Public media predicted Harvey. Here’s how to soften the blow next time.

Previously published at

No, the still-unfolding catastrophe in Texas could not have been prevented. But vital investigative reporting over the past year and a half shows how it might have been more manageable if government officials had taken heed. More important, the journalists’ findings lay out a path forward that should be carefully studied once the waters begin to subside.

The reporting is contained in a series called “Hell and High Water,” which was produced by three nonprofit news organizations: ProPublica, The Texas Tribune, and “Reveal,” a public radio program from the Center for Investigative Reporting. The journalism is impressively deep and features a number of interactive graphics that allow users to test various storm scenarios. In summary, though, the story is a simple one:

  • Officials have done almost nothing in the nine years since the last big Texas hurricane, Ike, to protect the state’s fragile eastern shore.
  • Massive development has been allowed to proceed unimpeded, as vast tracts of land have been paved over, increasing runoff in areas that once could have absorbed much of the rain.
  • Climate change is making all of it that much worse, with warming waters in the Gulf of Mexico producing more rain and higher sea levels increasing the vulnerability of coastal areas.

“The Texas coast powers the nation,” state land commissioner George P. Bush (son of Jeb and Columba) told the journalists. “Its vulnerability should be considered a national-security issue.”

The challenge, not surprisingly, is a broken political culture that values money over lives and that includes more than a few political figures who regard climate change — not to mention basic science and engineering — as “fake news.” Take, for instance, Mike Talbot, who until recently was head of the Harris County Flood Control District, which includes Houston. Talbot derided scientists and conservationists, calling them “anti-development” and adding: “They have an agenda … their agenda to protect the environment overrides common sense.” The article adds ominously: “His successor shares his views.”

There are two major pieces in the series. The first, published in March 2016, examines what would have happened if Hurricane Ike had directly hit Houston in 2008 rather than veering off course at the last minute, causing less damage than had been projected. (Not that Ike wasn’t devastating. Seventy-four people were killed, and damage was estimated at $30 billion.)

For the past nine years, scientists and officials have talked about plans to protect the region from such a disaster. But talk is cheap, and action still appears to be years away. The most ambitious of those plans is the “Ike Dike,” based on a project in the Netherlands aimed at protecting inland areas from a 10,000-year storm. But it’s clear that there is little political will in Texas for such an undertaking, which could cost $8 billion or more — a pittance compared to Hurricane Harvey’s eventual price tag.

The other major article, published last December, takes a look at the increase in flooding in recent years, a direct consequence of climate change and the loss of land to absorb increasing amounts of rainfall. Incredibly, Harris County’s freshwater wetlands diminished by 30 percent between 1992 and 2010. The result is that concepts like 100-year storms and 500-year storms have been rendered meaningless.

Unfortunately, the remedies suggested — tougher regulations on development, preservation of green spaces, and removing some 140,000 homes that are in the 100-year floodplain — seem marginal in the face of the challenges facing the region. Yet they probably go further than the political establishment is willing to embrace, although it’s possible that the devastation of Harvey has created a new reality.

“Hell and High Water” represents public-interest journalism at its best, but it also tells us much about the limits of journalism. Investigative reporting does not normally end with the crooked president flying off in a helicopter or the pedophile-priest-coddling cardinal fleeing to Rome. After all, such denouements are unusual enough that they make movies out of them. Most great journalism shines a light and explains. It is up to members of the public whether they will choose to be outraged enough to demand action.

Right now, the focus in Texas is on saving people’s lives, as it should be. But in a few weeks, or a few months, the public’s attention will turn to softening the effects of such catastrophes in the future. “Hell and High Water” will still be there, supplemented, no doubt, by additional reporting on Harvey and its aftermath. In it readers will learn how their leaders let them down — and how they can make sure it doesn’t happen again.

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How the IRS is killing nonprofit media

This article appeared earlier at The Huffington Post.

Outrage over the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of Tea Party and other right-wing groups continues to boil — yet a potentially more consequential IRS practice has scarcely gained any attention.

Over the past few years the IRS has virtually stopped approving 501(c)(3) status for nonprofit news organizations. Given the well-documented decline of traditional for-profit newspapers, nonprofit journalism can be a vital alternative, especially at the local and regional levels. But even when applications for 501(c)(3) status aren’t rejected outright, they are stacking up, unacted upon, for months and even years.

A recent Council on Foundations report titled “The IRS and Nonprofit Media: Toward Creating a More Informed Public” put it this way:

There is significant anecdotal evidence that the IRS has delayed the approval of nonprofit media, potentially slowed the development of those already created, and harmed communities by leaving them without essential coverage, due to the application of archaic standards.

