Blogging on Murder: A Reporter’s Story

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A prosecutor once told me of D.C.’s Moultrie Courthouse, “there’s a Pulitzer to be won in these halls every day.”

I believe him.

The cases he was referring to were not the high-profile slayings that splash on the front pages of our local press from time to time. Instead he was talking about the other hundred-odd murders that take lives in D.C. every year. The deaths that are not newsworthy because the victim was too old or too young or too poor or the wrong race or from the wrong side of the river.

In late September I launched Homicide Watch, an online reporting project covering every homicide in our nation’s capitol. I report the cases of victims old and young, rich and poor, black, white, Latino, from Anacostia to Dupont Circle. Often, I’m the only reporter in the courtroom.

I launched Homicide Watch in part to prove that we can do better for our victims of violent crime–those who have died, those who have survived, and those who have been incarcerated. I did it to see if committing to reporting every homicide, from initial crime report through prosecution, could influence how we talk about homicide in the District of Columbia.

It has.

Last month Homicide Watch D.C., marked an important milestone: we’ve been online for six months. Not only that, but in six months we’ve woven ourselves into the reporting fabric of Washington D.C.. We have been called the “most comprehensive chronicler of the unlawful taking of human life” by the Washington Post and the “best way to keep track of bodies” by Washington City Paper.

Best of all, our readers agree. Wrote one, “I think it is one of the best things that has come to this city in a long time.”

Kitchen Table Experiment

How did an independent, unfunded journalism experiment using a kitchen table as office space make such an impact?

I left my cops reporter job at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat in September 2009 and moved to D.C. when my husband, Chris, accepted a job with PBS NewsHour. Several killings in the months after I moved to the District, including one just a few blocks from our home, showed me that homicide coverage in D.C. was uneven at best. With a few exceptions, if crimes were covered, they soon faded off the front pages and out of the news completely.

I learned quickly that in Washington, so many arrests, court dates and memorial services were simply not a part of the published public record. Many people?like myself?were left wondering, “What ever happened with the murder down the street?”

To answer that question, I started Homicide Watch, with Chris’ help on nights and weekends. Through traditional beat reporting, supplemented with online tools, we would mark every death, remember every victim and follow every case. This became our motto.

We knew from the start that we would be collecting a lot of the same information over and over again (name, place, age, weapon, time) and that a database would have to be built as the project’s backbone.

We also knew that without a staff of reporters (or a newsroom) that social media would have to be built into the site, so that people in the community could help fill in some of the more personal details on victims and suspects (collecting photos, announcing memorials and more).

To create the site, I drew on the successes of homicide blogs, murder maps and other online projects including the Los Angeles Times’ War Dead and Homicide Report, Chicago Redeye, Not Just a Number and the excellent D.C. highly-focused site Who Murdered Robert Wone.

I liked different things about each site. Where one kept an excellent map of crimes, another dug deep into the human stories and another kept news active, updating cases and outcomes. I wanted to take each of these strengths and build them into the comprehensive public record of D.C. homicides that my community needed.

Technology Mash-up

We launched a prototype of the site on WordPress at the end of September 2010, using a mash-up of online and traditional reporting techniques including maps, social media integration, case stats, homicide counts, and an emphasis on comments and community building. We added a few features of our own, too: a documents library of primary sources, a courts calendar and a “memorials” comments section for victims’ families and friends to leave messages about their loss.

Though the site still lacks many of the features outlined in our original brainstorming sessions, it has quickly become a go-to resource for many in the community, including reporters who use it to check in on upcoming court dates and to find sources and story tips.

What makes the site work is that I’ve approached Homicide Watch as a beat reporter with an open notebook policy. The initial description of the project was “everything a cops reporter would have in their notebook or on their desk when covering a case.”

Each blog post is an extension of that. Sometimes the posts are exactly what I would have written in my traditional newsroom. Sometimes they reflect a smaller piece of the story: they are a singular link, a stand alone photo, a small tidbit. Sometimes they are completely different than anything I could have accomplished in a traditional newsroom: creating a narrative of a homicide from social media posts brings a case, and a victim, to life in ways that I never could have reported in a ten-inch report from a crime scene.

In every post, though, reporting remains at the heart of what I do.

