Where journalism is built for the audience: Homicide Watch

by Delphine Reuter

For the last five years, Laura Amico, a US-based reporter, has invested all her time and resources into developing Homicide Watch, a data-driven website covering all homicides committed in the DC area, with the help of her husband Chris, a developer. She’s now one of the most sought-after speakers on how digital media can successfully provide public service journalism – news that communities really want.

You’ve become the wizard of page views and unique visits. What’s the evidence of your platform’s success?

We launched in September 2010. We didn’t do any promotion. We didn’t have any money for it. By January 2011, we had grown a lot and suddenly I realized that people knew about us, they were spending time on the site and they were coming back to it. It was an incredible and a very humble moment. Today, we’re at 500,000 page views and 70,000 unique visits a month. That’s a better return on page views per reporter than any other newsroom. They might have millions of page views but with hundreds of reporters, theirs is a lower return than Homicide Watch. I’m proud of our numbers.

What has been your main challenge when building Homicide Watch?

We applied for grants but never received any funding. It was difficult to convince people that this platform was both possible and necessary. Looking back now, I’m thankful that we didn’t have partners early on, that we only had to respond to the community. That being said, this journalism festival is our first vacation in five years. For so long, every spare moment, every penny has been going into this. Some investments or grant support would have made that much less stressful.

How did your previous jobs covering education and crime prepare you?

Working on my own meant that I didn’t have the pressure of an editor behind me. I could really think about what needed to be done. I think that’s part of the problem many newsrooms face: they think about doing things out of habit, and there are not many opportunities to review how they function. We were able to avoid that by starting small and new.

Homicide Watch is public service journalism, data journalism, and citizen journalism. Some call it hyper-local. You prefer the term narrative data. How do all these terms help define your work?

At first some would present me as a hyper-local blogger. I preferred saying that I was a reporter coming from the newsroom and that I worked for myself. Saying that Homicide Watch DC is hyper-local is a huge generalization about crime and whom it happens to. A better term perhaps is “hyper-topical” because it’s more about the beat itself. That term though still misses the innovation of the organisational structure that sets Homicide Watch apart.

Our model is to open our platform to citizens. If you don’t have an audience, you don’t have a reason for existing. There are two sides to Homicide Watch: the side that provides updates about cases, with a section for memorials, court documents, a calendar, etc. Then there’s the side useful to the reporter: the calendar, the database, the structure of the community so that the reporter is able to reach out to them and work with them. Homicide Watch is useful to two audiences, sometimes in the same ways and sometimes in different ways.

How has being the first Nieman-Berkman fellow helped you and the platform?

We gained legitimacy. It put us in a community of influential people that were able to tell others about Homicide Watch.

You work with teams of interns in Washington DC and Boston, and you teach at Northeastern University. What have your interns and students taught you?

In DC, our three interns are responsible for going to court every day and covering breaking news. We have two interns working on the Boston site as well as my students who post once a week. Working with them all has taught me the importance of mentorship. The people who have helped us driving the site forward have taken a personal interest in it. They’ve told us what they need. When I think about my students and our interns I think a lot about how to build that confidence and capacity in them, and to help them become mentors to others as well.