A near-death experience at Homicide Watch | On Media | Chicago Reader

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A near-death experience at Homicide Watch

A Kickstarter campaign will likely keep the transformative D.C.-based website alive. Will it also help bring a new kind of crime journalism to Chicago?


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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.

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