Unique among other homicide blogs and murder maps, Homicide Watch follows each case through the criminal justice system, recording arraignments, indictments, pleas, plea deals, motions and more. This coverage, more than anything, is the meat of the site, taking us beyond the breaking news beat and helping us ask (and eventually) answer important questions about how murders are investigated and tried.

 

Part of what makes this work possible is that D.C. maintains excellent open records, making it easy to report on the charging documents, for example, before a defendant is even presented with the charge. The police department regularly posts online fliers with homicide victims’ photos as part of an effort to get people to come forward with information about the murder. And it can’t go without saying that like any police reporter, my best work can only be done with sourcing. The cooperation of D.C. Superior Courts and law enforcement has been critical to my ability to report.

The ability to source through social media, though has been equally important. In part because of our strong online presence, I’ve been able to accurately identify homicide victims through site analytics, comments, Twitter and Facebook before a press release is issued by the police department. (For more on this, see how the story of Antonio Wade’s killing unfolded on Homicide Watch.)

 

Additionally, I’ve worked very carefully and deliberately to build an online community whose individuals contribute to meaningful conversations about homicide. I moderate comments and encourage users to display their real names and use real email addresses. A commenting policy is prominently displayed on the site. It clearly states that discussion is encouraged but any comments with any threats, vulgarity or personal attacks will not be approved.

Minimum Cost

Because the site is currently not funded, we’ve kept the cost of running the site to a minimum. We rely on open source software and free tools. We use a DocumentCloud documents library, a Facebook plugin for photo galleries, WordPress Geo for crime scene maps, Google calendars for a public homicide court date calendar, Storify for social-media storytelling, Twitter for community outreach and a WordPress plugin for mobile sites. All of these tools are free.

Even if we had venture capital funding we would continue to use these tools. Not only are they functional for their tasks, but they help us reach out on platforms that people are already using, and help us to stay ahead of the news.

Since our launch, Chris and I have paid for Homicide Watch on our own, through savings and the occasional freelance job (for me) that comes out of this coverage. We raised money through Spot.Us (link spot.us) and have a PayPal “donate” button on our home page. These efforts have brought in about $1,200 for the site.

To decrease our personal liability, we launched the site only after filling paperwork with D.C. to operate as a Limited Liability Corporation, which keeps our personal assets safe if we were to be sued. As the site grows we anticipate formally creating Homicide Watch as a non-profit organization.

In order for Homicide Watch to be sustainable we must find funding to pay a full-time editor/reporter in the next six months. To do this, I am pursuing various reporting and criminal justice grants and seeking out partnerships with media organizations and blog networks in the area.

Homicide Watch D.C.’s take-off has been faster than I anticipated, thanks in large part to a big welcome from the D.C. media world.

Within the first three months, Homicide Watch coverage was linked to by the Washington Post, TBD, City Paper, DCist, and DCentric as well as several other local blogs. Now, members of the police department subscribe to my email updates and victims and suspects families are using comments boards to tell their side of the story, to talk to one another, and to announce vigils, funerals, memorials and fundraisers. Without any marketing, Homicide Watch now averages 75,000 page views a month and 17, 500 visits. Best of all, our readers are spending almost five minutes on the site.

For newsroom metrics, these are pretty good ones and I’m confident that as our coverage and brand grows the numbers will improve even more.

Local reporters often want to know what the “magic” is behind what Homicide Watch does. The magic is there is no magic.

Any newsroom and any reporter could have launched this site. And any reporter anywhere I believe, still can. What has made Homicide Watch work is that I took a hard look at what reporting was being done, I identified the gaps in coverage, and thought about what I could do to fill them. I then took the project to where my audience already was: online, mobile and on social networks.

A year ago I was told not to bother starting Homicide Watch; that the homicides in D.C. all amounted to “drug deals gone bad” and that there was no reason to cover more than a handful of them.

At the time, I didn’t think that that could be true. Now I know that it’s not.

I’m currently tracking 58 homicides. Less than a dozen so far would classify as a “drug deal gone bad.”

What else will we discover when we try?

Laura Amico is Editor of Homicide Watch D.C. and a former Harry Frank Guggenheim/John Jay Reporting Fellow.

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