Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


May 8, 2009

The Voice of Baltimore

After his newspaper shut down, investigative reporter Stephen Janis started his own news website.

Sara Michael

Conversations with Stephen Janis are often interrupted by his cellphone. The former investigative reporter at the Baltimore Examiner newspaper never stops taking calls and meeting sources, and not even the newspaper's folding in February slowed him down. Having covered stories in Baltimore City like the murders of prostitutes and the arrest of a seven-year-old for sitting on a dirt bike, Janis can't stop now.

Perhaps he's become completely mired in the ills of the city; perhaps he is fully unemployable in any other field. But once laid off from the newspaper, he took his leads, his sources, and his obsession with unearthing the real story, and launched his own online news organization, Investigative Voice. After just two months, the website has broken stories that were picked up by the local television media.

Stephen Janis. Photo by Sara Michael.
"I remember the mayor's person saying, 'You are poison. We would never hire you.' I took that as a compliment."

Stephen Janis. Photo by Sara Michael.

Janis, a former contributing writer for the city's alternative weekly and a former record producer, was part of the original crew that launched the Baltimore Examiner, a free tabloid daily, in April 2006. The Examiner's short stories (most of them around 500 words) and sensational headlines (think "Bludgeoned!" and "Suburban Shocker") competed with the legacy Baltimore Sun newspaper, itself now a struggling rag. Janis covered stories others wouldn't touch, and made officials in the city government pay attention, picking up fans and enemies along the way. His stories on a city parking agent writing fake tickets led to an inspector general investigation, and his series on the mysterious death of activist and prominent businessman Robert Lee Clay prompted the FBI to reopen the case.

Even before the Baltimore Examiner folded on Feb. 15, Janis was planning Investigative Voice, and the site went live nine days after the last paper was printed. While the other laid-off reporters, including me, dusted off our résumés, my former colleague Janis was still meeting with sources. In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity, Janis talks about how he wrestles with having to play the competing roles of a businessman concerned with driving hits to the site and an investigative reporter obsessed with keeping tabs on crime and City Hall.

Gelf Magazine: Investigative Voice launched days after the Examiner closed. When did you decide to start the site?

Stephen Janis: Ultimately, I thought the Examiner was going to fail. I didn't think it was going to work. It contradicts the whole imperative of the digital age, which is to be timely and fluid and flexible. And instead we had this really rigid newspaper that was not timely, and it was invested in paper. That wasn't going to last.
The other issue I thought about was what journalists do best, and in my opinion the forte of print journalists is investigative reporting. So rather than be tied up in the Examiner type of enterprise, where you are trying to support a whole myriad of content, I just boiled it down to what is our strength—just investigative stories. That doesn't mean a 5,000-word piece. I think the stuff I did at the Examiner—500 words this day, 500 words the next day, follow, follow, follow—to me is more investigative and more successful.

Gelf Magazine: So you're not talking about really long stories, but they are still in-depth. What does investigative mean to you?

Stephen Janis: It means going in between the story and revealing what people do not want revealed. I think it means not going to the press conference but rather finding out who's traveling overseas and not filing the ethics forms. Or people getting free pensions. Or the drug dealing in the Department of Public Works.

Gelf Magazine: So what was your first step?

Stephen Janis: The first thing is I thought of a name, which I wanted to be somewhat authoritative. A lot of people want to have clever names.

Gelf Magazine: But why not have the word Baltimore in the name?

Stephen Janis: Well, because I don't think the Baltimore market is big enough to support it. It's topical, it's not geographical. I think that's important, absolutely essential to succeed online. If we tie ourselves to Baltimore then we might as well have everything else—sports, whatever. You want to get it to where you are doing one or two good stories a week. There just are not 30 investigative stories. I always thought I am not going to be stuck in this market completely. I can't do it.

Gelf Magazine: How do you describe your business model? What's the plan?

Stephen Janis: We have two things we are trying. One thing you have to be is flexible. We are working on advertising. We did a deal with and have had some advertising, but we are also doing these virtual subscriptions. Obviously we know we can't charge you for content, but if people feel like we are providing a public service, they can pay for a subscription and get a T-shirt. And we are going to do a print-on-demand compilation of our best stories, and they will get that, too. The point is, if you think we are doing something worthwhile and doing something that is worth reading, then you can get a virtual subscription. It's somewhat akin to the Radiohead concept where you could pay whatever you want for the album.

