Not just a homicide map

Last month’s Online Journalism Awards recognized the projects for which the medium is a large part of the message: those groundbreaking vehicles for reporting and storytelling made possible by the Web.

Oakland Tribune Web producers Katy Newton and Sean Connelley were the stars of that show, taking home two awards for Not Just A Number, their multi-layered interactive project geared toward humanizing homicide statistics in Oakland, Calif., consistently home to one of the nation’s highest murder rates.

Plotting crime on a map is nothing new. The Los Angeles Times similarly tracks its city’s murders in real time. Minneapolis’ Rake Magazine rolled out a homicide location graphic in an acclaimed feature, “Murder By Numbers,” earlier this year.

Though similar in appearance, Not Just a Number goes well beyond merely pinning crime stats on a city grid. It holds a magnifying glass over each anonymous coordinate on Oakland’s crowded murder map (112 thus far in 2007), enabling an intimate interactivity among the family, friends and loved ones of each murder victim. Behind each number lies a hub for mourners to exchange stories, photos, music and anything else to bring the victim out from behind a mug shot and a police report.

The project won Katy, Sean and the Tribune the Knight Award for Public Service, “honoring digital journalism that produces compelling coverage of a vital issue and engages a geographic community.”

OJR swapped emails with the producers to find out how a grassroots community project became an award-winning model for in-depth Web reporting and digital public service.

OJR: Could you briefly walk us through the genesis of Not Just A Number? Was there some specific job in your professional Web-production lives that sparked the idea?

KN: Sean and I are married. At that time, Sean was a full-time photographer at The Trib. He was having to go and take photos of the homicides and when he got home we would talk about it. We found ourselves counting off the homicides “number 65 happened today”…”now we are at 75” — that shocked us. We were forgetting that these victims were not just numbers but human beings. The initial goal was simply to find the families and learn more about the victims to help desensitize the issue of violence. The Tribune had done a homicide map every year in the paper, but there had never been anything done for online. We felt including statements from the families and friends of the victims would be really powerful and interactive was a great tool for telling the story.

SC: We brought our initial idea to Kathleen Kirkwood, Associate Editor for Online News. She was very supportive — basically said I love it go for it. She also suggested we contact a woman named Marilyn Washington Harris who runs the Khadafy Foundation. Her son Khadafy Washington had been killed in 2000. Marilyn now volunteers her time to help other families through the process of losing a loved one to violence. She is amazing.

KN: She met Sean and I at her “unofficial” office a local funeral home. We told her the idea and asked for her help contacting the families. She was interested but a little skeptical at first. She was concerned about our intentions and how the families and the victims would be presented. She told us that in many ways the survivors of the violence felt betrayed by the media. They were concerned with the use of police mug shots as identification of the victim. We got this a lot from others in the community as well. Here is a letter received from a reader on the issue of using police mug shots for id’ing murder victims:

“Mug shots scream GUILTY and that is a verdict the courts decided without taking into consideration what issues were occurring before, during and after his release from jail. My brother’s journey started way before he was in the system. When my father beat my mother in front of us… and he learned there was no consequence for that, it started. When we experienced our first police raid in my grandmother’s apartment, though there were no drugs found, the journey started. When he/we first had to identify ourselves as ‘homeless’ after my grandmother’s passing, we knew what options were left for Mar to choose from. And there are no photos of those times and no reporters recording those stats.”

That meeting with Marilyn was critical because hearing her concerns echoed this nagging feeling of a general desensitization and need to approach the story from a new direction.

SC: About that time, also met with Jane Ellen Stevens who co-wrote “Reporting on Violence – A Handbook for Journalists” and is also a journalism professor at UC-Berkeley. She helped us look at violence from a health perspective and not judicial.

As the project began picking up more speed, we started interviewing families and meeting more community members and we would always ask them what would they like to see be included in the project or how could we report on violence better.

Everyone wanted ‘Solutions’ — what can they do, how can the public get involved. We took their responses to heart and created areas on our site to address their issues.

Side note, Oakland is a town of organizers, historically. Huge civil rights changes have come from this city and not too long ago. People remember, and you feel that history when you go out and talk to people. Oakland is an amazing place and in the end, this project became a result of so many people in that community. I love that about it.

OJR: How long did the whole thing take to develop and launch?

SC: The idea, which Katy talks about in the previous question, started percolating around August of 2006. We started designing the site in September and I guess by mid-October I began to build and program the site. All the while, I was still working full-time as a staff photographer at the Tribune and Katy and I were also out there collecting content for the site. So it was a very interesting juggling act that we had to do. We did get a lot of support from several people in the newsroom who gave us the time and support to able to create it. Finally, the site launched on March 4th, 2007 to coincide with a homicide package that the Tribune runs every year.

OJR: What was the initial blueprint for the site, and what was the Tribune’s reaction when you pitched the idea?

