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Aug. 14, 2012, 1:17 p.m.
Business Models

After a deal falls apart, Homicide Watch D.C. is going on hiatus

The site’s founders, heading to Harvard for a Nieman-Berkman Fellowship, are pinning their hopes on a Kickstarter campaign to keep it running for the next year.

The Internet famously enabled anyone to become a publisher. A tiny outfit of one or two people can, when the stars align, have the same claim on your attention as a major media company with thousands of employees.

But one thing large companies are built for is sustainability. A site driven by the passion and will of one person runs into trouble when that one person wants to take a new job, or take a vacation, or just focus energy elsewhere for a while. When an editor at a large newspaper leaves, it’s occasion for cake; when a small startup’s founder steps away, there might not even be anyone else around to eat it.

Something along those lines is playing out with the lauded crime site Homicide Watch D.C., and, full disclosure, we here at the Nieman Foundation play a role. Founder Laura Amico applied for a Nieman-Berkman Fellowship earlier this year. When she got the fellowship — which lets her and husband Chris Amico spend a year studying sustainable models for crime journalism here at Harvard — she planned on finding a way to keep the site alive for the 10 months she’d be in Cambridge.

Unfortunately, a licensing deal with a local news organization that would have taken over operation of the site fell through at the last minute. Now, Amico says it’s inevitable that the site will be shuttered for at least some period of time.

“It’s tough because Homicide Watch D.C. is undoubtedly what I’m most proud of in my life,” Amico told me. “At the same time I have to take this incredible opportunity, and that’s not something that I could ever pass up either. That the future of the D.C. site is uncertain — I really have to separate myself from that and say that we have done everything we can, and we have given it everything we could. That there’s no one here willing to take it on is not a statement on the site but [on] the editorial values of this community right now.”

For those who don’t know about Homicide Watch, it’s a site that reports on every homicide in the city of Washington — following the case from the crime itself through the pursuit of suspects and the cases’ path through the courts. It’s been lauded for its devotion to blanket coverage and for its ability to build communities of interest around the kind of crime stories that might get a few inches of coverage — if that — in the local daily. As the site’s tagline puts it: “Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case.” (We wrote the first piece about it back in 2009, when it was still just an idea, and have covered it several times since.)

“That there’s no one here willing to take it on is not a statement on the site but the editorial values of this community right now.”

In Homicide Watch’s first full month of operation, she was thrilled when the site got 500 pageviews. Last month, it got 301,000.

The Amicos — broadly speaking, she does the editorial side and he handles the coding on the backend — have built a licensing business, helping reporters in other cities build their own iterations of Homicide Watch. They’ve created a model that she says is “doing well,” but that may not be enough to save the flagship site.

It’s rare that journalists stay with one company for the course of their career these days, and Laura says after her fellowship year, she might be ready to go back to being part of a larger newsroom. (She was previously a reporter at the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat.) Understandably, she wants to explore her options. But she also wants what she created to live on.

“In D.C., my firm belief is that many newsrooms are still thinking about covering homicide in 2012 the way they covered it in 1992,” Amico said. “Homicide has changed dramatically. The drug wars are not the same as they were in 1992. That has impacted and changed who is being killed, and where, and for what reason. Despite that, those criteria that newsrooms are using to determine what homicides are and are not important has not changed. There’s a divergence of news values and realities.”

The Amicos are holding out hope that the site’s hiatus will be brief and that its reporting can be sustained while they’re in Cambridge. On Tuesday they launched a $40,000 Kickstarter fundraising campaign. “What we want to do is bring on paid interns — five throughout the course of one calendar year — and turn operation of the site over to them, with guidance from Chris and myself,” Amico said. “Everything from the daily reporting to the database entry to monitoring comments, keeping track of cases, year-in-review stories, investigative reports.” (Watch our Twitter feed; we’ll let you know when it launches.)

The database is part of what makes Homicide Watch special because it enables the site to go beyond the intimate coverage — every victim by name — of homicide. The database allows the quick creation and collation of maps, demographic info on victims and suspects, and information on the progression of cases.

“This is all data that I’m gathering because it’s in the course of our normal reporting,” Amico says. “Really, at a moment’s notice, I can write a story saying 35 people have pled guilty in this period of time and here’s a list of them.” Amico can also check those anecdotal reporter’s hunches that come with closely covering a beat. A couple of weeks ago, for example, three homicides in one weekend felt like more than usual over a relatively quiet couple of years.

“I got to thinking: Have there been more homicides? Well, I can check, and that took me just a couple of minutes.”

But as the site freezes next week, so too will its collection of data. Amico says she just received an email from a woman thanking Homicide Watch D.C. for its work, and describing the teenagers she sees around Washington wearing T-shirts printed with names, photographs, and dates that memorialize homicide victims. “It’s tragic that they have to go through this,” Amico says the woman wrote. “You all are giving such an important service. I’m moved by your website.”

That was a particularly tough email for Amico to receive.

“This woman doesn’t know that in a week the site isn’t going to be updated,” Amico said. “The site has had incredible editorial success in a way that I didn’t imagine was possible. But we can’t find a partner to hand it off to.”

POSTED     Aug. 14, 2012, 1:17 p.m.
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