Articles about "Homicide Watch"


Crime coverage in Chicago may be too good

Chicago is widely known as “Chiraq” or the “murder capital” even though its murder rate is much lower than in past years and in many other cities. Ironically this may be a function of local media’s attempts to do a better job reporting on homicides and crime

There was a time when reporters just didn’t cover many crime – or other — stories in the city’s low income, Black and Latino neighborhoods, noted veteran reporters at Poynter’s “Truth & Trust in the 21st Century” forum in Chicago Thursday. Now the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, DNAinfo and other media outlets make it a point to cover every murder in the city. But that means a lot of negative coverage about the city’s South and West sides, even as there are still relatively few other stories being reported on in these neighborhoods.


When you have 10 crime stories for every uplifting story like the Jackie Robinson West Little League team, noted DNAinfo reporter Darryl Holliday, “that’s not a good ratio.” “It says that’s all that’s happening, when that’s not the case,” continued Holliday, who is also co-founder of The Illustrated Press, which does journalism through comics.

But there are not necessarily bright lines between “good” and “bad” stories, countered author Alex Kotlowitz, pointing to the “This American Life” documentary on Chicago’s Harper High as an example.

The “centrifugal force of journalism,” as Kotlowitz described it, is to “understand why kids make the decisions they make … to understand what pushes and pulls people.”

Asiaha Butler  (Photo by Kari Lydersen)

Asiaha Butler (Photo by Kari Lydersen)

But panelist Asiaha Butler told Kotlowitz she was unable to listen the Harper High documentary all the way through, since she felt it portrayed an unrealistically negative and “dramatic” view of the neighborhood where she has lived most of her life and leads the Residents Association of Greater Englewood (R.A.G.E.). She said the many untold stories in Englewood include the role of grandparents and great grandparents and the strong intergenerational structure that underpins the neighborhood.

“I’m not dodging bullets all the time,” said Butler, who with R.A.G.E. airs news on a website and a public access TV program. “You tell your own narrative, you don’t wait until the media comes.”

Like Butler, audience members at the Truth & Trust event implored reporters to do more to find and tell a wider range of stories.

“There are people who help people take out their garbage, who clean up the community … who help elders cross the street,” said Rondayle Sanders, a fifth-grader at the Bradwell School of Excellence whose class wrote an op-ed published in The Chicago Tribune presenting a fuller view of their neighborhood. “We want you to know more positive things about the South Side.”

When Sanders asked for advice in reporting, Butler suggested he start at his school “talking to the janitor, the lunch lady, hear their stories and highlight them.

In some ways it should be easier than ever for journalists to find and report a wide range of stories in different neighborhoods, since social media and new media have turned journalism from a specialized profession into an act practiced by the masses, as Kelly McBride, Poynter’s vice president of academic programs, put it.

McBride noted that these days rather than acting as gatekeepers of information and finding stories on their own, mainstream journalists are more often picking up on the stories being reported in blogs, community outlets and social media, “sorting through and magnifying” them.

But the financial crisis and budget cuts that have rocked the journalism world mean that even reporters with the best intentions struggle to get the time and space to tell the rich, multi-layered stories that do justice to a neighborhood.

“There’s no lack of these really great groups,” said Holliday. “But there are only so many journalists who can only do so many things.”

Linda Lutton (Photo by Kari Lydersen)

Linda Lutton (Photo by Kari Lydersen)

Kotlowitz noted that WBEZ reporter Linda Lutton, who was in the audience, was lucky to get substantial time to work on the Harper High story, a luxury relatively few full-time journalists are granted. Meanwhile from the audience veteran reporter Sally Duros pointed out that “good news stories are not news” or are viewed as “P.R.” by many.

Panelist Lolly Bowean, a Chicago Tribune reporter, noted that media outlets are financially and otherwise obligated to cover stories that draw readership and hence revenue. She said people often complain about the paper’s extensive coverage of rapper Chief Keef, but those are the stories that draw high numbers of views and comments.

