Lessons in entrepreneurship: Identify an information gap and fill it
By Julia Scott
Homicide Watch connects families and friends of homicide victims with the courts in Washington, DC, where most killings go uncovered by local mainstream media. Founder Laura Amico recaps key lessons she has learned as a first-time news entrepreneur
By Julia Scott
Within four months of launching, Laura Amico’s site, HomicideWatch.org, exploded in popularity. The jump in traffic was as unexpected as a revenue stream that turned her lark into a full time job.
Amico, 30, had given up her job as a crime reporter for the Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, Calif. when her husband, Chris, landed a gig in Washington D.C. Bored with freelancing in the nation’s capital, Amico fell into her old beat. Perusing obits for homicide victims, picking through court documents, scrolling memorial pages on Facebook.
She discovered a gap.
“There needed to be a hub where families and neighbors and friends could connect with the courts,” Amico said in a telephone interview. Mainstream media, by her estimate, covered one out of every ten cases.
She launched quickly, one of her best moves, and made the bold decision to cover every homicide in D.C.
The decision paid off. Early on, an elderly white woman and a twenty-something black man were killed the same weekend. Mainstream media covered the first killing, Amico covered both. Traffic for the man’s death had four times as much engagement, a metric Amico uses that includes page views and comments.
“If Homicide Watch hadn’t covered [the man’s death], that community would have had nowhere to go,” she said.
Her first readers were families of victims and suspects, and grew to include neighbors, detectives, attorneys, hospital workers, and teachers.
Page views jumped from 500 the first full month online, to 82,000 four months later. Now, HomicideWatch.org receives an enviable 300,000 page views each month. Unique visits number 25,000 a month. Readers spend an average of five and a half minutes on the site, flocking to the homepage, victim’s page, suspect’s page, and the photo gallery. Amico updates the site’s blog three to five times a day.
The HomicideWatch.org database catalogs every homicide. Chris Amico, a web developer, used Django software framework to build it in his off time. (He develops applications for NPR).
With a few clicks of the database, I discovered that of 118 open cases, 62 of the victims were in their 20s. All but 19 were men.
Amico enters each case manually. Data is organized by the suspect or victim’s name, age, race, gender, or the victim’s date of death. A new mapping feature displays all this info geographically.
During her preparation work as a fellow in the 2011 KDMC News Entrepreneur Boot Camp, a big idea hit. Instead of living off grants, Amico could make money licensing the database software to other newsrooms.
Her first client percolated from a talk she gave at an Online News Association conference in 2011. Amico is courting a second. She plans to charge monthly licensing fees in the low four figures, depending on a number of variables, including market size and the amount of support needed.
As a first time entrepreneur, Amico has many lessons to share:
* Be open to new business models. You may misjudge your site’s value.
* Just get started. After a year of freelancing, Amico launched with a basic WordPress site. “We were able to test out right away if there was an audience, what they were looking for, and what we could provide,” Amico said. “That impacted how we built the platform that we’re using today.”
* Social media is an important news gathering tool. Amico’s readership may not have widespread Internet service at home, but smart phones are pervasive. “Nearly everyone I’m dealing with has a Facebook page.”
* Focusing full-time is key. “I had to trust the project,” she confessed. “I had to trust that the idea would work and take the lead and go for it.”
Julia Scott is the founder of BargainBabe.com and an alumna of KDMC’s 2009 News Entrepreneur Boot Camp. Her most recent job title is new mom.
The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
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