Homicide Watch, one of the most important experiments in improving journalism in the era of the internet, will die in a week, unless we save them. They need our help. Please donate $50 on Kickstarter to help them keep working. If you can’t do $50, do $25, or $5. (For the record, I’m in for $500.)
If you stop reading here and just give them a little money and a little public love, you’ll be making the country a better place. If you want more, read on.
Homicide Watch is a two-year old journalism startup that reports on every murder in Washington, DC. Every one. It is the only institution, in one of the most murderous cities in the country, that does. The Washington Post doesn’t, City Paper doesn’t, news radio doesn’t, local TV doesn’t. Just Homicide Watch.
Homicide Watch matters because they are more than just thorough, they’re innovative. They’ve designed the site like a set of feeds and a wiki rather than like the crime section of a newspaper. The home page shows the most recent updates on all pending cases. Each victim gets their own page, where those updates are aggregated. Every murder is mapped. Every page has the tip line for the detective assigned to the case. Every page hosts a place for remembrance of the victim.
This way of working isn’t just technologically innovative, it’s socially innovative, in a way journalism desperately needs. The home page of Homicide Watch shows photos of the most recent seven victims; as I write this, all seven, are, as usual, African-American. Like a lot of white people, I knew, vaguely, that crime was worse in black neighborhoods than in white ones, but actually seeing the faces, too often of kids not much older than my own, makes it clear how disproportionately this crime is visited on African-Americans.
This is one of their most remarkable innovations: murder coverage has always been racially biased in this country. The old saying for New York papers was not to bother covering murders north of 96th street, where the victims were almost certainly black. The casual exclusion of most citizens from most DC crime coverage is a continuation of that legacy; news organizations aren’t generally in the business of introducing their readers to the realities of life elsewhere in their town. Simon Anderson, father of 5, was gunned down in northwest DC. Terrance Robinson was killed in southeast DC the day before. Antwan Boseman was shot to death two miles south and three hours earlier. And so on, and on, and on.
With a newspaper or a 30 minute broadcast, scarcity of space or time is enough of an excuse to keep ignoring crimes like these. Homicide Watch reverses that logic. Inclusion is the default; one victim equals one new page. Unlike the traditional press, racial bias would take extra work. Their motto, unique in metro crime reporting, is this: “Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case.” It’s hard to describe how radical such a sensible idea is.
And the kicker on all this technological and social innovation? They do this with two employees, one of whom works part-time. Laura Amico is the full-time reporter, editor, and publisher; Chris Amico built and manages the platform. They demonstrate, daily and decisively, what crime coverage could and should look like in the 21st century.
It will all go away in a week if we don’t save it.
The threat that Homicide Watch will close comes from one failure and one success. The failure is simple: the Amicos assumed that if they could show news organizations how to do better work on important news with a smaller budget, those organizations would license the platform. The Amicos have done a couple of these deals, but many fewer than they’d hoped for, and not enough to keep the lights on. (Please join me in being astonished that legacy news organizations talk innovation but walk “Minimize change.”)
Even with this difficulty, they’ve been relentless about keeping the site open, but then came the success, the other thing that threatens the site: Harvard offered Laura Amico a Nieman Fellowship, richly deserved, in recognition of her work, and she can’t go to court every day in DC while she’s in Cambridge.
She needs to replace herself while she’s gone, and whatever virtues startups have, organizational slack and a deep bench of talent isn’t one of them. Which is where we come in. They’ve structured the new hire as a student reporting lab, and now they need the money to make that work, to keep the site running.
American journalism is having two crises of institutionalization. The first, public and obvious, is the difficulty existing institutions have in adapting to the internet. (If the Washington Post walked their talk, they’d have acquired Homicide Watch outright by now.) But the second crisis, less widely understood, is the lack of institutional stability for startups. Even news organizations that are, by internet standards, august and ancient, like Talking Points Memo, still struggle, and early startups like Homicide Watch live moment to moment, however good and important their work.
Kickstarter assumes that the logical supporters for projects are the people who benefit most, but Homicide Watch’s natural audience — Antwan Boseman’s friends and Terrance Robinson’s neighbors and Simon Anderson’s children — are already suffering from a crime that we should all regard as a shared injustice. They shouldn’t have to pony up just so someone will take the murder of their loved ones seriously, just so someone will mark every death and remember every victim and follow every case.
We are the only people who can save Homicide Watch. If they can raise another $20K in the next week to cover the cost of one reporter for a year, the site goes on, DC keeps an irreplaceable service, and there’s more time to figure out how to get the model adopted in other cities. If they can’t cover the cost, it goes away.
And if it goes away…you’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. People like us, we’re always fine; if you’re reading this, you probably live in a place with low crime rates and good coverage. Homicide Watch isn’t for us, but the people it is for can’t support it, and without us, they won’t have it anymore.
I’ve spent the last year looking at journalism startups, and the one that has most impressed me is Homicide Watch — innovative high-quality work on a civically critical issue that increases coverage and reduces cost. Laura and Chris are amazing. I don’t work for them, but today I do — if you can help in any way, with a donation or by publicizing the Kickstarter campaign or both, I’d be grateful, and so would they, and so would the residents of DC.
And if you give them a donation, tweet it out and put it on Facebook. This will only work if we get our friends to get their friends to help.