Two years ago, Laura Amico searched Washington, D.C., for a job as a crime reporter. What she found: a community experiencing frequent homicides that received little to no news coverage. Intrigued and concerned, she began a new quest from a seat at her kitchen table, working with her husband to create Homicide Watch D.C.
Since then she’s worked at that table, become a regular at the courthouse and spent each day reporting on crimes in her city — without pay.
“It has been an incredible experience,” Amico said. “It was time, however, to take a step away from the day-to-day and take time to reflect on the larger lessons from Homicide Watch.”
Amico now studies at Harvard as a Nieman-Berkman Fellow in Journalism Innovation, where she hopes to research ways to better cover crime online and look at other successful journalism projects like hers. Her fellowship is a new addition to the program this year, and Amico said she couldn’t believe it when she was selected.
“I got up for work the next morning and walked into the courthouse,” Amico said. “It sort of hit me that in order to take this opportunity I was going to have to leave something behind, and it was really bittersweet.”
It started in 2009 when she and her husband moved to Washington from California, where she had been a crime reporter for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. When searching for information on the homicides occurring in her community, she found nothing. So she collected the details herself, working with friends and families of victims and suspects, poring over court documents and compiling it with software designed by her husband, Chris. Their efforts made available the details of every homicide in Washington from “crime to conviction,” as the site says.
“Laura’s work is pioneering and offers up a model for journalism that is really intriguing,” said Ann Marie Lapinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation. “It is in some ways a very simple and basic promise to the Washington community but actually really hard to do.”
Amico’s fellowship is a collaboration between the Nieman Foundation for Journalism and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, a position for which nearly 100 people applied. Lapinski said the applicants were impressive enough that they accepted two; Amico will work alongside Borja Echevarría de la Gándara, who came to Harvard from his job as the deputy managing editor at Spain’s largest daily newspaper, El País.
“The combination of Borja and Laura was kind of irresistible,” Lapinski said. “They’re really dynamic and have a lot to teach us.”
The future of Homicide Watch D.C. remains uncertain. When Amico accepted the fellowship, she started a campaign on Kickstarter seeking $40,000 to fund interns and keep the site going in her absence.)
On Sept. 5, with a week left in the Kickstarter campaign, Amico posted a message from New York University instructor Clay Shirky, who writes on Internet technology.
“This way of working isn’t just technologically innovative, it’s socially innovative, in a way journalism desperately needs,” Shirky wrote. He continued, noting that the victims pictured at the top of the site are usually black. “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.”
(Update: The Kickstarter campaign was successful as of mid-September, but that’s only funding for one year.)
Regardless of the status of Homicide Watch, Amico will spend the academic year building on the lessons of the last few years and exploring the power of the Internet when combined with a passionate community and smart technology.
“Working online covering crime I was able to interact with my readers in a way I never was when I was part of a traditional news outlet,” Amico said. “That really built a reciprocating community … that they wanted to help us … and I never felt that before.”