Stephen Janis, journalist and content director of Investigative Voice, gives a behind the scenes look at digital investigative journalism in relation to a recent story he broke on a local government employee who had been on the Baltimore city payroll and collecting sick pay while in prison.
Writing on Nieman Journalism Lab, Janis looks at the opportunities and challenges of investigating and breaking such a story on a digital platform, following a study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) which he claims concluded that Investigative Voice “was all but irrelevant to the city’s news flow”.
The study entitled ‘A Study of the News Ecosystem of One American City’ reports that “the expanding universe of new media, including blogs, Twitter and local websites—at least in Baltimore—played only a limited role: mainly an alert system and a way to disseminate stories from other places”.
But Janis says the impact of the case study shows a greater role than that.
These discoveries and quite a bit more—for example, DPW supervisors had threatened to fire an employee who discovered that McLaughlin was on the state’s Sex Offender Registry—were published in a series of stories on Investigative Voice, the website where I work as a senior reporter and content director. Baltimore’s inspector general opened a department-wide probe, and the city solicitor ordered a citywide review of personnel policies related to criminal convictions and the employment of sex offenders in jobs that bring them into contact with the public. Because of the governmental watchdog reporting we do at Investigative Voice, I was distressed by the implied assumption in the study that the purpose of a website like ours is to replicate what our print brethren is doing.
Yet folks at Investigative Voice and other websites like ours are rethinking how to keep a watchful eye on city government agencies, personnel, policies and practices in a ways that will have impact. The old assumption is not our starting point.Our impulse as digital journalists is to innovate—and this means finding stories that aren’t being covered by other news media in Baltimore and doing what we can to illuminate them in ways that propel people to act. While we take full advantage of our digital platform, we adamantly uphold the basic tenets of investigative journalism.
He adds that unlike some online news media, Investigative Voice’s focus is not on page impressions or clicks – but making the most of strong images, information rich material and “eye-catching” headlines.
What set us apart, however, are our homepage’s outsized graphics and our investigative mission; in both, we aim for a different model of social influence within the community.Our consistent focus on this scandal, coupled with bold, eye-catching two-word headlines (white words set against a black background), provocative subheads, and information-laden captions reinforced our emphasis on watchdog reporting and lent authority to the investigation as it unfolded on our Web site. In some ways, our digital approach harkens back to the heyday of newspapers in the early 1900’s when boys hawking papers shouted out headlines designed to catch the attention of passers-by. Economically, this translates into an ability to market our influence with readers and advertisers in a qualitative rather than a quantitative way; impact and influence triumph over eyeballs and clicks.