When <em>The Levee</em> Breaks News

It's hurricane season. Brace yourself for a deluge of stories leading up to the anniversary of Katrina's attack on the New Orleans levees. But if it's anything like last year's media focus on the aftermath of the 2005 disaster, the annual coverage is likely to miss a lot of details.

For New Orleans and the surrounding region, there is new information streaming daily, and not much of it is good news. It's above the fold virtually every day in the Times-Picayune -- stories highlighting everything from a shortage of Road Home repair money to a feeding frenzy over control of the Orleans Levee District's vast real estate portfolio (including Lakefront Airport, two marinas, and miles of valuable waterfront property). A search of the Times-Picayune's nola.com website reveals more than 2,300 articles, nearly 50,000 blog entries, and more than 200 obits tracking hurricane evacuees as they live out their lives in adopted homes.

It's enough to make a New Orleans devotee... laugh? If you know anything about New Orleanians' irrepressible spirit, all this depressing news does seem to signal the need for a bit of levity. That's what the publisher of a new monthly tabloid is banking on. The monthly newspaper is called The New Orleans Levee with the bold tagline: "We don't hold anything back." It tracks the day's news, but with a slant you won't find in the mainstream media.

Publisher Rudy Vorkapic says his goal is to give voice to residents' frustrations, "redirecting the inane back at those who spew it," as he wrote in a recent edition. Vorkapic fashions the paper as an unapologetic, broadside attack on area politicos. It's a local-news version of The Onion, but unlike that paper's mock news, The Levee tries to base most of its satire in fact, giving flood-weary locals more than the occasional laugh.

The May issue featured this front-page headline: "City Hall Now Officially a Joke." The accompanying article wove a tale about Katrina the Clown, supposedly "Mayor Ray Nagin's first hire" after Katrina hit. But it's clear who The Levee really thinks is City Hall's resident clown, as story after story targets Nagin. This month, the paper carries a purported copy of Nagin's recent State of the City speech: nothing but the word "bullshit" repeated for a full page. Over the holiday season, the paper suggested a new gift item: a Nagin snow globe "because he only does something when you shake him up."

Nagin isn't The Levee's only political target. Congressman William Jefferson was a frequent subject even before $90,000 was found in his freezer, followed by indictments on bribery charges. There's the man who unsuccessfully challenged Nagin in the last election, Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu. "I call him the Sanjaya of Louisiana politics," Vorkapic says, referencing the ever-changing American Idol contestant. "He'll run for anything."

And the paper saves a special brand of ridicule for Governor Kathleen Blanco, who has declined to run for a second term. "She's given up on New Orleans," he says. "She's flat-out quitting."

That's why Vorkapic doesn't apologize for publishing a photo of a Blanco look-alike baring her chest to reveal a colorful, painted dragon. And he's run the photo twice -- so far.

Often, the paper doesn't seem so much funny as it is angry. "I guarantee you people all around New Orleans are saying things a lot more caustic than I am," Vorkapic insists. "Those are the people who aren't holding back."

That's a common scenario for political satire, according to one of the nation's experts on the topic, Andrew Alexander, executive producer of Chicago's Second City improv comedy empire. "I know there's deep -- rooted anger. You have to find a way to make that accessible, turn that anger into something funny that has some truth to it. The Ray Nagins of the world make it very easy."

But even if The Levee sometimes misses the funny mark, Alexander is quick to forgive.

"When you're in the thick of the disaster it's hard to have a sense a humor about anything...go to Baghdad and there's a lot of anger, but very few opportunities for satire. You've got to be a little bit removed."

Is this way to make government accountable? "Satirists, unfortunately, I don't know that they change governments or policy. We are all just part of the milieu of critique. If it's smart, though, being funny makes the news more accessible for everybody."

And, in New Orleans, there seems to be a hunger for accessible -- and more light-hearted -- news,.People are snapping up copies of The Levee as soon as they hit the streets. Vorkapic distributes 25,000 free copies of the monthly at about 250 coffee houses, clubs, restaurants and businesses throughout New Orleans, neighboring Meterie, and elsewhere in the north shore area. He even drops stacks at City Hall, though they have to be replaced daily because they get thrown out. This month, The Levee is starting to sell subscriptions ($49 per year), and T-shirts, both in response to consumer demand. He's hoping to sell enough to begin paying a small salary to himself and other key staffers, as they all have been working for free since launching the paper in tandem with Katrina's arrival last August.

Vorkapic isn't doing this for the money, and he isn't even native to the Crescent City, having moved there about five years ago. He's from Chicago, where he worked nearly 20 years for conventional newspapers.

"People asked, will they take you seriously as a journalist after this? I say this is some of the most serious reporting around," he says. When reporting the news, "our facts are correct, our quotes are researched. We're biased, sure, but we're basically calling for leadership and basic governance at every level."

Delivering the news via satire is certainly nothing unusual these days. It was during the 2004 presidential race that Comedy Central's The Daily Show tied network TV newscasts as a source of political news for people aged 18-29. For the record, host Jon Stewart greeting the news with more ridicule, telling CBS News, "A lot of them are probably high."

No stats are available on that, but a recent University of New Orleans poll offers a clue as to why The Levee might have tapped into a growing audience. The survey, released last month, shows that dissatisfaction with city government has replaced crime as New Orleanians' biggest concern. Among residents surveyed, 34 percent are unhappy with their city government, including the pace of the state-run Road Home program, compared with 29 percent who said anxiety about crime has made them feel unsafe.

Vorkapic has fully adopted New Orleans, and insists he and The Levee are here to stay. "It's like a beautiful love," he says. "You want it so badly, want the best for it, even with its flaws. It's just so beautiful inside and out. You see things you won't see anywhere else in the country. Food, people, culture. It's captivating. Captures the imagination. Those are the sorts of places we need."

"When I moved down here, a friend put his arm around me and said 'welcome to the big easy, where it's neither big nor easy,'" recalls Vorkapic. "Now it's smaller and harder."

So The Levee saves some ridicule for non-politicians. Insurance companies dragging their heels on Katrina-related claims get plenty of ink, often under the pseudonyms "Somestates," "State Farce" and "NationSnide." And, sometimes, everyday folks will find themselves on the end of the skewer, as in a recent article with the headline, "Local man uses 'turn stick.'" It began, "A New Orleans man discovered what the stick on the left side of his steering column was for Thursday … It's called a "turn signal."

While this might pass as legit satire in any number of U.S. cities, it is a distinctly NOLA take. The article's subject is quoted as saying, "...I accidentally bumped that stick upward reachin' for my daiquiri," and the feature turns back to The Levee's favorite subject with this closer: "Mayor Ray Nagin immediately claimed credit for discovering the 'turn stick,' referring to it as the top achievement in his recovery plan and a signal of his success."

A gratuitous slap? Vorkapic doesn't think so.

"A supporter said, 'poke 'em in the eye every chance you get.' And that's what we have to do, every chance we get."