One Reporter's Notebook

Homicide Watch DC has openings for student reporters this summer and fall. 

To apply email cover letter, resume, clips to Laura (AT) homicidewatch (DOT) org before May 5. 


Tweets from the Digital Beats presentation are gathered here.

Building Digital Beats

At the Online News Association Conference in San Francisco last week I was joined by Juana Summers and Chris Amico for a conversation titled “Beat Reporting for the Digital Age.” It is a subject I am passionate about because at heart I am a beat reporter.

My first real newsroom assignment was the education reporter at a small California daily: the Register Pajaronian. I loved getting to know everything I could about the schools I covered. Later, as a crime reporter at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, I fell in love with the crime beat. For me beat reporting offered a framework for my daily activities and my long term goals. It was a lens that helped me focus on what mattered to me, and what didn’t.

When I launched Homicide Watch DC, I launched the site not as an editor or publisher, but as a beat reporter. My earliest explanation of the site was that it contained everything a reporter would have in her notebook, on her desk, in her filing cabinet, while covering a case.  

The site has developed since then into what I now call a digital beat.

Homicide Watch DC certainly isn’t the only example of a digital beat out there. In our presentation in San Francisco we used such excellent examples as Politifact, Hero Complex, SchoolBook, Fivethirtyeight, Patchwork Nation, ClimateWatch and Planet Money. These examples highlight many of the traits of digital beats.

You’ll be able to watch the video of the presentation for a full review of why these sites work as digital beats, but I’ll recap the traits here:

Digital beats tend to be highly structured, audience-centric, and mission driven. They develop resources and are narrow in focus but cross-disciplinary in approach.

Digital beats use digital tools but are not necessarily defined by any one tool. We’re talking about beats that, in their conception, are Internet native, even though they may be, at their heart, very traditional. Sports. Education. Crime.

Finally, digital beats use tools, but not at the expense of narrative. Digital beats always tell a story. While they may be “shiny,” they are not gimmicky.

In the presentation I referenced Gideon Litchfield’s recent piece on beat reporting, titled “On Elephants, Obsessions and Wicked Problems: A New Phenomonology of News.”

He writes:

Online, however, trying to be the one comprehensive publication makes no sense. Readers can browse hundreds of news sites at no extra cost. That drives the sites to specialise. Yet most still structure themselves around fixed sections and beats. Slide your mouse across the navigation bar at the top of almost any news site, and there they are, the phantom limbs of the newspaper creatures of old. It hasn’t occurred to them that when there are no pages and sections to constrain you, you are free to reframe your description of reality too.

For me, digital beat reporting is about reframing our descriptions of reality. The examples above have shown us that it’s not only do-able, but that it creates a new kind of product, one that is purpose-driven, audience-aware, and resource-focused.

The question of course for many newsrooms (and beat reporters) is “how do I get to there?” I have three tips lists built out of my experience with Homicide Watch to answer that question. The first is a list of guiding principles, and the last two are sets of questions to ask yourself as you’re building a digital beat. I hope these are helpful. Good luck!

Key ideas behind data-driven beat reporting (frameworks for reporting):

  • Updates, even small ones, are cumulative, building on each other into a larger information resource.
  • Structure is important and is reinforced in each update.
  • There is a clear understanding from both reporters and audience of the beat’s organizing principles. It should be easy to articulate what gets covered and what doesn’t.
  • The goal is to build a resource.
  • Never make me guess: Basic information should be available when the user wants it, without having to dig through narrative work. It should be easy to get caught up.
  • Making your own data (from gathering or recombining from other sources) is better than filing FOIAs.
  • Streams are greater than stories.
  • It is easier to start with a narrow focus and pull ideas in than to begin overbroad and try to find focus later.

Checklists for Building a Digital Beat

First Tier (these questions help form your editorial focus):

  1. What is interesting about _____________?
  2. What do you want to know?
  3. Where are people getting their information (news and other types) about the subject now?
  4. Where do people talk about the subject now?
  5. Who cares about the subject and why?

Second Tier (these questions help form your tech focus):

  1. Where would this work? Describe the community (people), not location.
  2. What existing data (public or otherwise) is available?
  3. Who’s talking about this? How and where? What existing threads can I be a part of?
  4. What are all the parts involved? What are the units of coverage? (For example, homicides) What are the pivot points for the data?
  5. How can you get to 100% coverage?
Where Bears and Data Meet

Ruffin Prevost’s email came while Chris and I were driving to Virginia Beach for a family wedding. With Chris behind the wheel I was navigator and business manager, checking maps and emails during the drive. 

We were halfway across the causeway when Ruffin Prevost’s email came in.

"Uh?" I asked Chris, "Are you interested in doing a Homicide Watch for grizzly bears?"


"Yeah, bears. There’s this reporter…"

By the time we were off the causeway we had already mapped out what the database could look like and what editorial questions it could answer.


Since Homicide Watch launched on our custom platform in Aug 2011 (though doesn’t it really feel like we’ve been publishing this way forever?), countless news-folks have asked when we would think about taking on another beat.

While the “Homicides, great, but what about ______” conversation got a little old at times, we did believe, like so many of you, that the data-driven structured beat approach to reporting that we were creating had  possibilities beyond homicides and beyond DC.

While we have had conversations with many partners about repurposing the Homicide Watch platform to cover topics beyond homicide (and look forward to announcing some new projects very soon!), Ruffin’s proposal to use the platform for coverage of grizzly bear events was too good to pass up. We jumped on it, working up an editorial proposal, mapping out the database elements and creating mock-ups of, yes, bear pages.

