Stephen Janis
He might be shadowing an apartment manager dealing with suspected drug dealers one day and discussing the policing of crime with veteran detectives the next. Everyday, Stephen Janis aims to be the journalist on the ground, covering crime and corruption stories missed by the mainstream.

Janis is an award-winning investigative reporter in Baltimore and co-founder of Investigative Voice, a site dedicated to in-depth reporting and holding those in power to account. He is passionate about transforming a traditional craft by maximising its potential online. It is this approach, he told, that gives his site an edge when it comes to competing with mainstream media.

"As the routine news coverage feeds the 'vengeance cycle' – as I call it – the challenge becomes how to add an alternative perspective. Fortunately, since our site is run by journalists we can be creative; but even more important, it is imperative for us to offer a different perspective, to be relevant. So we, for example, can spend more time reporting on racism in the city police department, or we can do a two-part 5,000-word interview with a former crack dealer several days after we run a 5,000-word Q&A with a former homicide detective.

"Unconstrained by space, we can use these different forms to present unvarnished perspectives that hopefully add to the continuum of understanding."

Janis was an investigative reporter at the Baltimore Examiner for three years, from its inception until its closure in early 2009. Determined not to allow the only other daily newspaper - the Baltimore Sun - to remain as the sole agenda-setter in the city, Janis founded Investigative Voice with former Examiner editor Regina Holmes. They were later joined by a former Sun reporter.

"At the Examiner I came to the conclusion that the digital transformation of journalism represented an unbundling of sorts, that as reporters and editors we had to focus on what we do best, which to me meant investigative journalism and watchdog reporting. Thus we named the site Investigative Voice rather than using a local name, to emphasize those two categories of the Fourth Estate. We also decided not to simply create an online version of a newspaper. Instead we determined to rethink the ethics of online news. This meant, among other things, more distinctive graphics, white type on black background, creative use of boldface and italics, and attention to headlines, subheads, quotes and picture captions as movers of the story."

First though, Janis would have to battle against the deeply-rooted structures of local crime reporting, which he claims were failing to bring to light the root causes of violence in the city.

"The more complex narrative in Baltimore ― the entrenched social and economic serration that has been exacerbated by what appears to be a poorly managed and overbearing criminal justice system ― is a much harder subject to broach. Particularly when TV shows like "The Wire," that have been touted for their authenticity, present the problem far less cynically than what is really going on.

"When I worked at a daily newspaper there was constant tension between simply following the news and getting in front of it. Working for a website that does not have pretensions to be all-inclusive is liberating in that it allows us to follow our instincts and pursue the off-track stories. Also since legacy newspapers have cut many of their most experienced reporters, there is real opportunity for us to add depth, to go in the opposite direction of the general coverage by simply using our experience to offer a different perspective on what occurred at a city council meeting, for example, or a trial, or a political event."

This creative freedom is supported by the nature of online journalism, according to Janis. "We're not tethered to any of the current formulas for news-gathering, only the basic precepts of fact-based reporting," he explained. "This means that we have the freedom to explore the possibilities of the medium not just as a platform for the technological delivery of information, but as a canvas for altering the way news is presented.

"For example, in what I called my 'dispatch' series, where I spent several days in one neighborhood, I was able to jump from the story of a couple facing eviction from their public housing because of what they alleged was an illegal drug raid by police, to an adjacent apartment-building manager who worked with police and was credited with cleaning up the apartment complex to the extent that residents felt safe again. The side-by-side storytelling, unrestrained by space, allowed readers to get a fuller sense of the complexity of the issues facing residents in high-crime areas, and some of the root causes of entrenched violence and alternate ways of handling it."

The big question mark floating over the future of web-only reporting remains financial. In the UK news organisations are starting to test new ways of charging for content, from paywalls to member subscriptions. The challenge is as tough in the US, but Janis argues that the nature of online advertising suits in-depth 'quality' journalism websites.

"I think a rather important facilitator of this clarified mission for online journalism is the nature of web advertising, particularly third-party network ads. Advertisers want a quality responsive audience, which I think good journalism provides. There's no need to court them with special sections or features; instead, the journalist can focus on delivering dedicated readers and monetizing the traffic without a costly advertising staff or the requisite fluff coverage.

"The natural efficiencies of information distribution and monetizing readership that the internet allows in the end will hopefully create an entirely different sort of news organization that will be more effective and focused.

"Because of the aforementioned ability to sell ads through third-party networks, because reporters can lay out stories and create their own art, and because this is all possible without the capital investment in a printing press and an ad-sales staff, a new culture of journalism is entirely possible."

"I'm not saying this type of advertising will fund costly investigative journalism solely, but it provides hope that as the market develops and online journalists adjust their business models accordingly it can provide a stable source of financing based solely on the engagement and quality of the audience," he added.

Janis is about to share his experiences with Baltimore's budding reporters, teaching journalism at Towson University in the Autumn. His message to others: start from the particular, work the streets and make the most of the web.

"Let the investigation unfold in episodic form if necessary," he said. "Start by answering the questions you can, focus on the process of revealing, and create interest and feedback by being consistently diligent.  By working the investigation through a series of stories, you generally get more leads and tips to expand what you're doing, plus you create interest, and readers feel compelled to follow.

"Also, from my personal perspective as a reporter ― be descriptive, mine the particular for details, and personalize the story."

But he warns – beware the dangers of the fast-paced world of online journalism.

"The immediacy of the Web creates great apprehension over holding a story for further investigation or fact checking; there's a great fear someone will scoop you, even in part.  Thus the urgency to post as quickly as possible can sometimes overwhelm necessary caution.

"I think at the moment everyone looks at the current environment as a rush to post and an imperative to create as many pages as possible. But at some point there will be diminishing returns from that strategy and that's where web-only investigative journalists will prevail."

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