Homicide Watch faces uncertain future, established news beats as databases

Homicide Watch | Kickstarter | Nieman Lab
Homicide Watch, the news startup that tracks homicide cases in Washington, D.C., through data and reporting, is taking a break.

The wife-husband team that founded it, Laura and Chris Amico, are moving to Massachusetts next week for Laura’s one-year Nieman fellowship at Harvard. The site may find some new life through a Kickstarter fundraising campaign that would pay interns to staff it.

Either way, the project has made its mark.

“It has proven an editorial model that works,” Laura Amico told me this week by phone. “It’s a proof of concept not just for homicide coverage, but I think for structured beat reporting around a database, on many other beats and concepts.”

Homicide Watch, with its fundamental approach of beat-coverage-as-database-building, is one of the prime examples of new forms of digital journalism that blow past the old article format. (See also: PolitiFact, and Anil Dash’s call for publishers to stop creating Web pages and start creating news streams and APIs.)

When you track news as data, you can make it sortable, searchable and mappable.

Clay Shirky previously noted that “Homicide Watch provides far broader crime coverage than the [Washington] Post, coverage of clear value to the community, and does so in a way that makes that value cumulative, rather than just spinning out updates on the hamster wheel … it’s a brilliant re-imagining of what it means to be a news outlet.”

Amico’s focus for the future is in “spinoffs” to other news organizations, ”applying the concept of Homicide Watch — of structured beat reporting around a database — to other types of coverage.” One news organization is about to launch such a spinoff in partnership with Homicide Watch, Amico said.

“We license the software, and then provide as much editorial support as they want,” she explained. “If they want us to check in with their reporters once a week, help them craft year-in-review packages or investigative stories, we’re happy to be editors on that sort of project as well.”

Applying the Homicide Watch method to other topics will be key to its growth. News organizations were hesitant to enter a business venture built on the sensitive subject of homicide, Amico said.

I’ve been thinking that if I had it all to do over again — and here’s my big lesson — that a year and a half ago I would have pursued seed funding or an angel investor in order to be able to hire someone to do ad sales. The big concern that we’ve heard from newsrooms is that you can’t sell advertising against homicide coverage, and I don’t believe that’s true because newsrooms do it every day. … I think we could have proven that you could, and that would have improved our chances of finding a partnership here in D.C.

Earlier: Homicide Watch uses clues in site search queries to ID homicide victims (Poynter)

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