the pair visiting him in Mississippi. “They started talking about this idea for The Lens, and asked me if I would be the editor,” Horne said. “I said, ‘No, please. I’m retiring. But I’m happy to pitch in and do whatever I can.’”

Unlike many other newsroom leaders, Gadbois could not draw from years of journalism experience. Both Cohen and Gadbois said they leaned on Horne’s early guidance. In turn, Horne said both Gadbois and Cohen were impressive in their thinking and ideas.

“I think that was a consequence of Karen’s lack of formal pedigree, but I think it also helped us think outside the box and find new audiences and bring new voices into different conversations,” said Cohen, now an assistant managing editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Lens hired an editor, Steve Beatty, who had more than a decade of editing experience at The Times-Picayune. Beatty held several positions at The Lens, including publisher and CEO.

There was also the issue of money. Starting a nonprofit comes with challenges, and finding funding is one of the most common, according to Sharene Azimi, communications director of the Institute for Nonprofit News, which supports hundreds of independent news organizations and of which The Lens is a longtime member. “They are largely responding to audience needs and interests, and they do depend on the support of their readers or listeners,” Azimi said. “But to get off the ground, they often require a larger chunk of investment.”

That first year, The Lens did not have a development director. Gadbois remembers The Lens’ business side having very little support, which she described as a “common problem for many news nonprofits.”

Slowly, its list of funders grew.

The Lens’ form 990, showing top funders for 2010 (Screenshot)

Then came the 2011 hiring of Anne Mueller, who joined as development director and continues to serve as chief operating officer. She brought years of experience in the nonprofit sector: museums, arts, higher education and more. Mueller was tasked with developing a membership program and raising money through grants.

It was a “long educational process” to teach the Lens’ audience that the newsroom was a nonprofit — that the organization needed to ask for money and didn’t rely on public funding.

“It required a lot of work, and it continues to, because it’s an ever-changing landscape for fundraising in general for nonprofits,” Mueller said, “And especially media, because we do have the for-profits that are also competing for the dollars.”

Anne Mueller, chief operating officer of The Lens, in her home in New Orleans, La., in February 2024, on left, and a view of historic homes in the Mid-City neighborhood of New Orleans, La., in February 2024. (Emily Kask/Poynter)

Gadbois eventually took a more active role in the business side. “More meeting with funders, more raising money,” she said.

“The challenge, certainly for Karen, was just to keep the damn thing afloat,” said Horne, who ended up working at The Lens on a part-time basis and overseeing the opinion columns until his retirement in 2019. “I mean, financially, it was very much touch-and-go. And she was brilliantly able to combine editorial guidance, direction, and the indulgence of her own interests as a writer with the need — which is never fun — to constantly raise money. And she did that.”

Nonprofits are ‘making people stop and take notice’

There are other Karen Gadboises in the nonprofit news world. Take Ryan Sorrell. He’s the founder of the Kansas City Defender, a Black nonprofit community media platform. Sorrell previously worked in think tanks and on digital strategies; he wasn’t a journalist.

In a 2023 interview, Sorrell said he sees himself and his colleagues as defenders of Black people in Kansas City. “Every single person in our organization is an organizer, and I’m an organizer before I’m a journalist or a reporter,” Sorrell told NPR.

This fits within a new kind of founding story, according to Azimi of INN. “One where someone who’s not a journalist and doesn’t really identify that way, but sees a need for essential news and information, just starts going out and starts covering stuff,” she said.

Before it became the Institute for Nonprofit News, INN was known as the Investigative News Network, born out of a 2009 meeting between journalists from 27 nonpartisan, nonprofit news organizations. Fifteen years later, INN now supports more than 425 nonprofit, nonpartisan news organizations dedicated to public service — including the Kansas City Defender and The Lens.

Over the last 15 years, Azimi has noticed a shift in what’s considered the typical founding story of a nonprofit news organization. It used to be mostly “veteran” journalists getting together to support one another following layoffs and media crashes.

But two new origin stories have sprung up. One of them was apparent to Azimi on a recent community call she had with dozens of Westchester, New York, residents who were concerned about three local newspapers closing. The owner, she said, could no longer afford them. Residents were in search of solutions. Perhaps they could take over the papers, make a new one, or convert them to nonprofit.