KN & SC: We first just wanted to do an interactive homicide map with maybe a message board. Then after meeting various people in the community it grew to what it is now. The Tribune was very excited about the idea when we pitched them the idea. We went in with a little flash prototype we made up and I think that helped convey the idea.

OJR: As producers, what is your day-to-day interaction with Tribune reporters and editors, and how much hands-on access do they have to the site itself?

SC: We are very open to anyone in the newsroom to come to us with ideas. We also go to them when we find they are working on a story that would fit our site. We basically maintain the site right now but will eventually be shifting the responsibilities to other editors and even reporters if appropriate. Those responsibilities would be updating the data and posting new stories.

The site was created so that reporters or editors who weren’t necessarily comfortable with flash could easily update the site. Basically, there is a series of forms for each section of the site. The reporter can open the forms and input the new data, which then updates the site.

OJR: The “Features and Stories” section houses a pretty comprehensive mix of articles, videos and interactive one-off sites. How often is that updated, and what does content management entail?

KN: Usually, there are a couple of new stories added each month. Unfortunately, when the site was launched the paper went through a big shift. The Trib joined with The Contra Costa Times and The San Jose Mercury News under The Bay Area News Group — people had other things to focus on. Things have settled and people have more time to do multimedia and special features. It’s actually really exciting how the reporters have responded to the project. A lot of that credit goes out to Kathleen Kirkwood, who is awesome about recruiting reporters stories for the NJN.

OJR: How about the “Stories by You” section? Do family members and friends of victims come forward with those, or does that require some solicitation on your part?

KN & SC: The idea for this component of the site came about while researching the story, we discovered there were many after-school programs teaching youth new journalism tools, mostly video and audio pod casts. Oakland youth are so impacted by the violence, they were already reporting their own stories about this issue. We were impressed with the videos we saw, so we thought it would be great to showcase the work on the site — that’s how the community voices page developed.

Joe Weiss of SoundSlides, generously donated copies of his program to us and we handed them out to some of these organizations. We have had a few people send us content but for the most part ithas been slow. You really need a person that can go out consistently to solicit material, and the Trib just doesn’t have the staff for that. But, we haven’t given up. We are trying to develop other ways to help people in the community tell their own stories. CBC Canada’s “This I Believe” and the use of mobile phones in the interactive project MurMur are totally inspiring for us and we hope to co-op some of those ideas.

OJR: Any sense of how much residents in the heavier-homicide zones are interacting with the site?

KN & SC: Without having much to back this up except personal responses we get, we feel it is mainly the residents from the flat lands (crime rich areas) are the ones who are using our site, they are the ones most directly effected by violence and therefore have more interest in crime related stories especially ones that tell stories of hope or solutions. For example, we have been asked by many schools in the flat lands to come speak to their class because they have been using it as a tool in the class, we have yet been asked by a school in an area where violence is not a common thing.

OJR: What is next for the site? Any significant new features on deck?

KN: We are currently reworking the “Risk Factors” section of the site. While Kathleen Kirkwood was working with the Alameda County Health to gather the information on the risk factors, they encouraged her to also look at the resilience factors — the factors that help young people thrive despite living in potential harmful environments. We all loved this idea, but there wasn’t time to explore it before the launch.

Working with several community centers in Oakland, we recently had the opportunity to conduct video interviews with youth talking about what has helped them and their peers thrive despite some of the obstacles they face. It was one of the best experiences we had doing this project. The component launches at the end of the month so please check it out.

SC: I think for us the next step would be find ways to connect to low-income residents who may not have a computer. We think one way would be enabling interaction to our site with a cell phone. Also, finding funding to put kiosks in public libraries would be nice as well. As far as new features, not much except the resilience feature that Katy mentions, and maybe give the site a little makeover.

OJR: Finally, what advice would you offer online journalists at other news organizations who wanted to create a project with similar impact?

SC: I would say first of all not to be afraid to fail. The whole time we were creating this project we kept telling everyone that we could do this but there were a lot of times Katy and I had no idea what we were doing. It was a big leap for us. Other tips would be to talk to as many people as you can about the idea to help flush it out. Get out of the newsroom and into the community. As far as building the project, we benefited greatly from so many people out there sharing their expertise online. It is truly amazing, the generosity of the web programming world.

KN: Rough out your concept—how you think the story should be told—then go out and meet with organizations and individuals working in the community. Listen to their struggles and the stories they would like to learn about. Find out what information/tools they could use. Then go for it!

KN & SC: We would recommend groups with limited resources take a look at online services and open source software that could help streamline the process, such as:

  • Vuvox
  • Elgg
  • Javascript & PHP libraries like CakePHP & JQuery
  • Content Managment System or frameworks like WordPress, Drupal, Django, etc…
  • Web services with API’s like Yahoo Maps, Zoho, Picnik, etc…
  • About Jim Wayne

    After three some-odd years as an advertising ashtray on Madison Avenue, an impulsive career switch sent Jim in pursuit of a life in the (relatively) civilized world of online journalism. He arrived at USC Annenberg in 2007 and is still struggling to understand Los Angeles.