WASHINGTON, D.C., Aug. 20, 2012 (DPI) — In 2009 Laura Norton Amico moved to Washington with her husband and looked for work as a journalist. At 27 she could claim some experience and credentials: She studied communications at UC-Santa Cruz, and worked as a police reporter for the newspaper in her hometown of Santa Rosa in Sonoma County, California.
But still jobless after nearly a year in Washington, Amico pursued a unique Plan B: She launched a news site that chronicled every murder, every day in the District of Columbia. She registered the domain HomicideWatch.org; dot-com was taken.
Like every start-up HomicideWatch.org was a cause: Amico, energetic and driven, loved being a reporter, and she wanted to stay one. What’s more, she thought Washington’s new outlets weren’t covering the city’s murders with any depth – or even regularity. The site’s crusading motto — “Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case” – was a jab of sorts at the press, especially The Washington Post, which over the decades has marked and remembered and followed surprisingly few DC homicides, most of which involved young black men killing young black men.
The site quickly earned a readership. Page views grew steadily, and hit a record in May 2012 at about 320,000, she says. Its database format, developed and managed by Laura’s programmer husband Chris, seemed to cross-link every fact, photo and document. Lawyers trolled it daily. Friends, family members of victims posted comments. Even ER nurses left notes lamenting they did everything they could.
Before long, too, academics and some in the press pointed to the site as a hopeful example of the future of journalism. Articles (see links below) championed Laura and Chris Amico for their ultra-focused, data-driven approach to crime news. For a while it looked as though HomicideWatch.org would stick.
But now, two years and millions of page views later, Laura Amico is about to pull the plug and move on. Absent a grant to keep it going, homicidewatch.org will likely cease updating sometime later this month, she says. By all appearances the marketplace is poised to kill homicidewatch.org.
If it dies Homicidewatch.org will have been a memorable effort – and with a legacy of contradictions. For starters, the site’s format suggested a new type of journalism for the digital age, yet ultimately it could not survive because Amico didn’t sell traditional advertising. Further, commentators have made much of Chris Amico’s database-driven presentation, but it was Laura Amico’s old-fashioned, sit-in-court-four-days-a-week reporting – hard work no one pays for anymore – that drove the site’s growth and popularity.
Then there was their prolific output. Laura and Chris Amico reported on “far more murders than The Post and (Washington) City Paper combined, with a staff of one and a half,” NYU’s Clay Shirky, a longtime advocate of homicidewatch.org, wrote to DPI this week.
(Of course, Washington’s homicide rate, like those across the country, has fallen by 70% since the crack epidemic waned and incarceration rates took off two decades ago: http://mpdc.dc.gov/mpdc/cwp/view,a,1239,q,561242,mpdcNav_GID,1523,mpdcNav,|.asp )
Most of all, though, their site bridged Washington’s centuries-old racial divide: Homicidewatch.org covered urban killings in a way no one had before. The details of most black-on-black murders – acts of revenge, perceived slights, even some drug deals gone bad — reinforced the most negative stereotypes that many Americans assume of inner-city violence. Yet the site’s immediacy and humanity – particularly the raw, often-heartbreaking comments from victims’ friends and relatives – could make the most hardened racist pause. The site serialized, and made compelling, the incomprehensible routine of urban violence, and challenged attitudes of its readers.
Still, “acquainting white audiences with the African-American experience is not a business most publishers want to be in,” says Shirky. “The HomicideWatch method is better and cheaper than the standard newsroom crime desk, but it’s also different, and newsrooms are so conservative about process they are actively hostile to innovation, no matter what their publishers say.”
The problems for news publishers don’t appear close to being solved. No print publication has yet answered the bell, for years pummeled by imploding print circulation and collapsing ad revenue from their print editions. Online subscriptions, partial and full, remain curiously embryonic. And theft of work online is not simply rampant but almost ingrained in the culture of the internet. Publishing’s existential funk grinds on.
Laura Amico’s background hardly suggested she’d put a dent in the publishing universe. Growing up in the Santa Rosa, the older of two daughters of a teacher (her father died when she was 13), she says she “always liked writing and I got hooked on journalism in college.” Her open-minded nature got a test, and a boost, when she took a semester in South Africa, where “people were much more upfront about their attitudes and opinions on race.” Later she spent two years in the Peace Corps in Madagascar. It all combined to “definitely influence my journalism.”
Returning, she worked for the Watsonville, Ca, paper, and later landed a reporting job, ultimately taking the police beat, with the Press-Democrat of Santa Rosa, then owned by The New York Times. About that time she met, and later married, Chris Amico, a web developer. In mid 2009 he accepted a position with PBS NewsHour. Laura quit her job and moved with him to Washington.
After about a month in DC, Laura Amico heard police sirens outside her Columbia Heights apartment. It was a Saturday night and a nine-year-old boy had been shot in the head as he looked through the peep-hole of his parent’s apartment door, an apparent robbery or score-settling in which the shooter targeted the wrong person. The murder got scant press coverage, and Amico was dumbfounded. Her idea for the site soon followed. “I asked a local editor about the idea of a web site on Washington’s homicides, and he dismissed it. He said most were ‘drug deals gone bad.’ I wondered if that was the truth.”
They pitched for grants, with no luck, so they developed the site on their own. Chris Amico, when not at his day job, built a database in Python, interfaced with the WordPress blogging software, and got the site live. Laura began loading it with facts, photos and documents, all blue-underlined to link among themselves and elsewhere. She retrieved charging and trial docs from DC Superior Court, scanned them into PDFs and uploaded them. Comment strings followed.