“There has to be an appetite from the audience, from the public saying we need these stories,” said Bowean. “If there is no one paying 50 cents for that paper or going online to get it, then there is no us!”

Meanwhile panelists and audience members stressed that even as technology opens up possibilities for new and innovative ways to tell stories, there is still a crucial role for old-fashioned watchdog, accountability journalism. Reporters noted that police officers are often reticent with information about cases, and that in Chicago only about a quarter of murders are ever officially solved. The “triangle” of relationships between police, community members and journalists — as audience member David Schaper of NPR put it — is typically tense and fraught.

Reporters need to scrutinize official statistics and reports, the journalists noted, applying the old adage “if your mother says she loves you, check it out” to information from the police.

There is clearly no easy answer to the myriad of challenges and contradictions discussed at the Truth & Trust gathering, which was hosted by CBS 2 Chicago anchor Jim Williams and also featured Tracy Swartz, reporter for the Chicago Tribune’s RedEye tabloid edition and Michael Lansu, an editor of the Chicago Sun-Times’ Homicide Watch project.

But the bottom line is that in order to achieve nuanced, rich coverage of neighborhoods that goes beyond the latest crime statistics, key factors are just that — truth and trust. Read more


Future of Homicide Watch D.C. uncertain as Amico joins Boston Globe

In 2012, Laura Amico got a call that changed a lot of things — her city, her work and, eventually, her future

Amico, who lived and worked in Washington, D.C., had been selected to be a Nieman-Berkman fellow at Harvard University, where she would research how the Web could be applied to criminal justice journalism. She was eager to go, but she knew moving to Cambridge for a year would mean leaving behind Homicide Watch, a project she and her husband Chris Amico created together to catalog every single homicide in the D.C. area. She didn’t want the site to wither.

“This thing that I’d built from nothing really had a place in the community,” Amico said.

Laura Amico (submitted photo)

Laura Amico (submitted photo)

She and her husband — who eventually made the move to Cambridge permanent — raised more than $47,000 on Kickstarter and were able to hire student journalists to keep the site running in their absence. The Kickstarter money ran out last year, but Homicide Watch is now supported by licensing the site’s template to other news organizations, such as the Chicago Sun-Times. Their project continued.

But earlier this month, Amico got another call that would change the fate of her bootstrapped project. The Boston Globe offered her a job as news editor in charge of multimedia and data projects. She accepted the offer and is now facing the same questions she was two years ago: with her new duties starting Aug. 20, she needs to find somebody who can take over stewardship of Homicide Watch. Her husband will assume her responsibilities for the short term, but ultimately they want to find a permanent home for the site in the D.C. area, where the site’s community is.

“It just doesn’t feel fair for us to be running it from afar in Boston,” Amico said.

She and her husband are currently in conversation with two partners who would each be good hosts for the site, but Amico declined to name them because she didn’t want to jeopardize ongoing negotiations. If they can’t find a host in the coming months, Amico says they’ll consider shutting it down.

“It’s the worst-case scenario because we know it’s something that’s very important to the D.C. community,” she said.

Amico and her husband will retain the rights to license the site’s template to other news organizations.

She isn’t the first media entrepreneur to struggle with relinquishing oversight of a project. In 2008, David Cohn created Spot.Us, a crowdfunding site for journalists. When the site was acquired by American Public Media in 2011, Cohn remembers feeling excitement mixed with anxiety. He wanted the site to grow under new management, but it was difficult to sever ties and watch another organization take control.

Eventually, he came to the realization that he needed to move on and do other things — and he says Amico and her husband should do the same, even if it comes at the expense of Homicide Watch.

“Sometimes that is the best thing for people like Laura who are creatively ambitious and want to do new things,” Cohn said.

Around the time she and her husband started Homicide Watch, Amico says they were counseled to make sure they were prepared to wind their involvement in the site down. Amico didn’t have an exit strategy because the day-to-day operations of the site were fulfilling, she said. But now, as she and her husband get ready to give up control of a project they started, she’s confident that it doesn’t need them anymore. And that makes her proud, she said.

