One of the most wrenching decisions a journalist must make is whether to write a story someone else has already written.
On the one hand, if it’s an important story on a matter close to your heart, you’re going to give it that much more attention. And you’ll get to piggyback on the first reporter’s work, going farther, digging deeper.
On the other hand, you’re second.
Then again, was David Carr actually first?
On September 10 Carr dedicated his weekly New York Times column to the crisis at Homicide Watch, the District of Columbia-based website that chronicles each of the district’s homicides. It was an excellent report that made me wince as I read it—but only because I’d been intending to write about Homicide Watch myself. A few days earlier a friend, Nina Sandlin, had alerted me that Homicide Watch was on the brink and trying to raise a fast $40,000 on Kickstarter. If the money didn’t come in, the website—which had suspended operations in mid-August—would go under.
“Their raw energy and simple sense of purpose are astonishing,” Sandlin e-mailed me. “It’s like they skipped past all that hand-wringing philosophical baggage about what is journalism and how to save it, and they’re just out there doing it.”
To appreciate how well they’re doing it, compare the Homicide Watch website with RedEye‘s “tracking homicides in Chicago” site. Homicide Watch is vastly more coherent, informative, and useful. But while RedEye can bring to its task the resources of a Tribune Company daily newspaper, Homicide Watch is two people: Laura and Chris Amico. They launched their site two years ago with the following pledge: “Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case.”
“Their work is in tradition of Miami Herald homicide reporter Edna Buchanan (whom most of us learned about from Calvin Trillin),” Sandlin wrote me. “They are her heirs in nimble smartness and in the belief that every life is a story. But now it is powered by data and connectivity. Where a traditional reporter might call a ‘source,’ they will search Twitter for ‘OMG Joe’ or ‘RIP’ and often beat them to the story.”
The public quickly took notice of Homicide Watch—page views climbed from 500 a month to 300,000 in two years. But grant money wasn’t forthcoming. The problem, I speculated, is that foundations like to support new-media projects that might succeed and might not but tart themselves up as the breakthrough that will save journalism! Homicide Watch was what it was. It paid attention to heretofore unnamed and unnoticed homicide victims in the nation’s capital. But Homicide Watch wasn’t doing anything formally innovative—it was simply putting new media to righteous and uncommon use. The Chicago Tribune had done something along the same lines back in 1993, when it kept a promise to cover in detail “every murder of a child 14 and under in Cook, Lake, DuPage, Will, McHenry and Kane Counties. The first purpose,” the Tribune went on, “is to remember those who are so easily forgotten. The second is more complicated: to shine light on the problems that have brought us to this moment and to search for remedies.”
The Amicos set out in 2010 not merely to cover every homicide but to keep covering it until the case had worked its way through the courts. Laura did the reporting. Chris created the database. And when Laura decided to accept a fellowship to Harvard because she needed time and space to decompress and think about her career, Homicide Watch had no way to continue. The Amicos suspended operations and turned to Kickstarter in the hope of raising enough money to hire interns and train them to take over.
Years ago, Nina Sandlin covered transportation for the Reader under the byline Gloria Mundy. Her husband, Lee Sandlin, has contributed many of the longest and most exquisite pieces of personal journalism this newspaper has ever published. Nina knows journalism, and when she told me Homicide Watch must not be allowed to die, I took her word for it. She’d become a fan a while back when she heard Laura Amico talking about Homicide Watch on On the Media. When she found out the Amicos wanted to license the Homicide Watch software in other cities, she thought about all the good it could do in Chicago. When she saw somebody tweeting that the site had gone on a “hiatus” that wouldn’t end unless the Kickstarter campaign succeeded, she immediately let me know.
Imagine her pleasure and my dismay when David Carr told the story. Carr’s headline, “Innovation in Journalism Goes Begging for Support,” indicates the tack he took, which was to question the failure of the foundations that fund new journalism to support one of its most attractive initiatives—even while throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars at old media like the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post.
