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May 5, 2011, noon

A place for Homicide Watch: Can a local blog fill some of the gaps in Washington, D.C.’s crime coverage?

While I was sitting with Laura and Chris Amico in their apartment in the Adams Morgan area of Washington, D.C., Chris suddenly sat upright and began reading aloud a comment that had just come into the couple’s blog, Homicide Watch.

“Sounds like some pretty shoddy detective work,” wrote the commenter on a post about a murder defendant named James Speaks. The post reported that Speaks’ defense attorney had suggested that blame for the murder of Shonell “Chris” Corriea rested on a deceased man named Kevin Washington. “It appears the evidence to all be ‘he said, he said, he said, he saw,’ the comment noted. “The State should be held to higher standards in a serious [murder charge trial]. James now has [to] linger in jail until JULY 8, 77 days, before they can check out his alibi, or get witnesses who can say where James was the night of the murder of Shonell Corriea. The State should get it together and stop relying on snitches with criminal backgrounds and people with selfish motives.”

Chris looked up from his laptop. “There’s a lot going on in that comment,” he said. “There’s a lot of sympathy for both sides. It’s deep.”

Comments like this continue to flow in as residents of the D.C. area gravitate to Homicide Watch, a blog that has filled a vacuum in media coverage since it was launched in September 2010. (The Lab wrote about the project after the pair entered it in the Knight News Challenge in 2009.) Laura and Chris, who married last summer, have spent many days and nights since that launch fulfilling its main mission, outlined under its title: “Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case.” This is a task that up until now has remained largely unfulfilled by D.C.’s traditional media outlets; unless a murder is particularly notable, news organizations generally run little more than a rewritten press release from the police department noting a murder, arrest, or a conviction. Late last year, Homicide Watch published a stunning post revealing that in 2010 there were several murders that hadn’t been reported at all. But given that Laura is devoting all her working hours to writing for Homicide Watch without pay — and that Chris must balance his work on the site with a full-time job at NPR — can the two create a sustainable long-term model to fill in the gaps of D.C.’s homicide coverage? And, if so, can that model be emulated in other cities?

“Scanner junkies”

Neither are strangers to journalism. The two met in college while working on the university newspaper, and both started out in the professional world as education reporters. In 2007, Laura moved to Santa Rosa, California to work as a crime reporter for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. Almost immediately, she realized she had found her calling. “I think that when I took the cops reporter job, I approached it in a very traditional way,” she said. “It was a very old beat in the newsroom.” There were two reporters who worked the morning shift and then Laura would come in at 10 a.m., working sometimes on into the night. A photographer at a newspaper she had previously worked for had been a “scanner junkie,” and when she came on to the Press Democrat she found that she had inherited that same addiction to the scratchy audio snippets emanating from police dispatchers. “We covered two large counties, so there was always something going on,” she explained. “If it wasn’t the police department, it was the fire department — vehicle collision, drug bust, whatever it was. It’s just a matter of listening to the scanner, responding, writing it up for the web real quick, and then fleshing it out for the paper.”

Near the end of her tenure at the paper, she stumbled across a case that would foreshadow her reporting techniques for Homicide Watch. There had been a murder of an older man committed by a person named Aaron Vargas in Fort Bragg, California. One of the other reporters at the Press Democrat had already written a straight news story of the murder, but Laura had been up one night surfing the web when she came across a Facebook page called “Save Aaron Vargas.” At first, she was perplexed. “There was an obscene number of followers on the page,” she said. “And I thought, ‘Why do all these people want to save Aaron Vargas?’ In this very small town, he allegedly killed someone. Why would they like him?” As it turned out, Vargas’ defense was that the man he killed had molested him for years, along with several other people in the same area. “So I took a couple weeks squeezing that story with all the others I was doing at the same time,” Laura recalled. “I spent some time up in Fort Bragg, got to know the families, and wrote that up. It was just fascinating to me, because it was a little quirk in the case. Not only because there’s this Facebook page for the defendant, but because it had sort of exposed this rift in the town.”

Meanwhile, Chris had been trying his hand at freelancing in the Bay Area — “not very successfully.” He had even applied for a reporting job at the Press Democrat, but didn’t get it. In addition to his journalism skills, he was also adept at coding, and his luck turned one night in 2009 when he was up late writing code for a journalism tool he had built. An employee from PBS’ NewsHour had been online as well trying to track down someone in Iceland for a podcast when he came across Chris’ tweets about his coding project. NewsHour, it turned out, was looking to hire someone who could code.