“I know that it can go on without me.”

  Read more


Creating new forms of journalism that put readers in charge

It’s been 20 years since the Internet began to disrupt journalism. It has turned our business upside down, but it’s also given us a new canvas to invent different ways of presenting information. It’s time to start reimagining the news story.

Last week, four of us gathered in a windowless conference room in New York to explore what we can do to nudge things along.

The participants were the creators of three projects that rely on new forms:

  • Laura and Chris Amico, the founders of Homicide Watch, the highly acclaimed reporting venture that tracks homicide victims and suspects in Washington, Chicago and Trenton, N.J.

All three projects use a structured approach to present content in different ways. The animated diagrams of Connected China show you the family and government relationships that determine who has clout in that country; the lists and maps of Homicide Watch show who has been killed and where; the PolitiFact report cards reveal which politicians have earned the most Pants on Fires.

Homicide Watch, Connected China and PolitiFact are known as structured journalism because the articles contain fields of information that can be sorted and tallied. They provide readers with many ways to explore the content, both through individual articles and the data the articles create. Structured journalism puts the reader in charge.

“It’s a way of reporting that builds a comprehensive reporter’s notebook and then opens that notebook up to the public,” said Laura Amico. “There is no ‘old news’ in structured journalism, there is cumulative news. It is reporting that increases in value over time.”

There are a few other ventures that are experimenting with similar new forms, such as Circa, the app that atomizes the news into digestible chunks. But by and large, story forms are stuck in the past. We want more news organizations to experiment with structured journalism.

We began our New York meeting by trying to understand why media companies have largely failed to take advantage of the incredible power of the Web and mobile devices. We identified four forces that have stymied innovation:

  • Content Management Systems. They are designed to convert old media into new media and they provide little flexibility to experiment with new journalistic forms.

  • Newsroom culture. The rhythm in most newsrooms is based on a well-established work flow that produces predictable content. It’s not easy to suggest a wholesale change.

  • Product managers on the business side. They’re accustomed to selling the old recipe and often seem perplexed by new approaches.

  • Editors/news directors. They’ve got other priorities — such as having to choose people for another round of layoffs — and often don’t have the resources for a new venture.

Chua said editors need to get beyond the idea that “what’s new is what’s valuable. Sometimes it is. But sometimes it’s accumulated information and knowledge that is valuable.”

We then turned to the need for evangelism. What can the four of us do to get more news organizations to try innovative story forms?

We agreed to host a mini-conference in September before the Online News Association meeting in Chicago. It will allow us to demonstrate the promise of new story forms for industry leaders and innovators.

In the meantime, we’ll be writing and speaking about the new forms and encouraging organizations to do more experimentation. We invite you to join in these conversations by sharing your projects, ideas and hopes. #structuredjournalism

Bill Adair, the creator of PolitiFact, is the Knight Chair for Computational Journalism at Duke University and an adjunct faculty member at Poynter. Read more

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For 7 years, L.A. Times’ Homicide Report has wrested stories from grim data

We’ve heard a lot about Chris and Laura Amico’s Homicide Watch – and for good reason. The site tracks homicides in Washington, D.C., (and, as of just over a year ago, Chicago and Trenton) from police report to conviction, giving victims and communities attention and coverage that local papers don’t have space or staff to.

It’s a valuable resource, the success of which has inspired other news outlets to embark on similar projects. But Homicide Watch had its own inspiration: the Los Angeles Times’ Homicide Report.

“When we started brainstorming Homicide Watch in 2009, we tried to draw lessons from existing crime mapping and homicide tracking projects,” Chris Amico says. “The two that always stick out are the L.A. Times’ Homicide Report and the Oakland Tribune’s Not Just a Number (we also drew ideas from the L.A. Times War Dead project). They really captured the human impact of violent crime and used data effectively to tell a larger story … They do great work.”

