The Lessons of Homicide Watch

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The motto of Homicide Watch is simple: Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case.

The work, however, is hard.

It’s hard because that motto is a promise, in D.C., in Chicago, in Trenton, and Boston, that not a single violent death will be unacknowledged.

That not a single victim will be unremembered.

That not a single case will be unreported.

My husband, Chris, and I launched Homicide Watch in Washington D.C. in September 2010. I was an unemployed cops reporter from California. Chris was a programmer-journalist recently hired by PBS NewsHour. (Read more about our launch in this story in The Crime Report.)

I didn’t know what Homicide Watch was going to be, but I saw unanswered needs in my neighborhood: street shrines memorializing the dead, online obituaries being paid for in order to keep threads of memories together, Facebook groups built so families could update one another on what was happening in court cases.

I built Homicide Watch D.C. at the intersection of community memorial, criminal justice, and journalism to meet these needs. The response was instantaneous.

Five hundred page views in the first month. Then 5,000 another. Then 500,000 another.

It has been an honor for the past four years to do this work. As I prepare for my next challenge– an editor position with the Boston Globe—I’ve gathered seven of my lessons learned from starting Homicide Watch to share.

People not maps

If you take a look at most publications’ crime apps, what you see is a map. Here’s the problem: a map only tells you where crime happens. The story that Homicide Watch tells is different.

It’s about people. We organize information around people (victims’ pages and suspects’ pages) and we bring as many voices into the conversation as possible, realizing that in the end, these aren’t our stories to tell.

Stories, not data

Homicide Watch is driven by a robust database, tracking all the locations, victim and suspect details, updates in the criminal justice process. We use these details for strong data-driven reporting but we remember always that the data isn’t the story. The people are.

And so we use our data to look closely at what is usual and unusual, to build context, and to help us understand particular cases better.

Finding the right question

In listening to my community, I realized the questions that needed answering in crime reporting were not who was being killed, how and where; but instead how the criminal justice system was working. From families and friends of victims and suspects, to the teachers, bosses, bus drivers, and neighbors who interacted with those people daily, many felt as though they didn’t know if—or how—the system was working.

Explaining this process through the daily reporting of cases and building conversation about how people wanted the criminal justice system to work became our mission very early on.

Looking forward

By building community knowledge of the criminal justice system and creating a database framework for covering cases over time, we are able to help our community not just understand the status of a particular case, we help our community prepare for what will come next.

This helps them better think about what they hope possible outcomes of the cases are, and to better communicate what they want to have happen.

Collaboration and inspiration

Homicide Watch taught me just how much journalism is—or should be—a collaborative.

Instead of speaking so much about innovation, I think sometimes we should focus on inspiration. Paying attention to and admiring the work of others leads us to do our best work. In building Homicide Watch, 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, in D.C., Who Murdered Robert Wone.

But my fellowship year taught me to look beyond similar projects for inspiration and collaboration. I now look to the reporters, editors, producers and developers I share office space with. Also to my sources, my colleagues at other organizations, literature and music.

Being widely engaged helps me solve problems in new and creative ways, ultimately helping me answer my community’s needs better.

Hiring

When I moved to Boston in August 2012 to accept the first Nieman-Berkman fellowship at Harvard, we hired interns to take over the daily work that I had done in D.C. Our interns have been singularly talented, dedicated, and ambitious. They have brought new ideas to the table and woven themselves into the community they cover.

I am proud of all 13 of them, every day, for this.

Chris and I hired carefully, with an eye to diversity of professional and personal experience, knowing that the greater the diversity of voices behind Homicide Watch, the stronger our organization would be. Six of our thirteen employees have been female, eight have been people of color, two have been veterans.

They have gone on to full-time employment with the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Associated Press, the Trentonian, the Center for Public Integrity, and more. They have moved abroad to teach. They have applied to law school.

Other journalism startups should take note.

Finally, the hardest lesson:

When to leave

Moving to Boston for the Nieman-Berkman fellowship was my first step away from my fledgling journalism project. In my absence, my role changed. I became an editor, publisher, hiring manage,r and strategist. The greatest joy in this new role was in watching others succeed with Homicide Watch and surpass what I was able to accomplish.

As interns have trained, worked, and been hired (joyfully) to better jobs, as the Trentonian, Sun-Times and Northeastern University have launched their own Homicide Watch sites, and as Chris has taken on an increasing role in the hiring, mentoring, and managing of our staff, I’ve been aware of outstaying my usefulness.

That Homicide Watch can be strong and successful without me is one of my greatest achievements.

It’s also a sign that there is more I need to reach for.

As Chris and I commit to Boston, and as I transition to my new role as multimedia and data projects editor at the Boston Globe, we know that we leave Homicide Watch D.C. in good hands. We’re not completely gone: Chris will continue to run day-to-day operations for the near future.

But we know that a local news site such as Homicide Watch D.C. deserves to be managed by people committed to the city. People who live there. It needs a DC home in order to continue to exist and thrive.

We are hopeful that this will happen by the end of the year and we look forward to helping that transition and following the continued good work of Homicide Watch in Washington.

The work that I’ve done the past four years with Homicide Watch is work that I will always be proud of. The community of Homicide Watch, of readers, sources, detectives, attorneys, journalists, is one that I am grateful for every day.

That Homicide Watch is building strong communities across the nation with the Chicago Sun-Times, the Trentonian, and Northeastern University is the best imaginable outcome for a small journalism project I started from my kitchen table.

Watching these partners expand what Homicide Watch is, and bringing their own experiences, needs, and voices to the platform has been—and remains— a joy.

The lessons above? I take them with me to the Globe, where talented reporters are working every day on important, engaging, meaningful stories and beats.

But they are also worthwhile guidelines for reporters everywhere who are covering our criminal justice system in print, online or broadcast.

Write about people. Don’t mistake the data for the story. Find the right question. Look forward, and help your community do that, too. Seek inspiration widely and collaborate. Hire wisely and well, with a dedication to being inclusive and great.

Above all, reach, always.

Laura Amico is multimedia and data projects editor at the Boston Globe. She is co-founder of Homicide Watch, an inaugural Nieman-Berkman Fellow in Journalism Innovation at Harvard and an inaugural MJ Bear Fellow with the Online News Association. She’s also been honored as a John Jay/ Harry Frank Guggenheim/ Reporting Fellow and participated in the Knight News Entrepreneurs Bootcamp. Laura welcomes comments from readers.

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