What she is seeing more recently, though, are founding stories like that of the Kansas City Defender and The Lens.

Nonprofit news organizations tend to have some similarities in the beginning. “I think the best ones are responding to the need, but the need is not just what you see in the big headlines, which is, ‘Oh, there’s no more newspaper,’” Azimi said. “It’s also a need that maybe wasn’t being served before, because it’s covering communities or it’s going deeper into issues.”

Many of these newsrooms face multiple startup hurdles. Azimi said INN always looks to see if they have a board of directors in place for some oversight and accountability. “And then obviously, the ability to pay staff,” she said. “Sometimes people start working for free, but not always. Sometimes they have some seed money.”

Once a nonprofit begins to mature, other challenges arise. One common test, Azimi said, is staffing up and getting to that three-to-five-year point where you can hire backbone staff. “We hear the journalists saying, ‘Look, I’m a journalist. I’m not a fundraiser,’ or ‘I’m not a marketer, I’m not a tech person,’ so being able to fund those positions is another common challenge. And when they’re able to do that, then they can really hit their stride and grow.”

Nonprofits have some benefits over for-profits. Jonathan Kealing, chief network officer for INN, said nonprofits are not beholden to one individual. “There’s not one owner who may just decide that they want to retire to Boca Raton and cut things down,” he said. “It really belongs to the community. And so there is a community board of directors that oversee the organization, oversee the leader, and therefore are charged with ensuring the organization can continue its mission into the future.”

Kealing said INN has seen family-owned media companies sell to a hedge fund or shut down their newsrooms time and time again.

Over the past two decades, as the larger news industry has shriveled, nonprofits have become a source of hope for many media watchers.

A collage of headlines from articles about nonprofit news outlets. (Ren LaForme/Poynter)

“The news business is a business that’s a mess,” Kealing said. “And when you’re looking at a mess, you’re looking for what stands out as maybe being not such a mess. And nonprofit newsrooms, while they’re not perfect, while they still have challenges, while they still have business disruptions … are doing well. They’re growing. They’re starting up.”

The growth of nonprofit newsrooms, he said, is “making people stop and take notice that there’s something here that doesn’t look exactly like every other media story that we’re seeing today of layoffs, closures, sales, etc.”

As the nonprofit sector has matured, so have its successes. The Marshall Project (along with, IndyStar and Invisible Institute) in 2021 won a Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting for their investigation into the life-altering injuries caused by police dog bites. Last year, Anna Wolfe of Mississippi Today won a Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting — the first Pulitzer Prize for the nonprofit digital newsroom — for an investigative series that uncovered evidence of former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant’s involvement in a $77 million welfare scandal. The Texas Tribune has collected many accolades, including a 2023 award in Breaking News at the National Edward R. Murrow Awards for reporting on the Uvalde shooting and its aftermath.

The Lens has won awards for reporting on everything from environmental issues to columns to its position as a watchdog for communities in New Orleans. In 2015, Press Club of New Orleans gave a first-place award in web graphics and animation to news technologist Abe Handler and staff writer Charles Maldonado for their interactive map of properties, which the city listed as remediated since 2010. Their work found that many were still dilapidated.

‘The most trusted news outlet in the city’

Tyler Bridges’ first impression of The Lens in 2012 was that it was small, with maybe six staff members working there.

Bridges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was formerly a foreign correspondent for the Miami Herald, had just spent a year studying digital journalism on a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University. He focused on different models of producing local digital news.

“I looked at The Texas Tribune, but then learned about what The Lens was doing,” he said. “And when my Nieman was ending, I decided that of all the places in the world I could live, I wanted to live back in New Orleans.”

As Bridges saw it at the time, the best opportunity was to seek work at The Lens. He became a staff writer, covering Louisiana state politics and government policy.

“I had been in a big newsroom at the Miami Herald, and also in a big newsroom at The Times-Picayune. But I understood that newsrooms were shrinking,” he said. When he got to The Lens, he saw the principles of innovation he learned about in his Nieman year in action.