One big difference between the two: Homicide Watch is an independent startup; Homicide Report has the institutional support of the L.A. Times. Increasingly so – the paper recently invested more into the project. A dedicated, full-time reporter, Nicole Santa Cruz, was hired in June 2013. Last month, the Times upgraded and redesigned the site and kicked off its relaunch with a front-page story about Westmont, which has the dubious honor of being the most deadly neighborhood in Los Angeles County.

Were it not for HR’s data, L.A. Times assistant managing editor Megan Garvey says, “I don’t think we would’ve picked Westmont, honestly, I mean … it wasn’t even like it stood out to us in our heads.”

It did stand out in the data. Data team member Ken Schwencke ran several analyses of HR’s numbers to find LA County’s most deadly neighborhood. Over and over again, the 1.85 square mile unincorporated area between Inglewood and Watts came up.

“Every kind of piece of analysis I did pointed at Westmont,” he says.

Though the area was under-covered by both law enforcement and the media, its residents were all too aware of its violence. When reporting out the story, there was no shortage of people to talk to about the toll it had on their lives.

“Everywhere [Santa Cruz] turned there was someone who had something to say about what it was like to live there,” Garvey says. And in the story’s comments section, “people said ‘yeah, this has been going on for years but no one really pays attention to us. We’re sort of lost down here.’”

Covering those “lost” stories was the reason why crime reporter Jill Leovy created the Homicide Report in 2007. There simply wasn’t enough room in the newspaper to cover every single homicide in Los Angeles County, so only the ones deemed significant or newsworthy were mentioned. Homicide Report was a space to give every homicide its due. No one would be forgotten. And readers would be able to truly see the scope of violence in their city. It quickly became one of the paper’s most-read blogs and remains its most popular data project today.

Leovy stepped down after a year, but her passion has been passed on to her successors. It has to be: with 10 million people in Los Angeles County, it’s a big job, even though the numbers of homicides is almost half what it was when the blog began. Garvey has edited the blog since late 2008, often in her spare time.

“Watching reality TV and plugging in homicide data,” she says.

Last year, she told L.A. Times editor Davan Maharaj “either we need to invest in it or we need to stop it.” Maharaj chose the former, and Santa Cruz joined the team.

“She hit the ground running,” Garvey says. “She’s been out all over the community”

In fact, Santa Cruz was absent for the first half of our interview because she had to rush to the scene of a homicide (Robert Leonard Brewer, 21, stabbed to death in – yes – Westmont).

“Honestly there is not ever ever a typical day,” Santa Cruz says when she finally gets the chance to call in. One thing seems to remain the same: “I am not in the office very often.”

She says the hardest part of the job how big her coverage area is, both in population and area. Santa Cruz doesn’t just report out homicides as they happen – she meets with community leaders and law enforcement, goes to vigils and courtrooms, talks to gang interventionists and grieving families.

Santa Cruz has found those moments to be some of the most rewarding parts of the job, though they are, of course, always mired in tragedy.

“I’m really fortunate that I can walk up to someone’s house and they let me into their living room and they make me a cup of tea and they tell me these things about someone they really care about,” she says. “You’re really going into a community that is under-covered and under-served and bringing these stories to light.”

Homicide Report started as a blog. A simple map was soon added, and, after a 14-month dormancy, it was revived as a database in 2010, built by Schwencke. He also built the newest iteration, teaming up with designer Lily Mihalik. The map is now on the top of every page and the database can be filtered by more than one category at a time, which makes analyzing Homicide Report’s seven years’ of data much easier and shows off how valuable data-driven beat coverage can be.

“What we’re trying to do is create this really rich database that allows people to learn about the community on the whole,” Garvey says.

The blog posts have changed, too. The sidebar now has links to every story about the case, from the homicide to any arrests or convictions. Before, the post about the initial homicide would be updated with any developments, but that post was usually long-buried – it often takes years for homicide cases to go to trial.

Now, “you string together the information in a way that you’re providing a full account and not having to fish around for whatever happened,” Garvey says.