Starting in the middle part of the last decade, a number of nonprofit entrepreneurs launched community websites that were built roughly on the public radio model, funded by grants, sponsorships and contributions from readers. Gaining 501(c)(3) status allowed donors to make make those contributions tax-exempt.

In researching “The Wired City,” my book on the New Haven Independent and other community news sites, I was struck that nearly all of the best-known nonprofits — the Independent, Voice of San Diego, MinnPost, the Texas Tribune, the Connecticut Mirror and others — had been started during the same time period, from 2004 to 2009.

“There was an initial bubble of nonprofit start-ups, but you haven’t seen that great wave spreading across the country,” Andrew Donohue, the then-editor of Voice of San Diego, told me in 2011. He saw that as potentially a good thing — a sign that journalists were trying a variety of models, for-profit as well as nonprofit. Since then, however, it has become increasingly apparent that the IRS is a principal agent in stifling that great wave.

Consider some of the consequences of the IRS’s actions and inaction:

• In February 2012, the Chicago News Cooperative went under, in part because of its inability to obtain 501(c)(3) status from the IRS, as Ryan Chittum reported in the Columbia Journalism Review.

• Because the IRS does not consider journalism to be among the educational activities covered by the 501(c)(3) rules, the agency told the Investigative News Network to remove the word “journalism” from its articles of incorporation. The INN complied and won approval, according to an article about the Council on Foundations report by Justin Ellis of the Nieman Journalism Lab.

• In a similar vein, according to the report, the Johnston Insider of Rhode Island received a message from the IRS telling it: “While most of your articles may be of interest to individuals residing in your community, they are not educational.” Because of that and other reasons, editor Elizabeth Wayland-Seal announced that she was suspending publication.

What adds to the absurdity of the IRS’s stance, as the report notes, is that we are already accustomed to relying on nonprofit, tax-exempt media for much of our news and information — not just from community news sites but from long-established outlets such as NPR and local public radio stations, “The PBS NewsHour” and magazines such as Mother Jones, Consumer Reports and National Geographic.

Here is how the media-reform organization Free Press, which has assembled a useful repository of information about the IRS and nonprofit news, describes the problem:

Nonprofit journalism is not a silver bullet for the future of journalism. But fostering a more diverse media system is. If the IRS decides against allowing nonprofit status for newsrooms, it will essentially be arguing that all journalism should be done for profit. The problem is, the market has shown it will not support the full extent and diversity of news and perspectives we need.

Four years ago, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, proposed a bill that would have allowed newspapers to become nonprofit organizations. At the time it struck me as superfluous. Now it appears that it warrants another look — not just for newspapers, but for other forms of media as well.

Absent legislation, President Obama should appoint a new IRS commissioner who understands that providing quality local journalism is indeed the sort of educational activity that should be covered by the provisions of 501(c)(3).

At a historical moment when it has become increasingly difficult for the traditional media to provide the information we need to govern ourselves in a democracy, the IRS shouldn’t stand in the way of promising alternatives.

A bit more on why I keep visiting New Haven

I’m heading to New Haven in a little while for another round of interviews. I’ll be back Friday night. I’m also taking advantage of a hiatus at “Beat the Press” to visit an old friend at the Providence Journal on Friday afternoon. So it should be a good trip. It’s not likely I’ll be blogging, but since I can approve comments via BlackBerry, go ahead and have at it.

It’s also time to dip my toe in the water regarding the book that I’m working on. It’s hardly top-secret, but at the same time I want to be discreet. Anyway: A couple of months ago I signed a contract with UMass Press to write a book about the New Haven Independent and the rise of non-profit community news sites. (Working title: “The Wired City.”) The idea is that low-cost, online projects can at least partly offset the decline of for-profit newspapers — a decline that is far more advanced in Connecticut than it is here in Greater Boston.

The Independent is one of a handful of non-profits that are doing real community journalism. Though not as well known as Voice of San Diego, MinnPost or the Texas Tribune, it is nevertheless a viable, growing news organization that employs four full-time journalists plus another two at a satellite site in the suburbs. The Independent not only covers the big stories in New Haven, but also regularly publishes articles about the minutia in New Haven’s neighborhoods that the dominant daily, the New Haven Register, can’t touch.

I figure my book will be about 60 percent to 80 percent about the Independent, with the rest focusing on changing business models for journalism as well as on some other sites worthy of note — including a couple of for-profits I’ve visited, the Batavian, in western New York, and Baristanet, in Montclair, N.J.

I’d like to do a little bit of crowdsourcing; at the same time, I want to avoid writing my book in public. I’d welcome any ideas for people I should interview (in New Haven and elsewhere) and books and articles I should read.

I’ll have more to say as my project progresses.