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August 14 2012

17:17

After a deal falls apart, Homicide Watch D.C. is going on hiatus

The Internet famously enabled anyone to become a publisher. A tiny outfit of one or two people can, when the stars align, have the same claim on your attention as a major media company with thousands of employees.

But one thing large companies are built for is sustainability. A site driven by the passion and will of one person runs into trouble when that one person wants to take a new job, or take a vacation, or just focus energy elsewhere for a while. When an editor at a large newspaper leaves, it’s occasion for cake; when a small startup’s founder steps away, there might not even be anyone else around to eat it.

Something along those lines is playing out with the lauded crime site Homicide Watch D.C., and, full disclosure, we here at the Nieman Foundation play a role. Founder Laura Amico applied for a Nieman-Berkman Fellowship earlier this year. When she got the fellowship — which lets her and husband Chris Amico spend a year studying sustainable models for crime journalism here at Harvard — she planned on finding a way to keep the site alive for the 10 months she’d be in Cambridge.

Unfortunately, a licensing deal with a local news organization that would have taken over operation of the site fell through at the last minute. Now, Amico says it’s inevitable that the site will be shuttered for at least some period of time.

“It’s tough because Homicide Watch D.C. is undoubtedly what I’m most proud of in my life,” Amico told me. “At the same time I have to take this incredible opportunity, and that’s not something that I could ever pass up either. That the future of the D.C. site is uncertain — I really have to separate myself from that and say that we have done everything we can, and we have given it everything we could. That there’s no one here willing to take it on is not a statement on the site but [on] the editorial values of this community right now.”

For those who don’t know about Homicide Watch, it’s a site that reports on every homicide in the city of Washington — following the case from the crime itself through the pursuit of suspects and the cases’ path through the courts. It’s been lauded for its devotion to blanket coverage and for its ability to build communities of interest around the kind of crime stories that might get a few inches of coverage — if that — in the local daily. As the site’s tagline puts it: “Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case.” (We wrote the first piece about it back in 2009, when it was still just an idea, and have covered it several times since.)

“That there’s no one here willing to take it on is not a statement on the site but the editorial values of this community right now.”

In Homicide Watch’s first full month of operation, she was thrilled when the site got 500 pageviews. Last month, it got 301,000.

The Amicos — broadly speaking, she does the editorial side and he handles the coding on the backend — have built a licensing business, helping reporters in other cities build their own iterations of Homicide Watch. They’ve created a model that she says is “doing well,” but that may not be enough to save the flagship site.

It’s rare that journalists stay with one company for the course of their career these days, and Laura says after her fellowship year, she might be ready to go back to being part of a larger newsroom. (She was previously a reporter at the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat.) Understandably, she wants to explore her options. But she also wants what she created to live on.

“In D.C., my firm belief is that many newsrooms are still thinking about covering homicide in 2012 the way they covered it in 1992,” Amico said. “Homicide has changed dramatically. The drug wars are not the same as they were in 1992. That has impacted and changed who is being killed, and where, and for what reason. Despite that, those criteria that newsrooms are using to determine what homicides are and are not important has not changed. There’s a divergence of news values and realities.”

The Amicos are holding out hope that the site’s hiatus will be brief and that its reporting can be sustained while they’re in Cambridge. They’re in the last stages of launching a $40,000 Kickstarter fundraising campaign, waiting from final approval from the crowdfunding site. “What we want to do is bring on paid interns — five throughout the course of one calendar year — and turn operation of the site over to them, with guidance from Chris and myself,” Amico said. “Everything from the daily reporting to the database entry to monitoring comments, keeping track of cases, year-in-review stories, investigative reports.” (Watch our Twitter feed; we’ll let you know when it launches.)

The database is part of what makes Homicide Watch special because it enables the site to go beyond the intimate coverage — every victim by name — of homicide. The database allows the quick creation and collation of maps, demographic info on victims and suspects, and information on the progression of cases.