“You have all the information about one person’s death available on one page,” Schwencke adds.

It isn’t just readers who benefit from Homicide Report’s information. Some reporters have also integrated it into their articles. Garvey says she’d like to see it become “part of the DNA of reporting in the newsroom and not just a set-aside project. Have it inform how we operate as journalists … We’re not all the way there on that but I think we’ve made a lot of progress.”

Sure enough, one recent story used Homicide Report data to show how rare murders were in Burbank. Ruben Vives also uses its data to give more context to his reports.

But then, Vives knows quite a bit about the Report’s usefulness — he used to write it.

“That was my first reporting gig with the L.A. Times,” Vives says. “I got very addicted to covering every murder, just because one had hit close to home [Vives' uncle was murdered] and two, I just felt like it was an important thing that we needed to do as a paper.”

Vives says he learned a lot from the beat, a trial-by-fire boot camp in conducting interviews, building sources, following tips and just getting familiar with a coverage area through on-the-ground, shoe leather reporting. Those skills have served him well in the years since: Vives now covers southeastern Los Angeles for the paper, an area with which his time at the Report made him well acquainted.

And, oh yeah – one of Vives’ first big stories after moving off the Report was the city of Bell and its ridiculously high salaries for city officials. You may have heard of it: the series won a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2011. (Leovy’s no slouch, either. Her book, Homicide Report: Understanding Murder in America, goes on sale in July.)

Homicide Report also shows how news outlets can engage with the communities they serve. Its comments section is pre-moderated, but both Garvey and Vives say they tried to be as hands-off as possible.

“This is a really raw subject, a really awful subject,” Garvey says. “What we want to do is create a conversation about these issues.”

“It shows people just by seeing the numbers and by seeing those red dots all over this one specific area, it just makes you aware of ‘wow, I had no idea how bad things were there,’” Vives says.

In the future, the Homicide Report will include data going back to 2000, giving reporters and readers even more context. Garvey also wants to find more ways to make the stories as comprehensive as possible – from the crime to the conviction. The redesign does that already, but keeping tabs on so many cases is difficult. The initial homicide information comes from the police department and coroner’s office, but there isn’t the same clearinghouse for arrests and trials. For now, Garvey says readers often help out, sending them updates. Schwencke is looking for ways to link homicides through police report and district attorney case numbers.

But their biggest hope for the future is that the Times continues its investment in the project.

“My dream for the Homicide Report is that in 20 years the L.A. Times is still doing it,” Garvey says. “And there are a lot fewer homicides.” Read more


Homicide Watch reaches fundraising goal, but how viable is its business model long-term?

Homicide Watch | Kickstarter | New York Times
With just three days left in its month-long Kickstarter campaign, Homicide Watch has reached the goal of $40,000 in pledges from more than 1,000 people to sustain the site for another year.

The Kickstarter campaign crossed its fundraising goal.

Since its launch in 2010, Homicide Watch has used a database as well as news articles to track homicide cases and victims in Washington. It was run solely by a two-person team, Laura and Chris Amico. The new funding will pay stipends for a “student reporting lab” of interns to run the innovative news site, as Laura Amico becomes a Nieman-Berkman Fellow. Amico writes: Read more

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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. Read more


Clay Shirky: Washington Post should emulate Homicide Watch D.C.

“Homicide Watch provides far broader crime coverage than the 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. In comparison with the Post, though, the most important thing about Homicide Watch is that they do all this with two employees: Laura Amico as the editorial voice, and her husband, Chris, who developed the platform and works part time.

“When a two-person outfit can cover such a critical issue better than the reigning local paper, with much less overhead, it’s evidence that doing more with less is possible, but it’s also evidence that this requires far more than reducing expenses. Homicide Watch isn’t just a tight operation (though it is that); it’s a brilliant re-imagining of what it means to be a news outlet.”

Clay Shirky


5 provocative ideas sparked by women in media

As 2012 gets moving, I thought I’d be the very last person to list some of the ideas that have gotten stuck in my mind from over the last year.

