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From AJR,   August/September 2012  issue

Homicide Watch’s Near-Death Experience   

A highly regarded, innovative Web site survives by turning itself into a teaching platform. Where does it go from here? Fri., September 21, 2012.

By Allison Goldstein
AJR editorial assistant Allison Goldstein (agoldstein@ajr.umd.edu) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

A Nieman-Berkman Fellowship in Journalism Innovation at Harvard would seem an unlikely catalyst for a cutting-edge journalism initiative's potential demise. But for Laura Amico, the Cambridge-based opportunity meant that sitting in DC Superior Court each day would no longer be feasible. How could Homicide Watch DC – a site dependent on reporting from daily court hearings, conversations with victims' families, interviews with lawyers and countless court documents – stay alive with Amico so far away?

Through a crowd-funded effort to turn innovation into a teaching platform, it turns out.

Amico and her husband, Chris Amico, cofounders of Homicide Watch DC, decided to turn their site from a two-person news operation into a student-run lab for learning the ins and outs of investigative, database, crime and courts reporting. But the pair knew that with plans for five interns and a year-long vision, they'd need to find a way to fund the project.

The Amicos turned to Kickstarter, a site that brands itself as the "world's largest funding platform for creative projects." Nearly a month after they launched a campaign, Homicide Watch reached its $40,000 fundraising goal with donations from 1,110 backers. They've since surpassed that goal by an additional $7,450.

The husband-and-wife team was able to convince donors and site users of what it had failed to convince the people at the Knight News Challenge and J-Lab's New Media Women Entrepreneurs program – that Homicide Watch was worth paying for.

With Twitter as the largest driver to Homicide Watch's campaign page on the Kickstarter site, followed by direct traffic, shirky.com and then Homicide Watch itself, it seems that saving the project was an easy sell for those familiar with the site.

"There's clearly an audience for this, and it's been really gratifying for us to see that people are looking for this content and that they appreciate our coverage and that this approach really works," Chris Amico says.

So what is about Homicide Watch that works? "Maybe the most important thing about Homicide Watch is that they are an actual example of the hybridization that everyone is talking about, which is old-school kickass court reporting where the aggregation becomes more valuable over time. Where it's not just one story after another, but the online database becomes more valuable with each story," says Clay Shirky, the digital media guru and New York University associate arts professor behind shirky.com. An early September blog post on his site encouraged visitors to donate to Homicide Watch.

Abiding by its pledge to "Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case," the site gives each victim his or her own page. The page serves as a one-stop shop for information about a victim, including photos, date of death, an interactive map showing the location of the homicide, an aggregation of the latest news on the case and a user commenting forum encouraged as a space to memorialize victims.

"It's interesting, because when you look at newspapers, the comment threads are just toxic, and our commentators are amazing," Chris Amico says. "The community around the site is like nothing I've ever seen. We just get really deep conversations about what violent crimes mean. Family members leave messages about their relatives, about their friends, but we also get frank discussions about crime in neighborhoods."

A compelling piece of Homicide Watch's approach is the commitment to filling a void in local Washington media. When the Amicos moved cross-country from the West Coast in 2009 after Chris Amico was hired as interactive editor at PBS' "NewsHour," they found it difficult to locate information about murders in their DC neighborhood on the edge of Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan. Not only were murders going unreported, but there was no reliable resource for accessing comprehensive information about the outcome of an arrest.

Laura Amico's experience as a crime reporter for the Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, California, paired with her husband's background as a Web developer and reporter, made for an ideal collaboration when the two started the WordPress site in September 2010.

From there, Laura Amico has worked on the site full time, going to court every day, writing and reporting, while Chris Amico handles the technology and data-driven portions of the site on a part-time basis.

As pageviews climbed (there are now about 300,000 per month), it became clear that the Amicos had created an online resource that the city, and an underserved demographic, really needed.

"Every time a citizen gets killed, the question the newsroom has to ask itself is, 'Is this person important enough to focus on?' " Shirky says. "Homicide Watch turns that question around."

But despite accolades from much of the media community, and despite a positive response to the fundraising campaign, the donations are only enough to keep the project running for another year. Chris Amico feels strongly, though, that the end of that year won't be the end of the road.

Keeping the project alive then, however, may require a different approach. "The way to make this sustainable is to make it not depend on us," he says. "It may mean that Laura and I are in DC running this as a class at a university. It could mean that we partner with a larger newsroom that can rotate people on and off of the beat, and we act as escorts or consultants, or it might mean something else, like we find a nonprofit to work with."

For now, Homicide Watch has put out a call for interns to run the one-year student lab, promising that the platform offers learning experiences through step-by-step, structured beat reporting and lessons in community building. The Amicos will train the interns, work with them remotely, and set up local editors to serve as mentors. "Students don't learn courts and crime reporting in most journalism programs," Chris Amico says, adding, "Certainly no one learns it like this."

Turning innovation into a teaching platform will be Homicide Watch's model in the interim. But can it be a model for the future?

"If a model treats the readers as users rather than consumers, which is to say it assumes that there is more than one way to interact with and find the data valuable, it is also a model that says it isn't like there is one way to report this stuff," Shirky says. "It as if instead there are a lot of ways that this information is useful."

But even with its strengths, it's unlikely that this approach could work across the board. Instead, it seems the industry is moving from one traditional model to many different ways of assembling, aggregating and distributing content, Shirky says.

"I don't think there's any model for the future of journalism. I think it's too big of a thing," Chris Amico says. "But think of it this way: If for some reason I decided to go back to my original newspaper job and someone put me on a crime beat, I would build Homicide Watch."