So here’s the pitch:

Grizzly Watch utilizes the structured data reporting platform pioneered by Homicide Watch to report on the interaction between grizzly bears and the human environment in the Yellowstone region. The online reporting project builds a complete data and storytelling resource for coverage of bear and human interactions, tracking incidents and bears over 2.2 million acres. As the nation’s first comprehensive data-driven environmental reporting project, Grizzly Watch provides a clear view of how environmental policies related to resource management impact bears and the people who live near them.

And that, my friends, is Grizzly Watch. 

Ruffin wants to fund this project through a Knight News Challenge and the project proposal, in much more detail, is here: 

Honestly, Chris and I are pretty giddy about this project. We think it’s a terrific idea and an excellent re-imagining of Homicide Watch.

If you agree, please help us out by following the News Challenge link and clicking that heart on the left side of the proposal. We’d love to see this project happen!


May Traffic Report

Homicide Watch was covered in CJR’s The Audit yesterday (I’ll get to that later), and  ”JLD” left this comment:

HW is a noble effort, but reporting every instance of a specific event sounds like hamsters spinning. Also (and I hate to say this), I wonder just how many eyeballs HW will garner in the long term? Unfortunately, our society tends not to care about what poor people do to each other.

A quick look at our traffic answers this common question.

Homicide Watch saw three days with more than 20,000 pageviews each in May, helping us break our monthly traffic record (we closed the month with 321,617 pageviews) and reach a big goal: 3 million pageviews.

We also set our new highest daily pageview record: 24,362 on May 22.

Our other metrics were good this month, too. Time on site in May was 5:25, which also happens to be our average. We had 5.79 pages per vist and a bounce rate of 37.86 percent. 

Reaching that 3 million all-time pageviews was a big deal. It was just four months ago that we hit 2 million.

And we’re well on our way to 4 million: May ended with 3,075,000 all-time pageviews.

So, beyond the metrics, is there an audience? Check out our Comment of the Day thread. That’s what I do when I need to be reminded why I do this.

The Living Story Page
Richard argues strongly for evergreen story pages. It is not the brand, not the site, but the story itself that is the lifeblood online. Publishers should not think about editions, or even ephemeral streams of articles, but rather living story pages. Story pages are the most valuable real estate. Wikipedia was beating the Washington Post’s search results on Anthrax, despite all of the Post’s great reporting. [You’ll find journalists complaining about this sort of internet result filed under “P”, for “Parasites”] The Post publishes a stream of new articles with new URLs and sends the olds ones to die in the archives becauase they’re still producing content for the daily newspaper content model. The Wikipedia page is constantly changing and remaining updated, probably to this day, with a persistent URL where people can find it. News publishers complained to Google that their topics pages were being consistently beaten by Wikipedia. These topics pages are not updated in realtime. The newspapers redesigned the topics pages and began to see success. Their long-term answer to this question, though, was to hire batches more rewrite people to maintain these topics pages. To someone familiar with the internet, this is crazytalk. Why wouldn’t the journalist and editor, who are experts in this topic, just own this page as they own the beat itself? Shouldn’t the news articles themselves flow from changes to the topic page, rather than rewriting articles to produce an index? The changes needed aren’t just in content architecture, but in human workflow and roles. It comes back to, “How do we build trust?” Trust requires getting transparent about all of the content we have available to publish. It’s expensive to produce, so share it.
When you publish online… lessons on beats and audience

Friday was a long day. Chris was at court helping me out, as was our newest intern, Rebecca Zisser. Together we published six stories. 

When I got hold of an indictment late Friday afternoon, I was wiped out. When I saw the document was 22 pages long, I decided to wait until Monday morning to read through it.

Which is how I ended up spending this rainy morning curled up with a cup of coffee, my laptop, and a story that outlines how a feud between two neighborhood groups led to three murders in five months in Northeast DC.

I wrote the story, including a map, photos, and the indictment, in about two hours and, right now, there’s 17 people reading it. 

Did you catch that? Two hours. Seventeen people.

If I were starting from scratch, this story could have taken me several days. Instead, because I had the Homicide Watch platform, most of the legwork was already done: I already had court records, photos, mapping elements, and the contextual basis for building a story quickly. This was crucial as court records in all three homicides have now been sealed. 

As soon as I published this morning, I saw the story gain traction. Immediately, before I tweeted the story or posted it to Facebook, Google real-time analytics showed five people on the story. Once I tweeted it, that number reached 23. Now, about 20 minutes after I first started this post, 12 people are on the story. About a hundred have read the story since I published 45 minutes ago. These might seem like small numbers, but they’re real readers, and not just people I assume I’m reaching because my 12 inch story landed on their doorstep this morning.

Last week Clay Shirky included Homicide Watch in his presentation at The Guardian’s Activate Summit in New York. 

I’m fascinated by how Shirky sees Homicide Watch fitting into the media landscape. Because it’s the reporting that I always wanted to do, and because it’s the reporting that feels natural, it’s easy for me to forget that perhaps this is very different from what newsrooms do (and hope to accomplish). And Shirky reminds me that the power of Homicide Watch isn’t the reporting but the resource. Like Shirky says, Homicide Watch creates a database. Newsrooms create morgues. Love that juxtaposition. As reporters and editors are asked to do more with less, doesn’t it make sense to ask what you do to do more? I’ll take a database over a morgue any day

A few very minor corrections: Chris and I came to DC from Northern California (Santa Rosa to be exact), and I came from a crime-reporting background. Also, a clarification on getting the police chief on record: she has, several times, returned emails. The situation Shirky was likely referring to was this

The Horse Race of Link Traffic

Homicide Watch DC has links today in both the Washington Post and City Paper. So far, the click throughs are roughly even: 220 from the Post (linked at 8 a.m.) and 139 from City Paper (linked at 8:14 a.m.).