Last year, I wrote a list of lessons I’d learned from women in media, and I found that to be a useful filter for reflecting on the year. So I’ve resurrected it for a slightly different list. This year, I’m recounting not lessons, but ideas. Thoughts still tumbling around in my head, sparked — again — by several brilliant people who (mostly) happen to be women.

What journalism can mean

As we all know, journalism remains in the midst of a deep identity crisis. We aren’t exactly sure what it is, what it’s supposed to do, and whether it works. Every now and then, however, we happen across a work of journalism so self-evidently worthy that it needs no explanation or justification beyond itself.

Enter Homicide Watch, the first child of Laura and Chris Amico. If you haven’t spent much time with the site, fix that. (Start with the magnificent year in review package.) Aided by her husband Chris (my coworker at NPR), Laura Amico is doing sobering, powerful work.

The site needs no more explanation than its tagline: “Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case.” As the site description explains, “Using original reporting, court documents, social media, and the help of victims’ and suspects’ friends, family, neighbors and others, we cover every homicide from crime to conviction.”

That word — “every” — is key to what distinguishes Homicide Watch and makes it so valuable. People often say there are two DCs. Our metro area is often described as “recession-proof,” and currently has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. Yet within the city itself, there are large wards that have some of the country’s highest poverty and unemployment rates. Like many cities, D.C. has corners where homicide is rare and shocking, and corners where homicide is an annual event. Only the former killings tend to dominate the news.

Jay Rosen once proposed an idea he called the “100 Percent Solution” — biting off a corner of the world and aiming to cover 100 percent of it. Homicide Watch is what that idea looks like in practice. And it’s clearly appreciated by residents, as you can see.

It’s a site that takes perfect advantage of all the capabilities of the Web to do path-breaking journalism. Because of its comprehensiveness, it’s the go-to resource for D.C. residents when a loved one has been killed, and a first stop on Google for anyone seeking information about a homicide. Threads routinely become memorials for friends and family members of the departed.

With Chris’ technical work underpinning Laura’s reporting, it’s a valuable data repository as well, containing interactive maps, DocumentCloud integration, and a peerless victim and suspect database. I’ve marveled as Laura has pieced together victim identifications from the site’s search referral data.

The site imagines a world where the taking of a human life — no matter whose — is always a serious act, one that deserves our attention not only at the moment of tragedy, but throughout the ensuing quest for justice. By doggedly and passionately reporting on our world that way, Laura is helping to bring it about. I can think of few journalistic ends worthier than that.

Discovery and connection as creative acts

Maria Popova, who goes by @brainpicker on Twitter, does “curation” in a way that really makes the buzzword’s inadequacies clear. Her Twitter stream and her invaluable site are two of the most consistently mind-expandinging feeds I follow. As Hannah Levintova put it, each blog post of hers is “a stunning hidden gem that would take the average netizen hours to track down.”

From the many, many ideas Popova has sparked in my brain, one has stuck more stubbornly than any other: We need to start treating discovery, connection and sharing as creative acts.

Even now, long after “curation” became the most reliable buzzword in the journalism conference drinking game, we still have a fairly narrow understanding of what “creation” means. We talk about “creating content” as though it were something distinct from discovering ideas, connecting them together, and sharing them with others, rather than overlapping with those acts.

Read Popova’s description of her daily process, and you will understand that it is an art she has worked as hard to perfect as any reporter has worked on her beat. It’s as consuming and imaginative as any other creative endeavor. And it’s incredibly valuable.

Many will start trying to resurrect the creation/discovery firewall here: But her work depends on the work of someone else! OK, so whose doesn’t? As Popova has put it, all “creativity is combinatorial.” Done poorly, bad curation (like bad reporting) is just hackery. But done well, it is a deeply inventive act.

