11 lessons from a site launch

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. Fellow Laura Amico, along with her husband, Chris, 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.

Last week, Chris and I presented Homicide Watch at ONA’s DC meetup. You can watch the video here. In it, we discuss a lot of the technical and editorial specifics of what we do every day.

Our kicker from the presentation is the subject of this blog post (minute 35 on the video). These 11 “lessons learned” are meant to be somewhat inspirational, both for those going it alone, like I am, and for those in traditional settings.

I expand on each below, but in brief:

  • Do what you can — now.
  • Use what you can — now.
  • Build what you can — now.
  • Take risks.
  • Evaluate.
  • Be public.
  • Think creatively.
  • Trust that things will fall into place.
  • But do what you can to make them fall into the right places.
  • Never stop looking forward.
  • Find your purpose, define it, and live by it.

Do what you can — now.

There were fewer barriers to launching Homicide Watch than I realized. Chris and I spent nine months brainstorming and in development before I said, “Hey, why don’t I just use WordPress and see what happens?” What we learned from getting our hands dirty shaped how the site developed and served as an early proof of concept. In short, doing the work created momentum that merely planning the work didn’t.

Use what you can — now.

The tools for what I wanted to do weren’t available, but that didn’t stop me from accomplishing other things. The trick was to parse out what available tools could approximate the tasks I needed to accomplish. This resulted in a lot of inelegant solutions — but they were solutions. For example: At the top of Homicide Watch is an interactive photo gallery: You click on a person’s photo and it takes you to his or her page. This design has been a cornerstone of Homicide Watch from the beginning. On our first site, though, that header was simply a still image. We didn’t know how to build exactly what we wanted, so we settled for a close approximation visually.

Build what you can — now.

When I reached the limits of what WordPress could do, it was time to build. Chris and I were ahead of the game when we reached this stage because we had the experience of work behind us. We knew what tools we needed, how they should work, how they fit into the work flow and — most importantly — how crucial they were. Knowing all this, we were able to break the building into manageable parts, prioritize and launch.

Take risks.

Once I started working on Homicide Watch, I realized that in order for the site to be successful it needed my attention full time. I had just wrapped up a long-term freelance assignment, and Chris was employed full time, so we were in a good position to take the risk. I think that this was the most crucial decision we made. If we hadn’t taken the risk of assigning me to Homicide Watch full time, it would have remained, I think, a low-impact side project.

Evaluate.

Every step of the way, I evaluate what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and to what result. This is necessary for operating a lean business, a tight newsroom and maintaining my sanity. With Homicide Watch, I’m always keeping an eye on my analytics reports, user response, the “journalism gadfly” response, cash flow and — most important — my gut. If something isn’t ringing right in any of those categories, I need to think of a different way of doing the work.

Be public.

Without an editor to report to, I’ve turned to the public. There are plenty of things I don’t blog about. (Business negotiations and legal matters are two examples.) But there is a lot that I can put out there. On One Reporter’s Notebook I’ve covered topics ranging from business plans to working with sources. Lifting the veil on how I work reminds me that I am accountable for my work.

Think creatively.

Working for myself has brought the challenge and joy of being able to do things “my way.” But even if I were working in a traditional setting, I would still try to ask myself one question: If I had no limitations, what would I do? On Homicide Watch, answers to that question include curated social media messages of the year, video sharing street shrines through a photographer’s eyes, and even rethinking some of our basic structure. The victim and suspect pages were a hard sell when I explained the project to many people before launch, but now these pages are integral to how users interact with the site.

Trust that things will fall into place.

Every day I have to let go of something. I trust that a freelancer will turn in a story, that I’ll get word on where a hearing is being held, that a contract will be signed, that a source will call back. Managing so many different pieces can feel impossible … so I don’t try to manage them. I do the best I can every day. Past that, it’s not up to me.

But do what you can to make them fall into the right places.

While I trust that things will fall into place, I conscientiously build places for them to fall. My model is that old computer game Tetris. When a story comes in from a freelancer, I’ve already set him or her up with a byline in WordPress and considered when to schedule the story. If a client asks to see a copy of a contract, I have it ready to send off right away. Or, at least, that’s my goal.

Never stop looking forward.

I do a lot of editorial work and business development looking forward: I maintain the public courts calendar. I publish a “Week Ahead” post. I plan out clients to contact and follow up with during the next week. But I try to look even further ahead than that. In early November, I first started planning Year in Review. Chris and I also spend a lot of time talking about how the Homicide Watch model could be applied to other beats.

Find your purpose, define it, and live by it.

I have two guiding mottos: On Homicide Watch DC I “Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case.” In the Homicide Watch platform, I bring reporting “Beyond the blotter.” Mottos can be pretty lame, but these two help remind me every day of what it is, exactly, that I do. Being clear about what it is that I do helps me focus, prioritize and accomplish my goals.