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#Journo100 Profile: Homicide Watch Trenton

Homicide WatchAs 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.

The Trentonian newspaper recently announced a partnership with Homicide Watch D.C. (the struggling journalism startup inspired by Jill Loevy’s project for the LA Times) which the paper will cover all of the homicides in Trenton.  Sherrina V. Navani is the reporter handling Homicide Watch Trenton.

Ebyline chatted with Navani about the challenges of 100% journalism and why it matters. What follows are excerpts from that conversation, edited for clarity. 

What was the impetus for covering all the murders in Trenton?

The Trentonian is a part of Journal Register Corporation (JRC), which owns several newspapers across the country. And as a beta test JRC signed on with Homicide Watch, which is a separate company.

Last year we had 24 homicides in one year. This year we’re tracking at 14 homicides. So it made sense to do the test and see if it worked. We are the guinea pig.

I also cover the court system. Up until recently I was actually covering just cops. Cops has moved over to somebody else and now I’m managing the court system. So in addition to Homicide Watch I also cover the courts here in Trenton and Mercer County.

Is there some crossover in those topics, I’d imagine? 

Tons. Basically, Homicide Watch looks at the homicides beginning, middle, and end. It will be my job to go back and update [the report] as suspects are arrested, as they go through the trial process, if they plead out, and continue updating that information, putting it up on Homicide Watch.

Are you solely responsible for Homicide Watch Trenton or are you working with other people in the newsroom?

This other individual now that’s covering cops is going to be on the front line if there is a homicide, obviously, because his beat is cops. But once he gets the information it’s my responsibility to update the Homicide Watch [webpage]. It’s also my responsibility to build video against that site. But I’d like to start creating video for each homicide that has occurred. So go out, interview the family, get information as to what happened since that individual’s homicide.

Will that be a separate, a stand-alone website or part of the Trentonian website? 

Homicide Watch in itself is a separate website. The company built out a separate beta website for us, but it’s wrapped within the Trentonian.

What do you think is going to be the biggest challenge for your reporting on Homicide Watch Trenton? 

We all wear a couple of different hats so I still have to cover the court beat. But when I’m not covering the court beat I’m covering Homicide Watch. And the other thing about homicides in the city of Trenton, what I realized in my tenure here, is that the police department is very, very tight-lipped and will not release any information, which makes it that much harder to write about until it reaches the prosecutor’s hand. The prosecutors are a little bit more willing to talk about a situation.

But in order to get to prosecuting you’ve got to have a suspect. And a lot of times some of these homicides don’t have suspects. They go unsolved and it starts and ends with the death of that individual. So as a reporter you kind of get left with the information that’s given to you. And unfortunately we don’t have the time to be as investigative as we would like to be.

Do you use any sort of automated tools or technology to help with that process? For instance, Philly Rap Sheet set up a tool for tracking arrests in Philadelphia.

I think the difference between Philadelphia and us is that Philadelphia is tracking every crime where we’re just solely tracking homicides. In that case we do receive the information from the police department whenever a homicide has occurred.

Another thing we rely heavily on is BNN, the Breaking News Network. When there are shots fired or if somebody is taken to the trauma center we’re notified through that application that we’ve got on our phone.

It’s bootstrap journalism. You need to call in to the police department and ask, “What’s going on? Is it in fact a homicide? What happened? Were there circumstances surrounding it?” And then we will come to find out the victim very shortly after. Once we do know who the victim is we can go out and learn who the family members are, ask people around the neighborhood if they knew the gentleman or woman.

Have you run into any privacy issues in terms of suspects who may have been acquitted, or victims and their families?

When it comes to the suspects we often try to get a voice, either through the suspect’s lawyer, generally a public defender, or we try to get to the suspect. That is virtually impossible. Nine times out of ten that suspect is incarcerated and we won’t get any information while they are in incarceration.

So the victim’s family—depends on how vocal they want to be. There was an individual who was basically caught in a crossfire shooting. It was a senseless death. He was just walking down the street and got shot in the back and died. His sister actually came to the newsroom and was very vocal about it, and she actually held a candlelight vigil where he was shot.

It is purely going out and meeting people. And when you’re around a family it’s being sentimental, and being caring unconditionally, and understanding that these people, no matter who their child was, what they were involved in, it was still their child, or still their family member. You have to be considerate to that need.

If that child or family member happened to be in a gang, or if this was a drug-related shootout, a lot of times they “forget” to mention that and you have to do your own investigative reporting, like learning if there’s a mug shot, a criminal rap sheet, things like that.

Anything else you’d like to add?

It’s sad to say this but I speculated that Homicide Watch would probably do very well in the city of Trenton. And the only reason it will is because the rate of homicides and the mystery that surrounds a homicide. This kind of expresses the worst kind of horror, which is intriguing to the general society. It’s sad but I think it’s going to do well.