Chris moved to D.C. shortly after accepting the job, which included building web products, writing code for visualizing data, and straight-up reporting. Several months later, Laura quit the Press Democrat and moved to D.C. to start an arduous and discouraging job hunt. After a “few depressing weeks,” she took a part-time job writing for a trade publication that covered the public broadcasting industry, attending NPR board meetings and FCC committee hearings. It wasn’t long, however, before she began following local crime stories, especially murders. In late 2009, a teenager named Daquan Tibbs was killed in a drive-by shooting in Northeast D.C. “I started kicking around the idea for a [Knight] grant tracking gang crimes across the United States,” she told me. “I wanted people to have a place where they could go to see what gangs were active in different areas and what the similarities were in different cities. I needed a couple pilot cities to start with, so I thought I might as well start with D.C. since I was living here now.” In her research, though, she found that D.C. didn’t put out much information related to gang activity — but that other homicide information was available. The courts and police departments, they had discovered, put out a surprising amount of information for anyone who was willing to hunt it down. “We sort of started talking in that direction. What could we do with this information? Why is it interesting?”

The birth of a niche site

Chris began building a database that would log available information — the names and ages of the victims, the location of the murders — to create a theoretically searchable page with all the facts lined up in one place. But all this was happening behind the scenes; the couple didn’t know what information would be relevant to a news audience. It eventually became apparent that they would have to make things more public — by launching a blog.

In September 2010, shortly after Laura’s work at the trade publication ended, she began posting to WordPress. For those early posts she didn’t interview any sources directly, but instead just used the publicly available information that she’d been curating. Her suspicions that there was a readership out there with questions unanswered by the local media were quickly proven correct; almost immediately, local residents began finding their way to her blog, largely via Google searches for more information on the homicides she was covering. She had an almost instant audience. Homicide Watch “allows people to keep informed about a case status and connect with other people that are following the same case,” she explained. “There have been some cases I covered where someone dies and lots of different people from that person’s life start commenting on the story…. For the family to see that is really validating for them, or can be. And there wasn’t really a place in D.C. before for that to happen.”

Chris compared this response to that of online obituary websites like Legacy.com. Even though most of the obituaries are relatively short and generic, people will continue to leave public comments for years after a loved one’s death. “People are looking to do it in a very public way,” he said. “And I think there’s a desire to have a public conversation about the violence that is occurring in communities around D.C. that wasn’t happening.” Sometimes those comments have helped in Laura’s reporting; one of her first interviews for the site was with the brother of a victim who had left a comment on the post announcing the murder. She emailed him back and, after exchanging phone numbers, simply allowed him to talk. “So he tells me about his brother, and how he was there when he was killed,” she recalled. “And I’m taking notes and saying very little, because he didn’t need questions, he just said what he needed to say. And at the end I said, ‘Thank you for your time,’ and he said, ‘Thank you for listening. You’re the first person who has asked what happened.’ I think that there’s a lack of recognition for what a lot of families go through with homicides in D.C.”

The sustainability question

The local media soon caught on. When Laura published her post on the unreported murders in 2010, she woke up the next morning to find that the Washington City Paper had picked up the story and obtained a quote from the police. Both the City Paper and the Washington Post have published articles about her, and she said she suspects that local crime reporters use her public calendar for tracking court cases.

The situation sheds light on the complex media ecosystem in many local markets and also highlights some of the advantages of being a relatively small, niche site. One of the reasons that Laura is often able to scoop the local media is that she closely monitors the search engine queries leading readers to her website. If there’s suddenly a rush of searches for some name she’s never heard of, she’ll Google the name, and it may take her to the person’s Facebook profile, where several fresh “rest in peace” messages have been posted to a wall. This kind of precise web traffic analysis would be much more difficult on a highly-trafficked site like washingtonpost.com.

But why do all this? Homicide Watch doesn’t bring in revenue, meaning that the couple relies entirely on Chris’ NPR salary. Why should Laura continue working unpaid, rather than trying to find a more traditional reporting job? “It’s a project I believe in,” Chris said. “And we’re willing to invest the time and the money up front to make it work. We believe it’s a project that’s worth doing, that it fills a need, and ultimately we think we can make a sustainable business out of it.” How that business will work is still murky, but Laura spoke of possible partnerships with local media companies, in which several chip in for some kind of syndication of her coverage. This summer she plans to attend an entrepreneurial journalism camp hosted by the Knight Foundation, and she’s already hired an intern to fill in for her while she’s gone.

Meanwhile, the site’s traffic continues to grow, and the couple are already planning how to enhance its coverage. Chris still has the database he needs to perfect, but now that they have a few months of reporting behind them, he has a much better idea of which information is relevant. Given the influence that Laura has amassed and her prior enjoyment as a traditional crime reporter, I asked her what she would say if a local news outlet — the Washington Post, say — approached her and offered her a job.

“If they’ll pay me to run Homicide Watch,” she said, laughing. “I mean, I loved my job as a cops reporter, and it was really hard to leave it, but what I’m doing now, and the connections I’m able to make with people that have this sense that they need this coverage, and that they want this — not only because they want to be a part of it, but also because they’re commenting and talking to one another — it’s 10 times more rewarding than what I was doing before. And I loved what I was doing before, so this is really great.”

POSTED     May 5, 2011, noon
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