This has implications. Among other things, as Popova has written, it means we have to start thinking about how we acknowledge curation and discovery in ways more sophisticated than “via @somebody.” And it means we need to think more aggressively about how to describe and teach these skills. I highly recommend Popova’s own explorations of these ideas at Brainpickings and at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Nostalgia as a media force

This is abstract, but stick with me.

As many have remarked, one of the effects of contemporary technology is that it has drastically augmented our memories. It’s an ancient, problematic phenomenon: we’re outsourcing more and more of the task of remembering from our brains to our gadgets.

As Thamus said to Theuth, “You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding.” The more of our lives we capture — in phonecams, status updates, sensor-driven data feeds — the less we have to remember. (And the less, some would argue, we even fully experience.)

You might describe nostalgia as the distance between our memory of a thing and our experience of it. It’s a gap that brings with it a sort of pleasurable pain — the joy of a memory paired with the sad fact that you’ll never live it again.

Our technology confronts us with this gap constantly. The ubiquitous digital photograph is a nostalgia production machine. I’ve caught myself reviewing photos of an event and feeling the wistful tug of memory while I’m still at the event. I can’t be the only person who’s done this. The Polaroid-trumping instantness of a digital camera encourages us to fiddle with our record of an event, to tweak how we’ll remember it later. More on this in a moment.

The two people more responsible for inspiring thoughts about the power of nostalgia over the last year are Willa Paskin and Anne Helen Petersen. In 2011, Paskin inaugurated a feature for New York Magazine called the “Nostalgia Fact Check,” in which she reviews beloved cultural artifacts (e.g. “The Little Mermaid,” Eddie Murphy’s “Delirious” and “Raw”).

Petersen, on the other hand, has been writing a series of fascinating features called “Scandals of Classic Hollywood,” in which she excavates the lives and careers of some of our most legendary celebrities for insights on how our culture once was, and how it’s changed. Both of these series are wonderful in part because they’re just excellent cultural criticism. But they also exemplify the essence of nostalgia: that divide between the past as we recall it and the past as it was.

Why do these heady observations on nostalgia matter for busy media professionals? Because I’d argue there’s real opportunity in our affinity for nostalgia. Think of Instagram: I’d argue it’s taken off partly because its filters lend an artificial veneer of nostalgia to those in-the-moment digital photos; they instantly make a moment seem more distant or unrecoverable.

Hollywood and Hasbro have also seized on our nostalgia fever. They’ve excavated the ’80s childhoods of today’s new moms and dads to bring back the likes of G.I. Joe, Strawberry Shortcake and My Little Pony. I promise you, that $90 Transformers DVD box set is not targeted at Junior; it’s aimed squarely at the heartstrings of his youthsick Papa.

In October, my buddy Robin Sloan and I gave a talk at TEDxPoynter arguing that news organizations should be designing apps and other products targeted at different user moods (as well as media formats and other experiences). Other media companies have tapped into the nostalgia vein. Could we?

Great long-form journalism is amazing … and rare

For a long time, it’s been a truism that long-form doesn’t work on the Web. But after 2011, long-form storytelling may no longer need champions. Amazon and Apple have stood behind it in a big way, of course. I have several friends who are starting publishing companies aimed at novella-length storytelling. At least two good friends have funded book projects through Kickstarter. Every day, the future of the considered take seems to be looking up. It feels safe to say that long-form storytelling will continue to be around for a while.

I’m happy about this; I love me some long-form. But amidst the resurgent popularity of long-form journalism, I have to thank Ellen Weiss (executive editor of the Center for Public Integrity, whose board I serve on) for a valuable reminder: long-form isn’t always the best form.

These are my thoughts, not Weiss’, but I definitely have to credit her for the conversations that sparked them. Especially when we’re dealing with investigative journalism, it’s easy to default to the assumption that the proper format for a story that took a long time to report is a story that takes a long time to read.

Loving long-form journalism shouldn’t mean believing in length for length’s sake. As Erik Wemple wrote in the Washington Post earlier this year, investigative journalism can be kind of torturous to read, especially the opuses. Of course we have to respect that investigations typically unearth complex facts that aren’t easily distilled. But that means we need to give extra props to folks who can take months of work and compress it into diamonds.

