Stephen Janis definitely took a path less traveled to the world of TV news.
For one thing, he was already 47 years old when he got his first full-time TV job. And at that age, he had virtually no TV training or experience — had never even written a script.
He had produced songs like the 1996 chart-topper "Let Me Clear My Throat" for the rapper DJ Kool, played on and scored parts of the soundtrack for John Waters' "Cecil B. Demented," done first-rate reporting for the Baltimore Examiner, founded the Investigative Voice website and served as a substitute radio host for Ed Norris.
But TV — next to nothing.
And yet just two years after WBFF-TV took a chance on hiring him as an investigative producer, Janis has two regional Emmys for investigative series on his resume. The most recent was awarded last month for a tough and thorough examination of the controversial deals made in 2012 for telephone services at City Hall.
The series Janis did with reporter Melinda Roeder, who also won an Emmy for her work, was textbook in its documentation of fact and willingness to ask tough questions about deals the city made with a company called Digicon for IT and consulting services. The year before, he and Roeder won for an equally hard-eyed look at the proposed State Center in Baltimore.
Despite the fact that even the most loyal Fox 45 viewers will rarely see Janis on screen because of his backstage producer's role, his brand of top-notch watchdog journalism is one of the best reasons I know to feel good about Baltimore TV news these days. Credit Fox 45 for seeing something in Janis that other news operations in town didn't.
I see his success as evidence of the way reporters from the world of print journalism can enrich a TV newsroom. That's something I had regularly seen in the larger markets of Detroit and Dallas, where I once worked, but not so much in Baltimore. In a larger sense, I also see Janis as a brilliant example of midlife reinvention by someone who was almost downsized out of the news business by the vast forces of change storming through the media business.
"Really, thank God I was given this chance in television, because print jobs are hard to find. I feel very fortunate TV was there," the 49-year-old Janis says, "They didn't have to bring in a print guy. It would have been easier to bring in a guy from TV."
Mike Tomko, Fox 45 news director, says that Janis doesn't seem like such a long shot when you look at him from the station's point of view in 2011.
WBFF was long committed to investigative journalism, Tomko says. And the station liked the investigations Janis had done at the Examiner from 2006 to 2009 and then online at the Investigative Voice. When then news director Scott Livingston was looking about for a producer to work with reporters like Roeder and Joy Lepola, Janis looked like a good fit, despite his lack of TV experience.
"Stephen has a lot of sources in the administration and the Police Department, law enforcement in general. He's not afraid to ask tough questions," Tomko says. "And you look at that, and then it kind of became a natural decision whether this guy has a background in television or newspapers."
The transition, says Janis, was not easy.
"It's a different kind of writing, for one thing," he says. "I remember writing my first script, and I looked down and it was like seven minutes. And I was like, 'What did I do?' "
"And Scott was like, 'You know our longest stories are 2 and 30 [2 minutes and 30 seconds in length].' And I'm like, 'Oh, OK.' "
And then there was the time just after he started that he excitedly called Roeder to tell her he had gotten a key quote for one of their stories.
"On paper or on video?" she said. "Because if it didn't happen on video, I don't care."
Laughing about it today, Roeder says, "Of course, I was joking with him. So he had to learn, 'Oh no, that's a sound bite in television.' And he did [learn]."
While you can teach someone about sound bites and the technology of television, what you can't impart is passion and sense of journalistic purpose. And Janis is nothing if not passionate about what he does and the larger civic function of reporting.
A Fox 45 report that aired May 20 offers a snapshot of Janis in the role of watchdog journalist. A station photographer shooting from the hallway outside a city meeting room shows Janis standing in the doorway as the door is closed on him. Janis had just asked the city officials in the room if he, Roeder and The Baltimore Sun's Luke Broadwater were going to be allowed to cover the city's Board of Finance as it considered $107 million in tax-increment financing related to the Harbor Point development.
But the report also shows them waiting hours in the hallway, only to be called in just as the chairman adjourned the meeting. Frustration? Sure, but it clearly showed viewers the way some business involving taxpayer money is conducted in Baltimore — and how hard you have to sometimes fight for anything beyond news release journalism.
"I don't think it's natural for anybody, because when you're confronted like that, it can become uncomfortable," he says. "But once you realize you're representing the one person who is never represented, the average person, the person who doesn't have a lobbyist, it becomes much more comfortable."
Janis' greatest passion is for the kind of investigative journalism Fox 45 lets him do. He says that passion drove him to co-found the Investigative Voice website in 2009 after the Examiner folded, even though the economics for a small journalism startup like his were impossible.
"The reason I did Investigative Voice is because when they closed the Examiner, I just couldn't let go of my stories," he says. "I was sort of like in denial. But at the same time, there was no way to make it pay. So when Fox 45 gave me this opportunity, it just changed my life. It was wonderful."
Speaking of his days as a record producer and in other journalism gigs, Janis says, "Oh, man. You don't know how much better it is now, how hard it was before, never knowing if you're going to be able to pay your rent, not having health insurance. My God, my life is totally transformed. To be able to go down and do real journalism and know you're going to have a steady paycheck and health benefits is a wonderful thing."
A native of New York City, the 1986 Hamilton College graduate lives in Baltimore with his fiancée, Taya M. Graham, and two teenage sons, Miles and Evan.
WJZ-FM morning show host Ed Norris, who featured Janis in a weekly "City Beat" feature on his radio show during the "Investigative Voice" days, says he's not surprised to see Janis thriving on TV.
"I'm a firm believer that talented people can function anywhere," Norris says. "He's a real talent, a very bright guy, a true investigative reporter who really seeks the truth. I just wish we had more like him in this city."
"The thing about Stephen," Roeder says, "is he gets so excited about news, about breaking news. He'll get a tip and he jumps up, and his arms go flailing and his glasses fly off his face. It's so much fun to be around a true newsman like that — it's great."