“This is all data that I’m gathering because it’s in the course of our normal reporting,” Amico says. “Really, at a moment’s notice, I can write a story saying ’35 people have pled guilty in this period of time and here’s a list of them.’” Amico can also check those anecdotal reporter’s hunches that come with closely covering a beat. A couple of weeks ago, for example, three homicides in one weekend felt like more than usual over a relatively quiet couple of years.

“I got to thinking: Have there been more homicides? Well, I can check, and that took me just a couple of minutes.”

But as the site freezes next week, so too will its collection of data. Amico says she just received an email from a woman thanking Homicide Watch D.C. for its work, and describing the teenagers she sees around Washington wearing t-Shirts printed with names, photographs, and dates that memorialize homicide victims. “It’s tragic that they have to go through this,” Amico says the woman wrote. “You all are giving such an important service. I’m moved by your website.”

That was a particularly tough email for Amico to receive.

“This woman doesn’t know that in a week the site isn’t going to be updated,” Amico said. “The site has had incredible editorial success in a way that I didn’t imagine was possible. But we can’t find a partner to hand it off to.”

August 27 2010

14:54

Washington Post Caught Napping at Imaginary Intersection

Of this we can be certain: There is no such thing as the intersection of Mozart Place and 16th Street NW. These two Washington, D.C, thoroughfares in the Adams-Morgan area parallel each other.

So when people who knew the neighborhood read the Washington Post's "Crime Scene" post on Aug. 12 about a homicide in the area, and saw a reference to such a location as the place where the victim was found, they knew something was wrong. In fact, the first three commenters on the story pointed out the mistake.

What happened next was that the Post quickly corrected the goof, noted the fix and moved on. Right?

If only. In fact, the error remains in the online version of the story as I write this, two weeks later. The comments pointing out the mistake sit at the end of the post, without any response or acknowledgment from the Post.

Bug Report

Chris Amico filed a bug about the error at MediaBugs, and we decided to handle it. (Right now we're still primarily serving the San Francisco Bay Area.) We contacted the Post. Two emails and five days later, we got a response from Post deputy managing editor Milton Coleman.

Coleman said the paper planned to "set the record straight." He also pointed out that since the reference to the non-existent intersection was made in a passage attributed to a police spokesman, technically the Post hadn't actually made a mistake, and therefore the Post would publish a clarification, not a correction.

Four days after that, on Sat., Aug. 21, more than a week after the original mistake, the Post did publish a correction. Good luck finding it on the Post website, though. The paper does have a dedicated online corrections page, which is linked from the News menu in the top navigation bar. Yet the Mozart Place correction notice doesn't show up on this listing. Meanwhile, there's also a link to "corrections" in the footer of the Post website, but right now that link points -- inexplicably and uselessly -- to the corrections page for a single day two weeks ago.

So there is some correction confusion at the paper, and it's not easy to find the Mozart Place correction notice. Which wouldn't matter if the Post had bothered to correct the online version of the article (with a link to the correction notice). That, for whatever reason, has not happened yet.

Online First

Is this a really minor error? You bet -- although it does matter to the people who posted comments about it at the Post site and who filed a report at MediaBugs. Don't the editors of the Washington Post have more important stuff to worry about? Undoubtedly. That's my point.

This isn't a complex or politically charged issue requiring legal consultations or editorial huddles. It's a simple matter of fact that's verifiable in half a minute. The more that a news organization like the Post publishes brief, quick-hit items online, the more of this kind of error it's likely to make. Why not streamline the process? The Post calls the Crime Scene report a blog; why can't it function more like one?

Correcting an error of this magnitude shouldn't require days of deliberation, the valuable time of a deputy managing editor, or concern over distinctions between "correction" and "clarification" that are meaningless to the public. It ought to be a simple matter to go in and fix the error on the website, as bloggers routinely do. And if the web editors want to keep this process accountable and transparent, as they should, all they have to do is make revisions to published content accessible. It can be done!

Web corrections ought to happen first; let print catch up. Instead, too often the leisurely gait of the print operation seems to hamstring the website from taking care of things.

When I discuss these ideas with newspaper managers, they usually agree in principle but then point to technical barriers. "Our content management system is so old and clunky," they say. "We just can't do it."