If you were ordered to describe the path that all the money in the world takes as it travels through the global economy, your starting assumption might be that you need a lot of pages for the task. Randall Munroe only needed one (big) page. His infographic — “Money: A chart of (almost) all of it, where it is, and what it can do” — ricocheted all around the Internet when he published it in November. And the chart didn’t only explain money; it also earned some. Two poster versions are available for purchase, and I’m sure I’m one of many who bought the smaller one.

I’d love to see more examples of journalists turning big, important stories into concise, spreadable ones. I think this means more investigative projects led by designers rather than writers. It means reporters taking the time and energy they’d pour into a long narrative report, and using that effort to make the world’s most viral TED talk instead. (Relevant: TED talk about how all TED talks can be summed up in six words. Apparently the distilled essence of every “jaw-dropping” TED talk is, “Flickr photos of intergalactic classical composer.” Sounds about right.)

Again, I’m not trying to (re?)start the long-form backlash. But, to Weiss’ point, it shouldn’t be our default format for important journalism. Often, that 15,000-word opus reflects a different kind of laziness.

(And yes, I realize the hypocrisy of criticizing long writing in a somewhat sprawling five-part piece.)

The revolution will probably be Funny Or Die’d

(1) Comedy has long been the best vehicle for working through controversial or polarizing issues. (2) There are so many polarizing issues our society needs to work through right now. (3) We journalists have to figure out how to use this comedy business.

Humor allows us to engage with stereotypes, inequities and prejudices more meaningfully than we can in almost any non-comedic context. Think of Jeff Foxworthy reclaiming the concept of the redneck, or Eddie Murphy taunting the kids who can’t have ice cream ’cause they’re on welfare. It also brings these things into the light, turning them into ideas everyone can talk about rather than ideas reserved for in-group conversations. And so it is with Issa Rae’s “Awkward Black Girl.” As many folks have remarked, the protagonist J is not a character you’re likely to encounter in a Hollywood flick or a network sitcom, despite the fact that she’s familiar and relatable.

For many of the same reasons, I was sucked into the “$#!* People Say” meme as well, and particularly Franchesca Ramsey’s “$#!* White Girls Say … To Black Girls” take on it. The original video felt like easy, familiar, only mildly transgressive humor. But when the meme got to Ramsey, she took it to another level, using it to express sentiments that really don’t often make it into polite conversation.

There’s a reason journalists don’t typically do humor. When we try to be funny, it typically doesn’t go very well. But could we take a page from Rae and Ramsey and point the lens on ourselves, rather than the folks we cover? I would have loved to see the New York Times launch a “Truth Vigilantes” segment in response to public editor Arthur Brisbane’s cherry bomb of a column the other day. Read more


Homicide Watch D.C. uses clues in site search queries to ID homicide victim

One Reporter’s Notebook
Laura Amico, editor of Homicide Watch D.C., describes how she used site analytics to identify a homicide victim — again. Early Sunday morning, she saw a police department news alert stating that a juvenile male had been killed. She wrote an initial post. When she looked at Google Analytics, she saw a few different search queries that seemed to be related to the killing: People were searching for information on a killing the night before on the same street as in the news alert. After an hour of searching on Twitter and Facebook, she thought she had found the victim, a 17-year-old with a name similar to the one people were searching for. “I held on to my story until I was certain, but soon one of Jamar’s friends posted an RIP message to Twitter and linked to my initial report of the homicide. It was the confirmation I needed to run my story.” Read more

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Police reporter aims to blog every murder in Washington, D.C.

Washington Post
Laura Norton Amico‘s mission: “Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case.”
Her Homicide Watch D.C. links to obituaries, Tweets and Facebook tribute pages; posts relevant court documents; and invites comments. Annys Shin reports Amico had been a crime reporter in Santa Rosa and couldn’t find the same job in Washington, so she decided to create one. Read more