AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2013

Homicide Watch DC, Chapter 2   

With its founders in Massachusetts, a team of interns is keeping the innovative Web site alive and well. Thurs., February 21, 2013.

By Leigh Ann Renzulli
Leign Ann Renzulli (leigh.renzulli@gmail.com) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

Last August 14, Laura Amico asked her readers for $40,000 to keep Homicide Watch DC running in her absence.

Twenty-seven days later, she had it.

On October 15, just over a month after the funding came through, Homicide Watch was up and running again, with three interns posting 12 story updates in five days, making up for the 10 weeks that the Web site went dark.

Homicide Watch is an innovative reporting project that covers every murder in the Distrcit of Columbia, complete with profiles of the victims and suspects as well as detailed reports of legal proceedings involving the murders. It came into being because Amico and her husband, Chris Amico, felt that murders in the nation's capital were not being adequately covered by the mainstream media.

The Amicos hired Penny Ray, Sam Pearson, and Jonah Newman to staff the student-reporting lab and keep the Web site functioning while they moved to Cambridge, Massachsetts, so that Laura could study journalism innovation at Harvard as a Nieman-Berkman Fellow.

"They jumped right into it," Chris Amico says of the students. "We had a long day session with them at the courthouse, walked them through how the site works. We taught them how the court system works, how to find documents. We really just taught them how to operate in a courthouse as a journalist."

Newman learned of the internship via a tweet. He had just graduated from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and was looking for his first job. He applied, was hired and after the courthouse session, which Newman found very helpful, the Amicos were off to Cambridge and Newman began his first reporting job.

But the Amicos were never truly gone. According to Newman, they were extremely dedicated to the project and were always available by Google chat, e-mail or phone for any questions or edits.

"It was definitely a good experience," Newman says, "I learned a lot. It really is a new kind of journalism. They're trying to create a different model that covers crime, and homicide in particular. It may not be the new journalism model, but it is one of many."

The internship is a part-time paid position and runs on a semester schedule, although it can be extended for interns who do well and want to stay on. Newman has since left Homicide Watch to work at the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Amicos were able to hire another intern, Vanya Mehta, soon afterward.

Despite being thrilled that they had received funding and found qualified interns to staff the lab, the Amicos knew that having interns run the site would be an adjustment. Homicide Watch had always consisted of one reporter, Laura, with occasional backup from Chris. Back in September, they weren't exactly sure how it was going to go.

According to Chris Amico, it is going well. Despite the 500 miles between Cambridge and D.C., the Amicos have managed to successfully edit and collaborate with the student interns on the scene. Pearson is now transitioning into an editing role, which is taking some of the workload off of the Amicos.

"It has been really gratifying to know that the system we built worked for other people," Chris Amico says. "I built the Web site around the way that Laura covered the courts and the beat, but our interns were able to replicate that. They're really doing some good work."

Amico also believes that the internship program helped him and Laura solidify their reporting practices and styles. "It's a little like when I left my job as en education reporter years ago," he says. "I had to write up my notes for the new guy so he knew everything he needed to know about the beat. So we basically did that without ever leaving the beat. We have to think everything through and catalogue all of our practices."

As for the future of Homicide Watch, the Amicos are looking into several different options to keep the site afloat but have not made any final decisions. They are also getting ready to launch a Chicago version of Homicide Watch by partnering with the Chicago Sun-Times. The Amicos provided the paper with the technology for the Web site, and the staff at the Sun-Times will be doing the reporting.

The Amicos are now actively looking for partners in other cities in an effort to expand the project.

"When we first started out, people would ask us if there was something special about us, or about Laura, that made the site work," Chris Amico says. "We've discovered that it is a very replicable model, and we are actively looking to expand."