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Homicide Watch D.C. is a community-oriented news site that covers violent crime in the nation’s capital. Founded in 2010, the site's founders Chris and Laura Amico document cases of homicide and then follow them to shed light on the circumstances surrounding each death. Much of the reporting is done by Laura, who spends countless hours in the courtroom, speaking with victims and ensuring that communities have the most up-to-date and accurate information on homicides in their neighborhood.
For her work, Laura was chosen as a Nieman-Berman Fellow at Harvard and has moved to Boston for the yearlong fellowship. In order to keep Homicide Watch D.C. alive, she and her husband created a Kickstarter campaign to fund several student internships throughout the academic year. The campaign was successful, meaning the interns (with Laura and Chris providing guidance from afar) will keep up with the events, and the site will not have to go on hiatus while the creators are away. We recently caught up with Laura to find out more about the site and how she plans to continue her reporting from 450 miles away.
Anton Root, Crowdsourcing.org: You and I met at a conference a few months back, but not all our readers may be familiar with Homicide Watch D.C. Can you tell me a little bit about your site and how it got started?
Laura Amico, Homicide Watch D.C. founder and editor: I was a crime reporter out in California, and Chris was hired by PBS Newshour in D.C., so we came here. Unfortunately in 2009, nobody was hiring cops reporters in the district, so I was unemployed. I tried to follow a couple of homicides in my neighborhood in the local media, and I wasn’t finding the information that I was looking for. So I said, ‘Well, I have time on my hands, I have these skills as a crime reporter, if this is the job that I want, how would I do it?’ Homicide Watch D.C. really grew out of that. We launched as a WordPress blog in September of 2010, and then we launched on a custom database software platform in August 2011.
What has it been like working in this space for the last few years? Do you feel like your contributions have made a difference in the community?
The community that grew up around Homicide Watch is really incredible. I never imagined being involved in a project that had such a community impact that I’ve felt this has. In the first full month of running, which was in October 2010, we had 500 page views. Our highest month was somewhere in June, July, or August of 2012, and we had 330,000 page views. The growth was just tremendous, and that was echoed in the way that the community was interacting with the content, as well. Commenting on it, sharing it, talking about it on Twitter and Facebook, talking to me about it when they saw me at court, and trying to help us with reporting in ways that sources have never helped me in the past.
Speaking of the reporting, can you walk me through a standard day for you?
It’s changed in the last couple of weeks because I’m in Boston, but typically, it’s full-time, editor, reporter, CEO. I start at about 7:30 in the morning with news and email checks. If there is anything that happened overnight, I would add the details to both the Homicide Watch database, and then write up a story on WordPress.
Once I’m done with that, it’s typically off to the courthouse for hearings. In D.C., hearings start at 9:30. If I’m in trial, I’m in trial all day. If it’s a preliminary hearing, it would end typically about 12:30 or 1 o’clock. I’d be interviewing people at court, talking to sources, doing typical beat reporting. I check for new arrests. If there are new ones, those charges are presented at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon. I’d go down to different courtrooms to see those suspects for the first time, and hear the preliminary details for the case.
Over the summer I had an intern, and spring semester I had an intern, as well. So typically, I have someone at the courthouse helping me, juggling two or three of us between various courtrooms. I’m reporting everything via the web over the course of the day, keeping an eye on Twitter and Facebook and various news sites to make sure we weren’t missing any breaking news. And then running the business portion of the site – making pitch calls, and working things out as they came up. It’s an art of multitasking. (laughs)
Sounds like it! And the community members also pitch in with any information they have, right? I think you mentioned that you open up a page for each shooting, victim, and suspect for community members to submit any information they have?
Right, there are a couple of different places for the people to interact. First of all, there are comments on every story. We see a lot of comments and action happening in those forums. On every page for victims, there is also a memorial section where people can leave comments. They’re somewhat more permanently displayable than comments on individual stories. What we saw a lot of was people leaving memorial comments talking about the cases, pointing me towards new information, asking us for updates for the cases in those comments.
Why do you think it’s important to highlight not just the victims, but the suspects, too?
I think one of the things that frustrated me most about traditional coverage is that often, police departments will put out a press release with the name of someone who’s been arrested in a case, particularly if it’s high profile. The news organizations run with that name. They publish it and say the person is arrested on the charge of first-degree murder, for example.
