Let’s Get Real about Homicide Watch

Jan Schaffer

Posted on September 10, 2012  |  Blogically Thinking

Kudos to Homicide Watch for exceeding its Kickstarter goal. I was among those who donated.  But I have to confess to a lot of head -scratching over all the rallying cries, berating national foundations for not supporting a good local news site.

Homicide Watch launched in 2010 to track and follow up homicide cases and victims in Washington, D.C.   Run by Laura and Chris Amico, its future was in jeopardy because Laura has been awarded a Nieman-Berkman Fellowship for the coming year.  They are trying to keep the site going by raising money to pay stipends to student reporters.

The fact of the matter is:  Any entrepreneurs who leave their startups after only three years are dooming their projects to failure  – barring a mega-bucks buyout from an interested purchaser.  And that's not something that usually happens with local news sites.

That's why many community news entrepreneurs choose not to move to better gigs or new opportunities when they are offered. They know what the consequences will be for their startups.

On the other hand, others elect to accept new offers – often new jobs that pay a real salary with benefits – presented to them as a result of their venture's success.
And their sites go dark.

There is not yet a micro marketplace for the buying and selling of local news startups when their founders need to move on. 

By all means, Homicide Watch's founders should pursue their new opportunities. 

We should be mindful, however, that it's not enough these days to be innovative in covering a niche topic with a clever platform.  Entrepreneurs also have to be innovative in developing ways to support their sites. Submitting grant proposals to big, national foundations should only be one route.  But let's be real about the odds.

J-Lab's Women Media Entrepreneurs awards program has received 1,800 proposals for only 18 awards since 2008.  That means an applicant only has a one in 100 chance of success.  The Knight News Challenge has even greater odds.

While licensing technology is an excellent revenue stream, local news sites need multiple streams of revenue. There are better chances for success if a local site explores local foundation support, partnerships with local partners, tip jars, events and corporate or nonprofit sponsors.

I, too, admire Homicide Watch, but I agree with the Wall Street Journals' Raju Narisutti, who tweeted: "Lost in all the hype today is a Kickstarter effort to train five young journalists to use a failed hyperlocal model."