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Mobtown Beat

New Media Players

Will the future of journalism come from journalists?

Frank Klein
Investigative Voice's Stephen Janis (left) and Regina Holmes.

By Chris Landers | Posted 4/1/2009

Back when there was a Baltimore Examiner, a couple of reporters from that paper were walking up to City Hall. One of them turns to the other and says "There's got to be a value in this, what we're doing. This has got to be worth something to somebody." That was Stephen Janis, then a reporter for the now-defunct paper. The best his colleague Luke Broadwater could do for an answer was a tentative sounding "I hope so."

Fast forward to the present day--actually a couple of weeks ago--at an Irish pub where Broadwater is recounting the story over a pint. When he finishes, Janis, sitting across the table, says "Yeah, well, I think there should be."

Whether newspapers are dying or merely entering a sort of chrysalis period, eventually to emerge as beautiful new-media butterflies, there is little question that things are not going well for the Fourth Estate.

Even the nation's larger newspapers are in trouble--last week The Wall Street Journal reported upcoming layoffs at The New York Times and buyouts at The Washington Post. A few high-profile papers have shut down entirely (Rocky Mountain News in Denver and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which stopped printing, but maintains a web operation).

Here in Baltimore, the Examiner ended its short but colorful press run in February, while The Sun soldiers on through round after round of cost-cutting layoffs and the ongoing bankruptcy proceedings of its parent, Tribune Co.

A lot of people have been pondering the value of traditional journalism in the digital age. A few of them, like Janis, are putting that value to the test.

Nine days after the closing of the Examiner, the first six stories went up at InvestigativeVoice.com, a news site dedicated to the kind of stories Janis and Broadwater had done at the Examiner--mostly short, hard news pieces, written in an unadorned AP style and brought to the web by Broadwater's brother Ben, who designed the site. (Luke Broadwater, who was a primary contributor when he spoke to City Paper, has since taken a job at The Howard County Times, although Janis says Broadwater will still contribute stories when he can.)

The 2009 State of the News Media report by the Pew Research center is about as uplifting as a suicide note, but it does contain some hopeful notes for what may be coming next.

One of the more promising new trends identified by the report is a number of new independent online ventures springing up around the country--specialized outlets, "often led and staffed by refugees from the mainstream press," providing "original reporting meant to fill what they see as an expanding void in what mainstream media now offer."

"For now," the report continues, "our sense is that they represent something complementary to the traditional news media."

With the closing of the Examiner, Janis became another refugee from the mainstream press, but the small paper with its emphasis on lots of short news stories prepared him to keep plugging away

"The Examiner was a good training ground," Janis, a former City Paper contributor, says. "It was like the Ranger School of journalism."

Now he averages a comparatively relaxed story-a-day, filed to editor Regina Holmes, another Examiner refugee, his partner in Investigative Voice.

"The minute they made the announcement it came into my head, because I thought 'we can't stop doing the stories that Luke and I have been working on. We can't stop,'" Janis says.

Investigative Voice isn't alone--the Pew Project cites VoiceofSanDiego.com, NewHavenIndependent.org, and Propublica.org among some of the larger new-media experiments, trying to fill the gaps left by shrinking staffs and budgets at newspapers, and often staffed by the very people who've been downsized. Locally, they're joined by sites like Baltimorebrew.com and former WYPR-FM host Marc Steiner's Center for Emerging Media.

"This is a good time for us to rethink it," Janis says. "This is our chance to seize the moment, because you don't need publishers to print rolls of paper."

You still need money, though. Janis puts in a full-time work week, he says, and so far, no one's really getting paid. Asked how the site is doing financially, Janis punts: "Let's just say we're keeping it lean and mean."

Investigative Voice is trying a couple of different methods to raise funds--selling ads on the site, and offering a pay-what-you-think-it's-worth subscription. "We're looking at the Radiohead model," Janis says. "If you like it, give us something, or you can read it for free."

"You can see the ads on our site," Broadwater says. "That's been our main source of income so far. We've also gotten some donations, but we're going to need to get that up a lot if it's going to be anybody's full-time job."

Across town, at a coffee shop in Hampden, Fern Shen gets a fill-up for her travel mug. In the past month or so, the one-time Evening Sun reporter and 17-year Washington Post veteran has been focusing her full-time attention on the Baltimore Brew, a web site she runs from her home in the Roland Park area. Where Investigative Voice is hard-charging and sparse, Baltimore Brew aims for a breezier, conversational approach to Baltimore news. On the site's "about us" page, she describes it as "your post-apocalyptic source of information and insight on the city." By "apocalypse" she means the state of the news industry. Baltimore Brew isn't making any money yet, but Shen says that doesn't stop the contributions from coming in.

"It's a place for people to do what they do, and keep the flame flickering until some sensible business model emerges," Shen says. "I'm surprised at the reception it's gotten, embryonic as it is and crude as it is. People are interested in it, and there's an appetite for it, and people want to write for it. It's kind of cool."

Shen wants the site to combine breaking news and expert commentary, and in the process to become a place for Baltimoreans to find out what's happening, but neither she nor Investigative Voice's Janis see their efforts as an attempt to replace The Sun.

"I can't pretend to fill in the gap for them," Shen says. She points to the Baltimore Brew columns of Joan Jacobson, a former Sun reporter, who has been chronicling the ever-shrinking local media for Brew since January: "She just went through all the beats at The Sun that used to be there, and all the feet on the ground that used to be here that aren't here anymore. With my motley crew of folks, I can't recreate that. But I can at least provide a place where we can do a little of that, and we can point to what is being done we can be sort of a smart filter on what's there . . . Do a lot with a little, to use the horrible phrase that bosses are hitting their employees in the head with."

It remains to be seen whether Investigative Voice or Baltimore Brew will turn a profit, but at a time when larger companies are closing or laying off reporters, a lot of journalists are watching experiments like theirs to see what's next. Janis, who is already thinking of expanding his site to other cities, put out an ad for freelancers in Philadelphia. He got about 50 responses.

"I find it hard to believe that something won't emerge, some way for journalism to continue," Janis says. "I can't believe that this can cease to exist in a democracy, simply because information is free. To me that defies logic."

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