With Homicide Watch D.C., because we follow up on all the cases, we know that every first-degree murder arrest does not result in a first-degree murder conviction. Quite the contrary, the charges are reduced in some cases, and in others they’re dropped outright. I think it is not only necessary, but also responsible to publish the follow-up information if you publish the name to begin with. Homicide Watch is for following the cases and what happens, and I really wish more news organizations did that.
Moving on to the crowdfunding campaign, can you tell me why you decided to go through Kickstarter, and also a little bit about the campaign itself?
I found out I got the fellowship – it’s a terrific opportunity and I didn’t feel I could turn it down. We had intended to find a local partner, an organization or university, to carry on the D.C. site, and we weren’t able to make any agreements. We were looking for a Plan B. As a last call, we started a Kickstarter, thinking, “How can we make it a Kickstarter project? How can we ensure that the D.C. site stays up for at least a year?” We decided to turn it into a student reporting lab. We’ve had some fabulous students working on the project while I was overseeing it in D.C., and we thought it could be a terrific opportunity to teach crime reporting. We’re hoping to bring on two students for the fall semester, two for the spring semester, and one for the summer.
Do you think going through Kickstarter helped to raise your profile?
I think Kickstarter certainly is a vehicle for that. It gave a deadline for people who support us to go out and say that they support us. Kickstarter is sometimes criticized for having a deadline – if you don’t raise the money by a date, you don’t get any of it. I think in our case, that deadline was a good thing because it gave people a deadline to get behind us.
We were lucky to have such large support for our campaign. Clay Shirky, for sure; a [volunteer] took over a lot of the tweeting and was really a phenomenal help on the Kickstarter campaign; and then the David Carr column, which landed in the last five days of the campaign – that helped out as well. I think what people don’t know, and certainly I didn’t know, is that running a Kickstarter campaign is a full-time job. Chris and I were at the computer pretty much 24/7. Throughout the course of the campaign, one of us was always on duty, because you have to manage the community, keep getting the word out, keep people engaged, and make sure that your message is getting across. There’s this idea that Kickstarter is free money. Every time I hear that, I say, “No, it’s not, we worked very hard for 30 days to raise this money.”
I saw that you surpassed your $40,000 goal by nearly $8,000. Does that enable you to bring on one extra intern?
I hope it does. That actually covers the cost of running a Kickstarter campaign. So we ended up with about $43,000. I think that gives us a good amount of padding to have some flexibility in how we deal with summer, and perhaps how we deal with winter and spring breaks, as well.
I’m not sure if you were able to keep track of this, but how many of your donations were from members of your community, whose lives you directly affected, and how many were from people supporting you from afar?
We’ve been really curious about this. Unfortunately, Kickstarter does not have good analytics on where people are donating from. Anecdotally, speaking and seeing tweets from the D.C. community, there was an incredible amount of support. What percentage of the total that was, I don’t know.
How are you going to be overseeing this while you’re in Boston, and making sure that everything operates at the high standards that you’ve set there?
We’ll do check-ins with reporters the night before they come on duty, have a meeting with them about what’s going on the next day and what they’re spending their time on. Chris or I will be available to them during the day, while they’re working, if they need to pick up the phone or drop us an email – whatever they need to do to get in touch. We’ll do an afternoon, ending phone call session with them, as well. We’ve had a lot of offers from editors and reporters from D.C. who’d like to work with the students, as well, so we’re trying to figure out if we can set up a local mentoring network.
Looking into the future, is this something that you want to see happen outside of D.C.?
Yes, we just launched Homicide Watch Trenton in the past couple of weeks. Since the Kickstarter campaign, we’ve had lots of inquiries from other news organizations. We’re hoping that this winter can be an exciting time for more cities implementing Homicide Watch sites.
When you spread out to other cities, how will the sites support themselves?
Homicide Watch offers newsrooms an opportunity to do better crime coverage at less cost. One reporter can cover 100 homicides, from crime to conviction, which newsrooms don’t currently do. So I think it’s a good proposition for them, both in terms of making good use of their resources and cutting costs, as well as providing a better service to the community.
We want to get as many sites up and running as we can, as quickly as possible because that keeps our costs down too. As far the D.C. site goes, the goal is to make that self-sustaining within the next year. We have a one-year deadline. We have one year to pay these inters, and then that’s up. So, we have to find a local partner.
Are you looking at any specific organizations to partner with in D.C.?
I think that letting the site run as a student reporting lab is really exciting. It’s a bit of a test case, so we’ll see how it works. If it works as well as I hope it does, I think a university would be an excellent partner. Students are going to learn incredible skills – data reporting, investigative reporting, beat reporting – and that has a place in the university curriculum.