Investigative Voice plays a watchdog role in its coverage of Baltimore city government, such as the story it broke about a municipal worker who was on the city payroll while in prison.
My cell phone rang at roughly 11 p.m.
“Turn on the television,” said a man I’ll call Michael, an employee of the Baltimore City Department of Public Works (DPW). “That’s Dennis! They arrested Dennis!”
I didn’t know who Dennis was, but Michael doesn’t make late-night calls to pass along trivial information. For several years he had alerted me to acts of malfeasance inside the city agency responsible for everything from filling potholes to managing the Baltimore region’s water supply.
“That’s him,” he said. “He works for the department; that’s Dennis McLaughlin, man.”
On the screen flashed a mug shot of a heavyset bald man, his rounded face punctuated by a droplet-sized goatee. Indeed, a Dennis McLaughlin had been arrested for impersonating a police officer. Using a phony badge and a dashboard-mounted beacon, he had pulled over two young women in Baltimore County, placed one under arrest, and then began fondling her. The victim managed to escape. Through a partial reading of his license plate, police tracked him down and charged him with a number of offenses, including impersonating a police officer, false imprisonment, and assault.
On the Richter scale of newsworthiness, impersonating a police officer is mildly catastrophic. But if McLaughlin were a city employee, the story was several degrees more enticing, especially to my City Hall-centric audience. As I checked through the numerous news stories about his arrest (and other misdeeds), I found not a single mention of his city job. My curiosity piqued, I decided to dig a little deeper into McLaughlin’s background, prompted in part by my source, who said that McLaughlin had taken an eight-month leave of absence recently for a hernia operation, an absence rumored not to be related to a medical issue at all.
Using a list of city employees I’d obtained while working on a story documenting some significant city spending on employee overtime, I found a Dennis McLaughlin listed on the city’s 2008 payroll. According to these records, McLaughlin had earned a salary of roughly $26,000, including $4,508 in overtime. It was not the full annual salary for his position, but more than one would earn with extended leave.
A quick check of his criminal record revealed something even more intriguing: McLaughlin had been sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2007, meaning it was possible that he was in jail at the time that city payroll records indicated he was earning a salary of $21,000 a year, plus $4,500 in overtime.
How Could This Be Possible?
With a bit of digging, helped by my source and David Scott, the director of public works, I determined that McLaughlin was not only on the city payroll while in jail, but collected sick pay while serving an eight-month sentence for sexually abusing a minor. It also turned out that McLaughlin had help: someone had submitted fake leave slips, signed by a doctor stating that he was receiving medical attention.
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 Web site where I work as a senior reporter and content director. Baltimore’s inspector general opened a departmentwide 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.
This was not the first time that our Web site, dedicated to watchdog journalism, broke a fairly major story. Our small staff regularly breaks stories, including a recent series on the city pension board’s taking luxury junkets.
The Digital Difference
Other than our partners at WBFF, the Baltimore Fox affiliate, no other news organization in Baltimore covered the McLaughlin case or the pension board’s antics. I mention this absence of a media chorus because about the same time we were publishing the McLaughlin story, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) published a study on Baltimore media, which concluded that Investigative Voice (lumped in with other “new media” news outlets) was all but irrelevant to the city’s news flow.
The PEJ study focused on six high-profile stories from one week of Baltimore’s news coverage in July 2009. The stories were tracked as they moved through various news outlets and into the public arena. The idea was, according to PEJ, “to see how the ecosystem moved, how information traveled from one sector to another, who initiated the news and who was first to transmit and frame the narratives that the rest of the media followed.”
Here are some of PEJ’s conclusions:
Among the six major news threads studied—which included stories about city budgets, crime, public buses, and the sale of a local theater—83 percent of stories conveyed no new information. Of the 17 percent that contained new information, nearly all came from traditional media either in print or online.
General interest newspapers including The (Baltimore) Sun produced 48 percent of those stories and other print publications, namely business and law newspapers, produced another 13 percent.
Online outlets or broadcast news provided very little original reporting or new information.
