I come from the newspaper business, where I worked for papers that boasted of roots in the 19th Century and visited a Digital First newsroom that traced its lineage to Benjamin Franklin.
I think of Homicide Watch as a success story and will continue to cite it in classes and workshops where I discuss media entrepreneurship.
Here are some ways Homicide Watch succeeded:
News coverage. For more than four years, Homicide Watch DC covered every homicide in the nation’s capital from crime to conviction, something no one else was doing. News coverage is an important community service, even if it doesn’t last forever. Since Wednesday’s announcement of the closing, eight reports have been posted to the DC site, updating open cases, reviewing the week concluded and previewing the week ahead. As Nieman Lab’s Josh Benton said in reporting on last week’s announcement, Homicide Watch DC covered “each killing in a way that honored the lives of the deceased and served a community of interested friends and family.” When you do a good job, I consider that a success, however long it lasts.
Life span. Longevity of media organizations varies. From the perspective of a century-old newspaper, the four-year life span of Homicide Watch DC seems hardly more than a blink. But I saw TBD change directions literally before we launched and abandon the plan entirely after less than a year and shut down entirely barely two years after launch. (Homicide Watch and TBD launched at nearly the same time, and they were a member of our community network). I also saw Digital First Media shut down Thunderdome after less than two years. I have great appreciation for the persistence it took for Laura and Chris to keep Homicide Watch going for four years.
Expansion. Last week’s announcement isn’t the death of Homicide Watch, just the DC flagship. Laura and Chris built a successful model that has expanded to Trenton, N.J., as well as Chicago and Boston, and those projects will continue. I’ve worked with many news organizations that have grown and contracted at the same time, making strategic decisions that were not based simply on a product’s success or failure but on changing priorities and decisions on how and where to spend your resources.
Tools. Chris, a journalist/developer, designed the database structure of Homicide Watch, which makes it easy for readers to follow updates to the stories they care about. Homicide Watch gave birth to Glass Eye Media, which is applying the same tools and techniques to education in its Learning Lab project.
Fund-raising. Homicide Watch could have closed in 2012, when Laura won a Nieman Fellowship and the couple moved to Boston. But they exceeded their goal in a Kickstarter campaign and kept the site going using interns funded by donations. Whatever happened a couple years later, that’s a success and it continued the site’s community service for two more years.
Excellence. Homicide Watch did a hell of a good job, recognized at the 2012 Online Journalism Awards with the Knight Award for Public Service.
— Jennifer 8. Lee (@jenny8lee) September 23, 2012
— Dan Petty (@danielpetty) September 23, 2012
Careers. The Boston Globe hired Laura in July as its news editor for multimedia and data projects. An entrepreneurial venture can become your career or a stepping stone to something else. Either result is a success.
So, if the end comes Dec. 31 for Homicide Watch DC, as Laura and Chris announced last week, I consider it a huge success. But I think Homicide Watch DC is too good a product to die. I find some hope in this statement in the announcement of the closing:
We hope that the closure will not be permanent, that a local news organization, university, non-profit, or other group — maybe you — might want to bring the site back.
I remain hopeful that someone will see Homicide Watch’s value to the Washington community as well as its business potential. The Washington Post should continue it. Or a Washington TV station. As a former faculty member of both American and Georgetown universities, I will be encouraging my former colleagues at those universities to take over Homicide Watch. Or perhaps it would be a good fit for the University of Maryland, George Washington University or George Mason University. Or some other organization devoted to journalism or criminal justice or both might take it over (perhaps the Marshall Project?). Or a digital journalism entrepreneur I’m not thinking of.
I am hopeful that someone will recognize that the success of Homicide Watch DC should continue.
Update: Laura and Chris are seeking proposals to keep Homicide Watch DC going. I hope someone steps forward.