Gelf Magazine: Have you seen interest in that?

Stephen Janis: Yeah, we have actually gotten some subscriptions. Not a lot but a steady flow, which is going to help us because in this particular type of business, $150 or $200 worth of subscriptions can allow me to pay someone to go out and do a story.

Gelf Magazine: Then the rest is advertising?

Stephen Janis: Our advertising model is interesting because I think one of the more difficult propositions of advertising is this obsession—it's so metric. There is no qualitative [measurement], it's all quantitative. The advertising equation with websites has become purely quantitative, and that which drove newspaper value is qualitative effort. There's no association with the product. We have to change the metrics as a news website to try to monetize the qualitative aspect.

Gelf Magazine: How do you do that?

Stephen Janis: I think one thing you do is an integrated advertising package where you have an ad in our print-on-demand book, an ad in our emails we send out, and an ad on our site, so you make it a comprehensive buy-in rather than just a banner ad. I don't think that delivers the value. The only way a sold banner ad works is with unbelievable traffic, which is always why websites start this sort of clutter creep. More hits, more hits, and after awhile you're just bringing in tons of people with anything you can not related to the subject matter. This is going to be hard because everyone buys into it. The people who do this kind of stuff are very comfortable with it. So we have to change that equation. Otherwise we are never going to get the value we are delivering.

Gelf Magazine: You're working out of [former Examiner assistant managing editor Regina Holmes's] apartment. What are the day-to-day operations like?

Stephen Janis: I still go to meetings and I still have meetings with everybody and am talking to [people about] stories. Two nights in a row, I am meeting sources at like 1 a.m.

Gelf Magazine: Is it hard to deal with the business side of things knowing you are a newspaper reporter?

Stephen Janis: Yeah, that's the thing that worries me. I think the one thing missing from the equation is a business-oriented person. It can tend to absorb your attention. I really shouldn't be selling advertising.

Gelf Magazine: How do you decide what stories Investigative Voice covers?

Stephen Janis: Look, with any news organization, you are going to be feeling your way a bit. You have a vague objective—not vague, but you know there is reality, so we follow things. Right now we are just following some threads and seeing what works. It seems like people like to read about pension-board ethics problems. They like to read about gangs and police corruption, and so we are just going to evolve from there. There's no bible to it, but there is this sense that you know when you see it. It sort of takes time to get established. I have this stuff I did at the Examiner. But I had to see what works in a purely online environment.

Gelf Magazine: What has the traffic been like?

Stephen Janis: Seven thousand uniques in [the first] two weeks. We have had pretty good traffic. We have been able to fluctuate between 500 and 750 uniques. What is really cool with the page views is people spend a lot of time on the site.

Gelf Magazine: And not just from people in Baltimore?

Stephen Janis: No, we have people from New York, people from D.C.

Gelf Magazine: Why do you think people from out of town are drawn to this?

Stephen Janis: I wonder if it comes from the Baltimore Crime Blog [which links to Janis's site in its blogroll], because I think a lot of people read that. I don't know. I have not watched a lot of The Wire, but that's because I have been living The Wire. I wrote about homicides and unsolved murders and prostitutes who died and City Hall corruption and I am inside it all the time. So I think there is a fascination with that. We have lots of outside readers. Look at the bounty hunter story. There is this gang operating, all these kids—I think people find it interesting. And [former Examiner reporter Luke Broadwater] has done some really good stuff on the Mount Clare neighborhood, the drug war with [community activist] Maria Moses fighting prostitution. That's just a Baltimore story, where she has six video monitors up and she's watching the streets and catching these beatings of drug dealers on tape. That's not traditional newspaper fodder.

Gelf Magazine: What has been the hardest part getting started? Was there ever a point when you wanted to quit?

Stephen Janis: Yeah, I think it's trying to decide how the flow should go. And trying to get up to speed having enough freelancers. Flow of copy is the hardest thing. And to maintain, am I going in the right direction? Are we just filling space? Like today I did a story on [Baltimore Gas & Electric utilities company]. Is that really Investigative Voice? I mean, I looked up all the campaign contributions and I talked to people, but am I just trying to write a story to get a story, or should I take some time with it?