A view inside The Lens offices in New Orleans, La., in February 2024. (Emily Kask/The Lens)

Mark Moseley, who was hired in 2010 as an opinion writer, said he was happy to be part of The Lens because it was “a new, exciting, digital newsroom.” The local media atmosphere was in flux at the time, he said. “It seemed like The Lens was filling a need, and they got some top-tier writers,” Moseley said, mentioning Bridges, Horne and Bob Marshall, who covered environmental issues.

The Lens had a decent readership that year, Gadbois said.

The small staff worked hard. In 2014, The Lens published a groundbreaking collaboration with ProPublica called “Losing Ground,” which showed how much of coastal Louisiana had disappeared over the last 80 years. Steve Myers, who worked at The Lens from 2012 to 2018, oversaw “Losing Ground” after connecting the newsroom with folks he knew from ProPublica. “I felt like we had something to offer,” Myers said. “We had a really experienced coastal reporter.”

Marshall described “Losing Ground” as a “huge accomplishment.” Gadbois called it a “long and difficult and solid” project. It won numerous awards, including a national Edward R. Murrow Award.

Myers, whose job was to manage collaborations with local and national outlets, said the project raised The Lens’ profile. “It helped me understand what we brought and what other outlets brought,” he said. “We had so little money, we didn’t regularly hire photographers and we never would have had the ability to do that kind of news app that ProPublica did. And so we just sort of figured out lots of different kinds of collaborations.”

He recalled The Lens going through financial difficulties around that time. A few staffers were laid off, Myers said, because The Lens had expanded but didn’t have the funding for it. “It was a pretty difficult time financially, but we were also doing this incredible work,” he said.

At one point, a survey of local news outlets awarded The Lens top marks. “We were deemed the most trusted news outlet in the city,” Gadbois said. “I’m very proud of that. I will always remember that that is a thing that’s important.”

Another shining moment came with the launch of the award-winning Charter School Reporting Corps in 2011. Beatty, then The Lens’ publisher and chief executive officer, wrote that the project’s goal was to “provide school news to students, parents and others who are invested and interested in charter schools in New Orleans.” At the time, Beatty wrote, 45 boards ran 65 charter schools — in addition to the Orleans Parish School Board and the Recovery School District, which ran more than 20 schools combined.

“And no one was covering those board meetings, which were public meetings,” said Moseley, who at one point coordinated the corps. “And a lot of times, significant decisions were being made about the direction of the school, or facilities, or other things.”

The Lens hired a corps of stringers and part-time reporters to attend and cover the meetings.

“It’s probably one of the best ideas The Lens has had, in my opinion, and I was privileged to manage it,” said Moseley.

Gadbois said people loved the project, but it was “a beast to maintain” because of issues with funding and working with freelance reporters, some of whom would skip out on the meetings at the last minute. Gadbois said the corps also came early in the charter schools movement. She recalled some animosity from people who felt what The Lens was doing was anti-charter schools. In 2017, the project was placed on hiatus due to funding.

A message to readers attributed the hiatus to “unexpected drops in revenue” and other changes like a sharp reduction in state political coverage and the halting of The Lens’ What We’re Reading newsletter, which gathered top stories from various news sources. Gadbois said there are no plans to bring back the Charter School Reporting Corps.

“We’re a scrappy little newsroom in the city,” said Marta Jewson, deputy editor and staff writer. “It’s a David versus Goliath when it comes to resources. We’ve always had a very small and dedicated staff.”

Gadbois said it’s a “weird miracle” that The Lens is still going.

A reader called her up one day. The woman was having issues with a school. Gadbois was on her way to an oncologist. She told the woman that she would make sure to have Jewson, who covered education, call her back.

“And she said to me, ‘Thank you.’ And then she said, ‘God put The Lens here for us,’” she said. “And I love that she didn’t say, ‘God put you.’ (Laughs). She said ‘God put The Lens.’ And even though I don’t think God put The Lens here for us, I think her sentiment was genuine.”

Gadbois’ ‘chutzpah’ and ‘straight-on intuition’

Gadbois earned some hard-won lessons in those years; about budgeting, and how money can capsize an organization as well as buoy it. As she grappled with her role as a nonjournalist founder of a news outlet, and a head of an organization she hired others to manage, she learned about leadership, too; a capacity that sometimes brushed against her outsized personality.

