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

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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"I know it's not a cliff-hanger now," she commiserated, "but I actually think it is potentially a better story. The crisis was kind of a distraction from the real meat—can the model work, what will it take, how will it change journalism and civic life (or, possibly, fall short), can we do it here in Chicago (they do have their software available for licensing) and what would that look like?"

On top of this soothing counsel, there was Clay Shirky's blog post on Homicide Watch to think about. (Sandlin had sent me a link.) Shirky, an important voice on Internet issues, had chided mainstream media for failing to follow the trail the Amicos had blazed. "If the Washington Post walked their talk," he wrote, "they'd have acquired Homicide Watch outright by now." And he'd spotted the irony in the Amicos' situation: "Kickstarter assumes that the logical supporters for projects are the people who benefit most, but Homicide Watch's natural audience . . . 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."

Shirky had had his say several days before Carr. There are times, perhaps, when the only place for an honorable journalist is in the pack.

So I called the Amicos.

I laid out my complicated theory as to why they can't get grants. "I don't see how you can say that," said Chris Amico. The problem, he said, is pretty simple. Homicide Watch is a for-profit operation—not that it's ever made any profit—which rules out a lot of philanthropies. Furthermore, with Laura working full-time running the journalism end of the operation and Chris working on it nights and weekends while holding down a paying job with National Public Radio, there'd been no time for either of them to put together decent grant proposals.

"That's the catch-22 of grant funding," said Laura. "You have to have resources to get grants. And if you need grants to get resources, you're stuck."

"We need to find ways to make local sites sustainable," Chris continued. "With just the two of us, we'll never be as efficient as we'd be working with a local partner who can get higher ad rates or local grant money."

There's one partner now: the Trentonian in Trenton, New Jersey. That Homicide Watch site's about to launch, with the Amicos providing the software and the Trentonian the reporting. "There's a lot of other interest, especially since the Kickstarter campaign started," said Laura. "All of a sudden we're busy."

But nobody's called from here. "We'd love to be in Chicago," Laura said. "What we need is a local partner there, a newsroom or a university or some other group to be the daily beat reporter on the ground. We know a lot of people in Chicago, but no one who has the ability to make these sorts of decisions and write checks."

There were 131 murders in D.C. in 2010 and 108 last year, and the police are hoping this year's total won't reach triple figures. The argument that Homicide Watch has contributed to this decline is one "we certainly don't try to make," Laura told me. However, because Homicide Watch is paying attention, and offering the public a forum to post anything they might know about the crimes, "we've come to the conclusion that drawing attention to these cases does have an impact on how they're solved or not solved, and how they're prosecuted or not prosecuted," she said. What's more, "because we follow the cases through the criminal justice system, we know when charges are dropped or offenders are acquitted. It drives me crazy to read that a suspect is charged with murder one and never hear about him again."

The number of murders in Chicago this year is already approaching 400. Would it take a newsroom to cover so many homicides? No, said Chris. Laura thinks three people could do it.

"We didn't create Homicide Watch to save journalism or save crime reporting or to be innovative," she said. "We did it because communities are underserved. The outcome is a new kind of crime journalism that is database driven. It allows coverage to be both granular and cumulative."

Their goal is to get Homicide Watch operating again in Washington by early October. Whether it ever reaches Chicago is up to somebody here.

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