That excuse might have been credible 15, 10, even 5 years ago. But it's time to stop giving news organizations a pass on this account. They've had years to get their technological act together, to think about how to coordinate print and online in general and specifically in the corrections process. If they can't do it today, it's little wonder readers think that accuracy just isn't their priority.

UPDATE August 27: At some point shortly after this post was published (or, conceivably, shortly before), the Washington Post edited the news item in question to remove the reference to the non-existent intersection. There's no mention or record of the change on the page. (Although there is a reference to the item being "updated," this notice has been on the page for roughly two weeks already.)

14:54

Washington Post Caught Napping at Imaginary Intersection

Of this we can be certain: There is no such thing as the intersection of Mozart Place and 16th Street NW. These two Washington, D.C, thoroughfares in the Adams-Morgan area parallel each other.

So when people who knew the neighborhood read the Washington Post's "Crime Scene" post on Aug. 12 about a homicide in the area, and saw a reference to such a location as the place where the victim was found, they knew something was wrong. In fact, the first three commenters on the story pointed out the mistake.

What happened next was that the Post quickly corrected the goof, noted the fix and moved on. Right?

If only. In fact, the error remains in the online version of the story as I write this, two weeks later. The comments pointing out the mistake sit at the end of the post, without any response or acknowledgment from the Post.

Bug Report

Chris Amico filed a bug about the error at MediaBugs, and we decided to handle it. (Right now we're still primarily serving the San Francisco Bay Area.) We contacted the Post. Two emails and five days later, we got a response from Post deputy managing editor Milton Coleman.

Coleman said the paper planned to "set the record straight." He also pointed out that since the reference to the non-existent intersection was made in a passage attributed to a police spokesman, technically the Post hadn't actually made a mistake, and therefore the Post would publish a clarification, not a correction.

Four days after that, on Sat., Aug. 21, more than a week after the original mistake, the Post did publish a correction. Good luck finding it on the Post website, though. The paper does have a dedicated online corrections page, which is linked from the News menu in the top navigation bar. Yet the Mozart Place correction notice doesn't show up on this listing. Meanwhile, there's also a link to "corrections" in the footer of the Post website, but right now that link points -- inexplicably and uselessly -- to the corrections page for a single day two weeks ago.

So there is some correction confusion at the paper, and it's not easy to find the Mozart Place correction notice. Which wouldn't matter if the Post had bothered to correct the online version of the article (with a link to the correction notice). That, for whatever reason, has not happened yet.

Online First

Is this a really minor error? You bet -- although it does matter to the people who posted comments about it at the Post site and who filed a report at MediaBugs. Don't the editors of the Washington Post have more important stuff to worry about? Undoubtedly. That's my point.

This isn't a complex or politically charged issue requiring legal consultations or editorial huddles. It's a simple matter of fact that's verifiable in half a minute. The more that a news organization like the Post publishes brief, quick-hit items online, the more of this kind of error it's likely to make. Why not streamline the process? The Post calls the Crime Scene report a blog; why can't it function more like one?

Correcting an error of this magnitude shouldn't require days of deliberation, the valuable time of a deputy managing editor, or concern over distinctions between "correction" and "clarification" that are meaningless to the public. It ought to be a simple matter to go in and fix the error on the website, as bloggers routinely do. And if the web editors want to keep this process accountable and transparent, as they should, all they have to do is make revisions to published content accessible. It can be done!

Web corrections ought to happen first; let print catch up. Instead, too often the leisurely gait of the print operation seems to hamstring the website from taking care of things.

When I discuss these ideas with newspaper managers, they usually agree in principle but then point to technical barriers. "Our content management system is so old and clunky," they say. "We just can't do it."

That excuse might have been credible 15, 10, even 5 years ago. But it's time to stop giving news organizations a pass on this account. They've had years to get their technological act together, to think about how to coordinate print and online in general and specifically in the corrections process. If they can't do it today, it's little wonder readers think that accuracy just isn't their priority.

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