Gelf Magazine: So it's kind of some of the same struggles we had as newspaper reporters.

Stephen Janis: It is. That's why I am getting freelancers. But that's the hardest thing. We have already broken stories that Fox 45 has picked up and ABC 2 News. And the mayor already made some changes, but you can't manufacture that. And the web seems to have this manufactured imperative that everyday you have to have something. So you have to balance that.

Gelf Magazine: Why did you decide to launch this site? Why continue investigative reporting after the Examiner?

Stephen Janis: Last year, in February, this young man in Baltimore was shot in the back by a police officer and the media—the other media—did a little thing about how he was a drug suspect. And we [at the Baltimore Examiner] wrote 12 stories. And they indicted the police officer because it turns out the man was unarmed and shot in the back.
It's hard once you've been able to be involved in something like that to do anything else. There has to be a way to make it work. How much more important could it be? Or the prostitutes. Nobody knew about the prostitutes [who were being killed]. And then after we write the fifth or sixth story, they arrested a guy and charged him. How can you stop doing that? It's just like I felt like I had to do it. I don't really want to do anything else. On the other hand, the good thing about it is that because of the type of coverage I have done, I am absolutely unemployable. I can't make the jump that some other people have made, to, like, public relations. I know they don't want me. The last thing they want is me. They don't want me and they don't like me.

Gelf Magazine: I can't seen you being a flack. But is that necessarily a bad thing?

Stephen Janis: No. I remember the mayor's person saying, "You are poison. We would never hire you." I took that as a compliment. He said, "Maybe we can get you a job in D.C." He offered to try to send me out of the city. That's the deal you make. So maybe I don't have options; maybe I have just been bitten by it. But it still has to be done. There has to be a way to do it.

Gelf Magazine: Where do you see this in the next several years?

Stephen Janis: I see myself expanding to Washington, Philadelphia, and New York; having a core group of freelance correspondents and having a great database full of investigative stories, hopefully government-watchdog type of stuff; and becoming a real resource for people who want to keep track of city government and corruption and crime. I see a brand developing around it. For now, I think it will be like the Drudge Report where it will be all on the same page. It's all the similar kind of stuff. Maybe you wouldn't mind reading about the pension board in New York if they traveled overseas. Or if there is some sort of mob thing. I read that stuff in the New York Times all the time. That's the one thing I do read.

Gelf Magazine: You are doing what a lot of laid-off reporters probably wish they were doing. What can you say to them?

Stephen Janis: Call me. It's not easy. You have to be willing to deal with the aftermath of telling stories people don't want told. Look at the way things were run at the Examiner. I was trashed by the local media. They came after me after I broke all those stories. I wrote stories and people would call me. You don't know the hate mail I got.

Gelf Magazine: How did you deal with that?

Stephen Janis: Liquor.

Gelf Magazine: That makes you a true reporter, right?

Stephen Janis: Why not? It's kind of a thrill. You know they are paying attention. It's a weird thing when you are writing a story and someone calls you and tells you the police department is going to put a drug case on you: They are going to pull you over and plant drugs on your car. And you are driving around for a couple days worrying. Someone called me and told me they were planning this. That's just one example. What can you do? Stop?

Sara Michael

Sara Michael is a Baltimore-based writer and editor.

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- Media
- posted on Apr 10, 10
Rhonda Cann

Hello Mr. Janis,
I am Rhonda Cann a History major at Essex Community College. I am a member of the Multicultural Club, as well as the Christian Fellowship Club. I read your bio and am very impressed!
I am doing a community action project on the murder rate in Baltimore City from 1980 to the present, and would like to have anything I can use. I am doing this for Womens Studies Honors.
Please consider my request before April 20th. I have a deadline in May that it is due. IF you can consider coming to speak to my class that would be great also. I appreciate your time and contributions.

- Media
- posted on Feb 09, 14
Tim Ward

Very Well done, Stephen! Keep on!

- Media
- posted on Feb 09, 14
Tim Ward

Very well done! Keep on keepin' on, Stephen!

Article by Sara Michael

Sara Michael is a Baltimore-based writer and editor.

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