As part of the Ebyline/E&P 100% Journalism Challenge, we’re profiling examples of 100% journalism to find out what challenges, mistakes and triumphs come with the responsibility for covering a topic completely. Enter the 100% Journalism Challenge by Oct. 12 and win up to $35,000 to spend on your 100% journalism idea.
Long-term sustainability and scalability has been an ongoing challenge for 100% journalism projects, and Homicide Watch D.C. is no exception. Founded two years ago by husband-and-wife team Chris and Laura Amico, the site appeared in the New York Times last month in an article about its struggles in pursuit of financial support.
The pair had applied unsuccessfully for funding from foundations and other organization, but last month they raised over $47,000 in a Kickstarter campaign to create a student reporting lab that the Amicos will keep the project going. Financial struggles aside, the Amicos received the Knight Award for Public Service at the 2012 Online Journalism Awards and Laura is now doing a Nieman Lab fellowship. Homicide Watch D.C. also forged a recent partnership with the Trentonian, which we covered in a previous #Journo100 profile.
Ebyline chatted with Chris Amico about Homicide Watch’s past, present and future. What follows are excerpts from that conversation, edited for clarity.
What was the impetus for covering all of the murders in D.C.?
When we moved to D.C., Laura had to give up a crime-reporting job in California (at the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat). There were several murders in our neighborhood, and when we tried to follow the cases, we found they didn’t receive the kind of coverage we’d come to expect. Laura started looking into what information was available and we realized there was a lot we could put together, and that other people were trying to talk about what was happening in their neighborhoods, so we started brainstorming a way to cover homicides better. That grew into a blog, which grew into a database built around a reporting method.
Was Homicide Watch D.C. modeled after Homicide Report in L.A.? Did you learn from any of the strategies Homicide Report used?
We looked at a number of sites before we launched, including the Homicide Report. When we were brainstorming, the original [L.A. Times] Homicide Report was dormant after the reporter who started it moved to another beat. We saw that a lot. The Oakland Tribune had done a great project called Not Just a Number for two years. We learned there’s a predictable length of time any single reporter can work on a reporting project like this, so we built the site with the idea that it could be handed off without downtime.
What course corrections have you made to Homicide Watch over the past two years?
We built a prototype of the site before the blog launched, but we found the structure didn’t match the information we were getting, so we threw it away and started with just the blog. We realized we needed time to understand the court system in D.C. first. For six months, Laura would report and write, and I’d study her process and translate that into code.
What was the inspiration for creating a student reporting lab?
Before we left D.C., we’d talked to professors at a local j-school about teaching a class around Homicide Watch D.C. We even wrote up a syllabus. I still think it’s a promising idea. When Laura got the fellowship and we couldn’t find a local partner to take over the site, we decided to try using the student reporting lab as a Kickstarter project.
What do you hope to accomplish over the next year through the student reporting lab and your Nieman fellowship?
Laura will be working on a reporting guide for criminal justice reporting in the digital age. We’ll also be working to expand our network of sites to other cities (Homicide Watch Trenton just launched). Our goal in D.C. is to make the site sustainable, hopefully by finding a long-term partner.