In two cases new media broke news. In one, the police Twitter feed broke a story, an example of what is traditionally a newsmaker breaking news directly to the public rather than through the press. In the other, a local blog picked up a story that the mainstream press nearly missed entirely. It involved a plan by the state to put listening devices on buses to deter crime. A newspaper reporter noticed the blog post, then reported on the story, which led the state to drop the plan.
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 Web site like ours is to replicate what our print brethren is doing.
Yet folks at Investigative Voice and other Web sites 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.
Had the PEJ researchers asked, I would have explained that our goal isn’t to duplicate or follow stories that are already widely reported. My reporting partners—Regina Holmes, a colleague from the now-defunct Baltimore Examiner, and former Sun reporter Alan Z. Forman—do not work seven days a week for minuscule pay to proffer a watered-down version of a legacy paper or TV news.
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. 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.
‘Social Model’ of Investigative Journalism
What we call our “social model” of investigative journalism is showing signs that it’s working for us—and readers. And what we’ve learned in trying this approach can shed light on the future of newsgathering and its distribution in the digital domain.
At Johns Hopkins University, I taught a course on the disassembling of the music business that was precipitated by the birth of the file sharing. This collapse is similar in ways to the economic unraveling of journalism today. We studied a concept called “object relation” that refers to the set of cultural relationships, in this case, stemming from the distribution of music. Put simply, the technology—the compact disc—served as a gateway of sorts, forming an implicit cultural contract that organized the artist, listener and promoter around a process of disseminating new music to a receptive audience.
In the newsgathering business, the object relation is, of course, the newspaper. To a certain extent, the newspaper created a loose barrier to entry, a quasi-monopoly on the conveyance of print news. The paper also established itself as an aggregator of information and a portal for community events—qualities that the World Wide Web challenged. But the newspaper and its limited space also imposed a de facto discipline, a parsing of choices and a distinction of purpose that heightened the relevancy of print reporting.
The mantra of the Web is about capturing eyeballs by embellishing sites with bells and whistles to draw in multitudes of visitors. This strategy is premised on the idea that a huge audience brings in advertising dollars, which is a relic of old media thinking. In practice, this approach translates into ad revenues that turn out to be utterly worthless in relation to the cost of creating the content that would lure an adequate audience. For example, Advertising.com offers 30 cents per 1,000 impressions. Do the math and even a daily audience of one million page views translates into $300 for a single ad per day—hardly enough to run a newsroom that would be capable of attracting a million readers, even with multiple ads placed throughout the site.
This is why Investigative Voice has constructed a different approach revolving around a well-defined and articulated expectation about the stories we cover and aggressive graphics to display them. We parse, organize and emphasize with the idea that the worthiness of our efforts will be measured by the influence and relevance of our reporting. Thus, if we return to the idea of object relation, our digital approach is constructed on concision and appearance.
The Impact of Reporting
After Investigative Voice’s reporting on the McLaughlin story highlighted deficiencies in the city’s handling of municipal employees on sick leave who are facing criminal charges, the Inspector General’s (IG) office launched a probe. The IG’s 17-page report on the investigation was handed over to prosecutors for possible criminal charges. The report revealed that McLaughlin fraudulently received $12,700 in sick pay while in jail. In response, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake closed a loophole in the city employee manual when she signed an executive order requiring all city employees to inform their supervisors when they are arrested. Failure to do so may result in termination.
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. By breaking watchdog news and delivering investigative reporting, our relevance to those who live in Baltimore has become the value we sell to advertisers. As our relevance increases, so too does our ability to engage advertisers and attract readers in ways that will make our fiscal survival possible. (Of course, as I mentioned, our staff is small, our hours long, and let me add here that our compensation is lean.)
It is building this social infrastructure—and creating distinctly new relationships with readers—that is key to acclimating people to new ways of consuming news. Similarly, the carving out of a distinctive digital space and mission will be what creates the path to viability for those of us in the business of reporting the news. Our stories have to be relevant to readers so that what we produce gets embedded into their daily lives one link at a time. Then it’s up to them to decide if we’ve earned their trust to the extent that our survival is something they care about—and care about enough to see that it happens.
Stephen Janis is a senior reporter and content director of Investigative Voice, a Web site dedicated to investigative reporting about government in the city of Baltimore. He will be teaching journalism at Towson University this fall.