Says Shirky: “The site’s like a wiki, not a newspaper. Each victim gets their own page. Every page has the phone number of the detective assigned to the case. Every page hosts a place for remembrance of the victim. Updates get posted to the front page, and added to the victim’s page, so it works like a feed and a database.”
Regular readers pick up on some found-nowhere-else tidbits: Posted comments sometimes are illegible, but they are also heart-rending: When 19-year-old David Lee Robinson was shot dead in Janury for his $200 Nike sneakers, a poster wrote plaintively: “Over shoes? Black people can’t we do better?”
Court prosecutors liked homicidewatch.org too. “I’m not generally a fan of web sites,” US Attorney Ronald Machen told The Washingtonian earlier this year, “but this is different and valuable. Victims of violent crime in Washington, DC, get little or no attention from the major news outlets. People are numb.”
The site seemed to sensitize people, if readership was any measure. Within a few months, “we had a proven audience,” Laura Amico says, with readers staying on the site for a “phenomenal” five to six minutes. “At that point we had to ask, how do we monetize this?”
By her own admission, Amico made an early mistake: “I should have hired someone to sell ads on the site right away,” she says today. “I needed the right person to do that.” Although Google Adsense text ads were scattered on the site, they generated little income, and a blogads ad-loading feature drew no advertising either. Supporters suggested she solicit flower and casket companies for display ads, but even that was a tough sell. And Amico admits she was ambivalent about plastering the site with ads relating to death. “I just didn’t feel it was fair to the audience,” she says.
The non-profit route – they were a dot-org, after all – yielded little, a reflection in part of the economic slowdown. A Paypal donation button brought in $20 or $30 per month, she said. Grants were denied, and all of the local universities were happy to send along students to do some work, but “we couldn’t get anyone to pay us,” Amico says.
In time, though, Laura and Chris Amico decided to shop the format – to try to license the underlying software – to newspapers and news organizations. They tried first to collaborate with The Washington Post, but the Amicos couldn’t reach a deal. The Post reportedly offered 40% of the revenues of the advertising on the site – Amico won’t say exactly how much — but “they wanted us to keep doing 100% of the work.” Negotiations went on for months: “I have email threads miles long. They finally said take it or leave it.” A Washington Post spokesperson did not return a call seeking comment.
In the meantime, Laura Amico, taking the Red Line down to court several times a week, grew weary. “I was living off my husband’s salary,” she says. The subject matter was catching up with her too. Sitting in court trial in February 2012, she listened to the gruesome details of a domestic-violence killing. “The looks on faces in the courtroom were bad enough,” she says. Finally she decided “I can’t go down there tomorrow. I needed my own mental health break.” (Amico never went to crime scenes, and she says she was threatened only once: In late 2010 the relative of a suspect Tweeted that she’d “better not show up” for a court hearing. She did, and nothing happened, she said.) Overall, though, Amico discovered that “drug deals gone bad” amount to 10 or 20% of all homicides; most were motivated by “really stupid reasons” – neighborhood feuds, reprisals, and quarrels over girlfriends were typical motives, she says.
This spring New York-based Digital First Media, which now operates the publishing titles of MediaNews Group and Journal Register Company, took a serious look at the homicidewatch.org platform. One of their papers, The Trentonian, is testing it, and the Amicos are training reporters on its use. “Crime reporting tends to be very inconsistent, partially because of reduced staffs, but also because crime is so routine in many cities that we don’t stop to think about these crimes and the lives that are affected,” James Brady, editor in chief of Digital First, wrote to DPI in an email. “What I like about Laura’s approach is focusing on victims as well as the accused, and the wider effect on those families and the community. Add on the database aspect of it, and I think it’s a wonderful product. So we want to test it to see whether it connects with some of our communities the way it does in DC.”
Laura Amico says she never made more than few hundred dollars off the site. But, for her, the reward may be better than the paycheck she never got: As one of the few reporters courageous enough to try online publishing, Amico rode the popular success of homicidewatch.org. Poised, articulate and, now like an old Washington hand consistent in her message, she speaks to college students and media pundits about her effort – and the future of the profession.
So it’s hardly surprising she was selected to spend a year at Harvard as a Nieman Fellow; that gig starts later this month.
No one is saying that Homicidewatch.org changed behavior, but it’s certainly increased awareness of a world next door, a world other citizens had written off. In that respect the site has served as an example of the so-called “Solutions Journalism”: A creative activism that doesn’t easily attract advertisers, but may attract nonprofit sponsors and others with like political goals. Old-line publishers will say that, no matter the product, advertising must be sold, and selling it is hard work, just like the reporting it supports. It remains to be seen whether “Solutions Journalism” evolves into something more than a compelling phrase for seeking non-profit funds.
“I feel like we gave people a voice,” says Amico. “The heart of the site was the comment boards” or “Memorials” as they are labeled on the site. “That was very gratifying.”
“What they’ve shown is that it’s possible to use the web to do innovative, vital journalism with better methods and lower costs than legacy organizations do,” says Shirky.
Amico, too, understands that what she has accomplished is unique: “Coming in as an outsider, as a 28 year-old white woman from California, may have made it possible.” She reports on her site that she’s raised $10,000 in recent days, and needs $30,000 more to keep it going.
Whatever happens, Laura Amico says she has no regrets, but she’s no longer naïve about the hard-nosed world of publishing. “I learned a lot about the publishing business. But I need to do something for myself, take my own opportunity now. ”