Former staff members described Gadbois as very passionate about New Orleans, a feminist, and a founder who gave the newsroom the space to do its work without hovering. “She would put people in that job. And then she might nag now and again, but she did not presume to do their job for them, to thrust them aside, to humiliate them in the way that editors often can humiliate …” Horne said. “She was a really unique combination of straight-on intuition and the chutzpah to make that happen, without pretending to be a seasoned newspaper editor-in-chief or anything like that — even though she was the editor-in-chief.”

Rowe — who had helped Gadbois and Cohen with early funding through Blue Moon Fund — described Gadbois as irascible, unbelievably creative, smart and tenacious.

“Karen is not a mild-mannered, polite person. She’s not a Canadian,” Rowe said with a laugh. “I’m a Canadian and I’m an American, too, but she has the flintiness of an artist who is committed to their own set of values and the way they look at the world. And that makes her a really interesting, extraordinary observer and reporter of how things are.”

Horne said Karen “is a big personality.” “It’s her charm, as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “Other people, I think, find her overwhelming, probably. She certainly does not hold back in her opinions. And they’re not petty, personal opinions, either. She has views about the industry that she came to rather late in the game, and has succeeded at rather beyond the ability of most upstart editors to succeed.”

“With her talent and drive to make a success of The Lens,” Horne added in a followup email interview, “she takes up a lot of space in any room, and that has sometimes made for tension — particularly with male employees not lacking in egos of their own.”

Criminal justice reporter, Nick Chrastil, left, and environmental reporter Delaney Dryfoos inside The Lens in New Orleans, La., in February 2024. (Emily Kask/Poynter)

In meetings, Moseley noted that Gadbois was usually the person in the room listening and had “a soft-spoken power.” During his time at The Lens, Bridges recalled Gadbois sitting in on meetings led by then-editors Myers and Beatty. Gadbois said she felt it was their role to lead the newsroom.

“As a co-founder/director, that’s not my job. If there’s an issue with a reporter, that’s the editor’s place. And if that issue escalates to a point where I need to be engaged, I’ll engage,” she said. “My job is to engage with the larger community.”

“Even though she didn’t run the organization, I think we all knew that The Lens was always hers,” Myers said. “And she had a role and that was always going to be bigger than whatever title she may have had.”

For the most part, though her role was sometimes limited, Gadbois said she trusted that The Lens staff would do the work they were supposed to do. Her position in the beginning was co-founder and staff writer. Her name didn’t even appear in The Lens’ first Form 990 (local TV reporter Lee Zurik, Beatty and Horne were listed among the organization’s leadership).

“I wasn’t appearing over anyone’s shoulder and saying, ‘What are you doing?’” she said.

“But there’s a point in which I have to be the boss, right? I’m responsible to make sure people get paid, that we have enough money for people to get paid.”

Gadbois said she and Mueller share that responsibility, but the editorial side doesn’t.

“So there’s a fine line between including them in things regarding the financial side of the business, and excluding them,” Gadbois added. In her experience, bosses tell you when there’s bad news. “They never tell you when the bad news is over and say ‘OK, we’re cool now.’ So you’re operating in a state of panic when like, ‘Hey, the panic’s over. Come out of the bunker.’ So I’ve always tried to at least say, ‘Listen, we’re in great shape financially,’ or ‘Things are tight, and I’ll keep you posted.’”

Gadbois said she’s watched funders in the nonprofit news sector shift their attention. In turn, newsrooms try to keep up with what those funders find valuable “and still maintain your organization and not get thrown off by that,” she said.

Horne, who edited Gadbois’ work during his time at The Lens, said he has nothing but admiration for her. “I always wanted more out of her, even though she was so busy keeping the financial ship afloat. I always wanted more stories from her, more columns more regularly, because that’s what editors do.”

Horne said he and Gadbois reached a happy compromise on that front. “She was learning. I was learning,” he said. “And the paper was, I think, benefiting from our mutual creativity and our openness to new ideas.”

‘I know that time will come …’

At the end of the weaving process, the weaver gently pulls the looped ends off each of the loom’s many pegs. The weaver must handle with special care — the piece is at its most fragile as it is being removed from the loom. Only then do the individual threads truly come together to form one piece.

