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Sept. 8, 2011, noon

Homicide Watch D.C., buoyed by big growth, seeks a new home in a local newsroom

The murder-tracking blog wants to license its software platform and reporting to a traditional media outlet.

Homicide Watch D.C. screen shot

Since we last checked in with Homicide Watch D.C., Laura Amico has continued to make good on her site’s promise: Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case. Amico, a former newspaper reporter, has indexed the victims, suspects, and details of every murder committed in Washington, D.C., since September 2010, attempting to collect personal stories along the way.

Despite a relatively nonviolent August in the District (“only” 13 homicides reported), Homicide Watch received 136,000 pageviews in the month. That’s a 75 percent increase over the last three months, Amico said, and a huge leap from almost nothing 10 months ago.

“It’s crazy. It’s totally organic. Back in January the Post did a nice profile of the site and we saw our traffic jump with that. We sort of anticipated that we’d get that spike from publicity and then it would die back down again, but it didn’t. It just grew from there,” Amico told me.

There are just two problems with the Homicide Watch model. One, the work is relentless and Amico is only one person. And two, she isn’t making a penny.

So a big redesign last week marked the beginning of the next phase for Homicide Watch: selling it. Over the next six months, Amico will be courting local media outlets to try to license the Homicide Watch platform and all of her existing reporting. Amico would move into a consulting role, serving as both tech support and editor-on-call. If it works in D.C., Amico plans to peddle the software platform in markets across the country.

“We realized pretty early on that we didn’t see advertising as a long-term sustainable model for the site, just because everybody that we talked to said, ‘What would you advertise on a homicide site — undertakers, funerals, flowers, that sort of thing?'” That didn’t sit well with her. Grant funding, too, would ultimately be unsustainable, she decided.

“Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case.”

While Amico has not found her first client yet, she said she’s conducted her own market research. She’s called news organizations who had previously run murder blogs and had to shutter them, and several said they would be willing to try again with the right tools and resources.

The new site is the handiwork of Amico’s husband Chris, a web developer at NPR who builds up the Homicide Watch backend in his spare time. It’s a hacked-up WordPress blog infused with Django, the journalism-friendly framework for the Python programming language. It’s easy for Amico to record the details of cases, link suspects in the database to victims, and search. Django makes it easy to sort the data — by victim name, date of death, age, race, and gender.

(Initial signs are that the site’s new design and backend have been good for traffic. Laura Amico said that August’s average pageviews per day before the redesign launched were around 3,700; in the last four days of the month, post-redesign, that number was about 8,500.)

Each victim’s page features a map of where the killing occurred, a “Memorials” tab for friends and family to leave comments, a photo of the victim whenever Amico can get one, and phone numbers of the detectives assigned to the case (a feature added by popular demand). Amico uses DocumentCloud to post any and all court documents related to her cases, smudgy and illegible though they may be, and users can submit their own documents via e-mail.

The community is an important part of Homicide Watch, and Amico’s analytics suggest she has a loyal following: Between 40 and 50 percent of visitors are return visitors, which means people don’t necessarily drop in on one case and then drop out. She listens carefully to her readers, reaching out to friends and family members to ask for written memorials, photos, or any facts that might clarify a case.

She is constantly scanning the analytics for search keywords — checking the Google queries that led a user to Homicide Watch. If she discovers a sudden surge in searches for a person’s name, a name she doesn’t know, she searches Twitter and Facebook for mentions. “We just get crazy searches that help us, for example, identify a homicide that hasn’t been reported yet, which has happened,” she said.

“But then we also get these searches — we had one today for, it was something to the effect of, ‘what to tell a family whose son has been killed,'” she said. “Looking at what people are searching for and how they’re coming into the site really gives a snapshot of who this community is that we’re reaching.”

And if the ongoing “real names” debate needs any more fodder, here’s some: The vast majority of commenters on Homicide Watch are anonymous, and it’s in those comments she tends to find the most valuable leads. A few months ago Amico switched to Disqus for comments, and the number of comments plummeted — presumably, she said, because Disqus encourages persistent identities across websites and makes anonymity more difficult. She said the comments have started coming back strong, however.

The highest form of community engagement happens in person. Her “newsroom” on most days is in the court cafeteria. She tirelessly attends “nearly every arraignment, nearly every presentment of charge, nearly every preliminary hearing,” she said. And she meets some of her biggest fans on their darkest days.

“In those really emotional days and court hearings, when I’m talking to people and hearing all these things, people say, ‘Thank you so much for your site. It’s the only place we could go to get information.’ And to hear that in that sort of situation is really gratifying.”

POSTED     Sept. 8, 2011, noon
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