“Shouldn’t financing meant for journalistic innovation go to the green shoots like Homicide Watch and not be used to fertilize giant dead-tree media?” Carr wondered.
When Carr’s column appeared Twitter went wild and the Amicos’ Kickstarter campaign shot way over the top. Even so, I expected Sandlin, as a fellow journalist, to appreciate my distress.
“I know it’s not a cliff-hanger now,” she commiserated, “but I actually think it is potentially a better story. The crisis was kind of a distraction from the real meat—can the model work, what will it take, how will it change journalism and civic life (or, possibly, fall short), can we do it here in Chicago (they do have their software available for licensing) and what would that look like?”
On top of this soothing counsel, there was Clay Shirky’s blog post on Homicide Watch to think about. (Sandlin had sent me a link.) Shirky, an important voice on Internet issues, had chided mainstream media for failing to follow the trail the Amicos had blazed. “If the Washington Post walked their talk,” he wrote, “they’d have acquired Homicide Watch outright by now.” And he’d spotted the irony in the Amicos’ situation: “Kickstarter assumes that the logical supporters for projects are the people who benefit most, but Homicide Watch’s natural audience . . . are already suffering from a crime that we should all regard as a shared injustice. They shouldn’t have to pony up just so someone will take the murder of their loved ones seriously, just so someone will mark every death and remember every victim and follow every case.”
Shirky had had his say several days before Carr. There are times, perhaps, when the only place for an honorable journalist is in the pack.
So I called the Amicos.
I laid out my complicated theory as to why they can’t get grants. “I don’t see how you can say that,” said Chris Amico. The problem, he said, is pretty simple. Homicide Watch is a for-profit operation—not that it’s ever made any profit—which rules out a lot of philanthropies. Furthermore, with Laura working full-time running the journalism end of the operation and Chris working on it nights and weekends while holding down a paying job with National Public Radio, there’d been no time for either of them to put together decent grant proposals.
“That’s the catch-22 of grant funding,” said Laura. “You have to have resources to get grants. And if you need grants to get resources, you’re stuck.”
“We need to find ways to make local sites sustainable,” Chris continued. “With just the two of us, we’ll never be as efficient as we’d be working with a local partner who can get higher ad rates or local grant money.”
There’s one partner now: the Trentonian in Trenton, New Jersey. That Homicide Watch site’s about to launch, with the Amicos providing the software and the Trentonian the reporting. “There’s a lot of other interest, especially since the Kickstarter campaign started,” said Laura. “All of a sudden we’re busy.”
But nobody’s called from here. “We’d love to be in Chicago,” Laura said. “What we need is a local partner there, a newsroom or a university or some other group to be the daily beat reporter on the ground. We know a lot of people in Chicago, but no one who has the ability to make these sorts of decisions and write checks.”
There were 131 murders in D.C. in 2010 and 108 last year, and the police are hoping this year’s total won’t reach triple figures. The argument that Homicide Watch has contributed to this decline is one “we certainly don’t try to make,” Laura told me. However, because Homicide Watch is paying attention, and offering the public a forum to post anything they might know about the crimes, “we’ve come to the conclusion that drawing attention to these cases does have an impact on how they’re solved or not solved, and how they’re prosecuted or not prosecuted,” she said. What’s more, “because we follow the cases through the criminal justice system, we know when charges are dropped or offenders are acquitted. It drives me crazy to read that a suspect is charged with murder one and never hear about him again.”
The number of murders in Chicago this year is already approaching 400. Would it take a newsroom to cover so many homicides? No, said Chris. Laura thinks three people could do it.
“We didn’t create Homicide Watch to save journalism or save crime reporting or to be innovative,” she said. “We did it because communities are underserved. The outcome is a new kind of crime journalism that is database driven. It allows coverage to be both granular and cumulative.”
Their goal is to get Homicide Watch operating again in Washington by early October. Whether it ever reaches Chicago is up to somebody here.