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Reporter at Large

Practically overnight, a former Sun editor becomes a major player in the Ithaca news scene.

Jeff Stein

Newshound: Ithaca Voice founder Jeff Stein ’13 outside Ithaca’s City Hall

Photo: Lisa Banlaki Frank

Thanks to a stint as a crime reporter at the Syracuse Post-Standard, Jeff Stein ’13 has developed what he calls “scanner ears”—the ability to half-listen to the police band and instantly divine when a big story breaks. That came in handy in June, when tragedy struck the Ithaca Com mons: a tractor-trailer lost its brakes and careened down East Hill, smashing into Simeon’s restaurant and killing a young bartender and her unborn child. Stein was among the first reporters on the scene, arriving before police cordoned it off.

It was just the fifth day in business for the Ithaca Voice, an online-only publication that’s the brainchild of the former Daily Sun managing editor. Devoted to covering news and features in Ithaca and Tompkins County, it aims to fill the void left by the diminution of local media, particularly the Gannett-owned Ithaca Journal. “The infinite variety, excitement, and energy in this town has yet to be explored in the manner it deserves,” he says, chatting over coffee in a downtown Starbuck’s. “There are so many exciting things happening here that aren’t being told in the way they should be.”

Stein and his small staff of contributors have indeed been covering the city with a vengeance, reporting on everything from petty crime (“Robber Snatches Purse from Woman in Ithaca’s Collegetown”) to human interest (“Ithaca Woman Starts New Business After Getting Cancer, Losing Commons Eatery in Fire”) to continuing coverage of ongoing stories (“Simeon’s Owner: ‘We’re Going Through on the Rebuild’ “). For Ithacans, the Voice has quickly become a go-to news source—an impressive accomplishment, particularly since it’s produced on a shoestring. The Voice‘s office, Stein says, is “whichever coffee shop I haven’t been to recently.”

A Manhattan native and the son of lawyers, Stein caught the journalism bug as a teen, when he did a piece for his high school paper about cafeteria workers whose attempts to unionize had been stymied. “That was a crystalizing moment,” he says, “when I realized that journalism is an amazingly powerful, interesting, impactful, deep profession where you can really make a difference in people’s lives.” As a staffer at the Post-Standard, he won an Associated Press award as the best young journalist in New York State, and another for spot news for covering the murder of a pizzeria owner.

On the Hill, Stein majored in history— an apt field, he notes, given that journalism is known as history’s first draft. He joined the Sun as a freshman—”I was one of those weird kids who e-mails the editors the summer before school saying how excited they are”—and that year was named the paper’s top reporter. He admits to some mistakes in his greener days, including a few misquotes and an excess of zeal; part of maturing a journalist, he says, was understanding that not every story is a scandal yearning to be broken. “I came into the Sun with a sort of bull-inthe- china-shop attitude; I’m much more professional now,” he says. “Especially as a freshman, I wanted to break big stories all the time. I had passion and fuel and fire, but it wasn’t always justified. And now that I have a lot more experience, I’m able to apply it more sparingly and therefore more powerfully.”

The Sun stories that Stein is most proud of include coverage of the alcoholrelated death of George Desdunes ’13 following a fraternity ritual, and a humaninterest piece on a cafeteria worker whose Cambodian wife was struggling to get through immigration. Then there was the one about the rapper who ran up a $1,000 bar tab in Collegetown and left without paying; it got picked up by Rolling Stone and made national headlines. “What’s so refreshing about Jeff’s work is that he takes the time to look at the issues from all sides and engages with the key stakeholders, refusing to simply engage in blind parroting of the University’s talking points,” Matthew Nagowski ’05 observed in his Meta Ezra blog in 2010. “It’s actual reporting. And the news pages of the Sun haven’t shined so brightly in quite some time.”

Stein left a well-paying job at the Post-Standard to start the Voice, entering a less-than-stellar economy at a time when the journalism industry is in decline—and even major players haven’t figured out how to profit from online news. Which begs the question: Is he nuts? “I’m young, and I have the luxury of doing this when I don’t have a family to feed,” Stein says. “The destruction of the business model for local newspapers is a huge problem if people can’t get good, in-depth reporting about what their city officials are doing. And I’m proud to say that within a few months of starting, we’ve added heat to the fire and done meaningful journalism that otherwise wouldn’t be done. Someone needs to figure out how to make money with online journalism, and I have a bunch of ideas of how I think we can crack that puzzle.”

Follow-up question: How?

“The main problem with newspapers on the Internet—and this is not just me; there have been studies—is that they’ve lost the ability to effectively provide advertising to businesses,” he says. “We hope to do that, using a video advertising platform. We think of ourselves in similar terms to the music service Spotify, which meets people at the point of demand and offers a free product, with advertisements that they have to sit through.”

In September, the Voice rolled out its new video ads. But Stein notes that the publication’s financial goals are modest in any event, since it’s built on a nonprofit model: it has gotten logistical help from the San Francisco-based Media Alliance, and in September it received a $35,000 grant for operational support from the Park Foundation. Otherwise, the Voice has been fueled in large part by Stein’s savings—and his indefatigable zeal. On Labor Day weekend, he notes, he managed to go a leisurely sixteen hours between posting stories. Then he started to get twitchy. “I think there’s something internal,” he says with a laugh, “that every time I post a story, a ticking clock in my head starts counting down.”