10 lessons for building projects within niche sites: Homicide Watch D.C.’s Year in Review

This is part of a series of blog posts from the first ONA class of MJ Bear Fellows describing their experiences and sharing their knowledge with the community. MJ Bear Fellow Laura Amico is the founder and editor of Homicide Watch D.C. in Washington, D.C., a website that covers every homicide in the nation’s capital, and includes news, obituaries, profiles, court documents and memorials.

The query went out Nov. 2: What should Homicide Watch include in our look back on 2011?

I wanted to build a comprehensive year-in-review package that showed off the data and reporting that my team and I had done over the past 12 months and that captured the way people across D.C. felt the impact of violent crime over the year. While I had my own story list, I wanted to hear from readers about what was meaningful to them.

Almost immediately the messages, in comments, emails and Tweets, started rolling in. “Please write about my boyfriend,” wrote one woman. “His case hasn’t been closed.” “Write about transgender murder victims,” wrote someone else. “My neighbor was killed and I think that this is a problem.”

With dozens of readers’ ideas to guide me, I crafted what turned out to be a 22-story Year in Review package in eight weeks. From the very personal to the statistical, the package met both of my goals. It was a compelling look at what violent crime meant to D.C. residents in 2011, and it showed off Homicide Watch D.C.’s database and reporting from that year.

There were a lot of things that worked well in putting the package together. There also were a lot of “creative solutions” to problems. In this post, I’ll share some of the lessons I learned:

1. Get input early and ask for specifics. A direct appeal to my readership worked well for me and resulted in some of our more popular stories. I also used readers’ suggestions in putting together The Ten Cases That Captured Our Attention This Year, by far the most popular of the Year in Review stories. I replied to each suggestion with a thank-you, but I also asked, “If I, or someone else, is able to do this story, are you willing to be a source?” Knowing whether people were willing to be sources saved a lot of time and effort down the road.

2. Outsource. I knew there were certain people I wanted to hear from about the year in homicides, but I also knew that the publishing schedule was tight. With an eight-week roadway, we were far ahead of probably every other publication in town, but there was a lot to accomplish, and I’m a one-woman shop. My solution was to offer many people the opportunity to write guest columns for the project. D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and two council members took me up on that. I liked that I was able to include their voices and that they had the opportunity to address Homicide Watch readers directly.

3. My mistake: I thought outsourcing would mean I didn’t have to do much work. I did a lot of follow-up with my column writers, checking in on deadlines, procuring headshots, line editing, etc. It wasn’t as much time as it would have taken me to interview and write, but it was still a significant amount of time and I under-budgeted that.

4. Freelancers. I could not have done this without my incredible Year in Review team of freelancers: Tom LeGro, Gary Harki, Shaun Courtney, Amanda Yeager and Taylor Brown. Their work was thoughtful, well reported and well written. My most sincere thanks to them for their volunteer efforts. There also was Chris Amico’s many, many hours coding the splash page, copy-editing over my shoulder, editing me, styling those charts, and more. The lesson here is know what help you need and find it. I also made the deadline super early (sorry, guys) knowing that if I did that, stories would come in late but right on time. For niche independents like me: all of these excellent freelancers volunteered their time and effort because they believe in the editorial mission of the site. Finding a core group of supporters with the skills you need is among the most important things you can do.

5. Even with 22 stories, there were holes in our coverage; I knew going in that I could never envision a complete review of the year. So, I assigned stories that I felt built on the strengths of Homicide Watch. The best example is Gary Harki’s compelling story of the first murder victim of 2011. The idea for the story was that the victim, a young black man shot to death in D.C., is among the most ordinary cases when we look at the year’s statistics. But what’s behind that? Gary filled in the personal details, proving that there is nothing ordinary about the most ordinary homicides. We also promoted our murder map and built a series of graphics out of our database. We wanted to show off our data collection (proving that we have data no one else has) and help readers visualize the causes and impacts of violent crime.

6. The most frustrating moment came on Dec. 30, when Mayor Gray and Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Chief Cathy Lanier held a press conference that afternoon to talk about homicides. There were about two dozen other reporters there, and I was exhausted from a week of editing, writing and publishing. But that press conference turned out to be one of my biggest wins: Gray and Lanier threw out a lot of data that didn’t sound exactly right to me. I went home, and Chris and I spent about an hour plumbing our database, and I called a lot of sources to make sure I was looking at the numbers correctly. We ended up publishing some good data explainers that provided context to those numbers. For example, while every other news organization simply ran the 94-percent figure for homicide case closures that was handed out at the press conference, we published an explainer of how that was calculated and added our already published graphic of how many open cases remain this year. We also looked at the MPD’s assertion that 33 homicides were closed within a week in 2011. The lesson here was to be ahead of the ball that you don’t know is coming.

7. Plan, plan and plan some more. This was a lesson in organizational skills. My giant whiteboard lived on my kitchen table for pretty much the length of this project. Stories were categorized, check-marked, color-coded, etc. My publishing schedule was firm. The deadline was Dec. 31.

8. My favorite story ended up being a non-traditional one. Shared: The Reality of Living and Dying in D.C. was a Storify document of social media posts about D.C. murders. This certainly could have been a traditionally reported story, but I like that the simple curation lets the writer get out of the way. It’s an unfiltered view of how D.C. talked about murder in 2011, and that makes it powerful. I didn’t realize that when I conceived of the story, though. I simply knew that in such a large package of stories, I would need variety to hold reader interest, and Storify seemed like a good way to inject variety. I used the same approach for The Year in Comments. The lesson here is to think outside the box and to think about what medium is most powerful for your message.

9. Things are going to fall through. There were stories that weren’t turned in. There were sources who declined interviews. Plan for it, and roll with it. Do I wish I could have gotten an interview with Chief Lanier? Like you wouldn’t believe. But we had a lot of other great stuff.

10. Think ahead. One of the best things I did with Year in Review was to think about 2012. It’s similar to what I do every week on Homicide Watch: Every Friday, while people are thinking about the week ending, I publish a week ahead look at the upcoming court dates. Catching people before they tune out (the week’s over, the year’s over, turn brain off) helps re-engage them in the coming week and year. On Jan. 1, 2012, my readers knew what was going on: They knew which new judges were assigned to murder cases and they knew which cases were scheduled for trial this year and when.

Here’s the bonus lesson: Have a clear concept of what you want to accomplish and how to get there. My concept statement (below) guided me through the entire eight-week process.

Every day Homicide Watch brings you the most up-to-date news available on DC homicides: reporting on new crimes, arrests, court proceedings and more. Now, as 2011 draws to a close, it’s time to look back on what we’ve learned.

This special 2011 Year in Review package features interviews, investigative reports, charts, roundups and more, all exploring this year in DC homicides. We also look ahead to what’s in store next year, particularly at DC Superior Court where several high profile murder cases are scheduled for trial in the first weeks of the year.

A revised version was published near the top of the splash page to help readers understand the purpose of the project.