Last year, Gadbois and Mueller began working on a “two-year vision plan” for The Lens. At one point, that meant that by the end of 2025, Gadbois would step back as a staff member and become a board member.

“That’s the plan at any rate,” Gadbois said last summer.

Around the time of The Lens’ launch in 2009, she had a lot more time on her hands. She was divorced. Her daughter left home. Gadbois found herself easing back into her creative work. She did a lot of sewing with discarded materials. Having neither a lot of money nor a retirement plan, Gadbois decided to buy a cheap place in Mississippi’s Homochitto National Forest. “And then I’ll always have a place to live,” she said.

These days, The Lens is in “a solid financial position,” Gadbois said. She added two staff members this year to bring the total to seven full-time and one part-time employees. “Each year brings new challenges and we keep a close eye on industry developments,” she said.

Mueller said that The Lens is still an organization with a participating founder. That means something. “When a founder is involved in an organization, the personality, the lifestyle, everything … it’s just a different dynamic than somebody who comes in as an executive director,” she said.

There’s a potential for disruption when a founder leaves any organization, for-profit or nonprofit, INN’s Kealing said. “We see people are attracted to visionary founders there. They fund visionary founders, and so that transition between the first founder and the first successor is really probably the most challenging moment in an organization’s lifetime,” he said.

In good cases, Kealing said, those founders have worked with their boards and staff to prepare a detailed and orderly succession plan. Over the past year, Kealing added, INN has ramped up a formal program around succession planning due to what he described as an increase in successions at nonprofit news organizations.

“We’ve seen organizations really successfully execute that. I think MinnPost is an organization that had a really orderly plan from its founders to its first successors,” he said. “I’ve seen other organizations that are talking about succession planning now.”

Kealing said it’s not unheard of for nonprofit newsrooms to close when a founder leaves. “It’s certainly not the norm,” he said. “Most organizations want to keep going even after a founder leaves.”

A whiteboard inside The Lens offices in New Orleans, La., in February 2024. (Emily Kask/The Lens)

Gadbois said she’s focused on two things: keeping The Lens going by building a better organization and mastering the skill of weaving. By late January, Gadbois said the vision plan for The Lens was “pretty done.”

But when asked if she will be stepping down from staff, Gadbois said she feels like she can’t.

“I really feel like when the time comes, and I know that that time will come, I’ll know what I should do next,” she said.

It’s difficult for anyone involved in The Lens to imagine a future without Karen Gadbois, because in many ways she and The Lens have been inseparable since the day she fired up her laptop from a chemo chair in 2006.

“Karen is such an unusual person. … She comes from a working-class background by way of art, school, bartending, life in Mexico,” said Horne. “She’s just been a great penetrator of cultural milieu that she might not have been born to. She got to New Orleans and she figured New Orleans out, and she figured out where the money was, and she figured out where the stories were.”

Marshall said that though some of the gaps in coverage that led to The Lens’ founding have since been filled by other newsrooms, Gadbois has “always got a sense of the stories that aren’t being covered that still affect people and the people in the communities that fall through the cracks. She’s true to the original mission of The Lens.”

“There are women who are really doing the work of changing journalism by founding new nonprofit newsrooms across the country. And Karen is among the first,” said Kealing.

In a Feb. 21 newsletter distributed broadly to Lens readers, Gadbois said the newsroom has had the opportunity to reflect on the past 14 years — what it does well, what it’s missing, and what it can do in the future. She wrote of the intent to continue The Lens’ legacy of investigative reporting.

The following day, Gadbois said that her goal now is to build out the infrastructure for a larger, stable organization. She acknowledged that trying to get clarity on her plans is confusing: “The plan continues to be that, as we identify an executive director for The Lens, I will remain engaged with The Lens in some capacity.”

She recently shared another update. “I can’t imagine ever fully stepping away from The Lens.”

Gadbois added that she was working with a consultant to best determine what works for both her nonprofit — and for her.

For now, she will continue working, from The Lens’ office and her computer desk at home — where her loom sits maybe 15 feet away.

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Amaris Castillo is a writing/research assistant for the NPR Public Editor and a contributor to She’s also the creator of Bodega Stories and a…
Amaris Castillo

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