Los Angeles
Credit: By kla4067 on Flickr. Some rights reserved

"Ian Valway Hoyt, a 45-year-old white male, died Sunday, Jan. 13, after being stabbed in Pomona, according to Los Angeles County coroner's records."

Valway Hoyt's murder was recorded automatically by a computer at the LA Times, publishing the above statement below a map showing the precise location of where his body was found. His photograph is placed next to the computer-generated 'robo-report' and readers are invited to share information "about the life of Ian Valway Holt" in a comments box below.

The complete article can be found on the LA Times's Homicide Report, chronicling 5,238 homicides in LA county in its seven-year existence.

You could really have an impact in terms of how people understood what was happening. It's important to keep doing thatMegan Garvey, assistant managing editor, LA Times, and editor of The Homicide Report
"The computer married up with the coroner's data allows us to at least account for every homicide that is reported," Megan Garvey, the LA Times's assistant managing editor told Journalism.co.uk of Homicide Report, the recently relaunched project to report every murder in LA County.

Homicide Report began as a blog in 2007 under the principle that "newsworthy homicides were not typical homicides", Garvey said, so reporter Jill Leovy spent a year attempting to cover every homicide in the county.

"The white teenage girl who was killed – which is the outlier, the exception to the rule – gets a lot of attention," said Garvey. "Or a mass shooting. But the people who are getting killed day-in, day-out, the 17 to 22-year-old black male living in a poor neighbourhood, those homicides had gotten to the point, with constraints in print and everything else, where they were not newsworthy.

"But really, in their entirety, they told the true story about violence in the city and in America. By accounting for all of them and treating them all equally you could really have an impact in terms of how people understood what was happening. It's important to keep doing that."

Ruben Vives took over after Leovy's stint at the helm, but the blog was "very difficult to maintain", said Garvey, and eventually folded.

It was revived in 2010 as a data project, "back-filling" the reports that had been missed, and now, a little over seven years after the first article went live, Homicide Report has undergone "a makeover", she said.

The platform has launched on it's own URL with an integrated map and blog, filterable to show any combination of criteria – race of victim, gender, cause of death, officer involvement, neighbourhood, year of death – about each homicide.

Screenshot Homicide Report
Screenshot from The Homicide Report

The map, which can be expanded to show more detailed information, is divided into the 270 neighbourhoods of LA county, from the deadly two square miles of Westmont, South Los Angeles, to the relative serenity of the Santa Monica mountains. Neighbourhoods are colour coded depending on the frequency of reported homicides and, as the user zooms in, every murder is pinpointed to its exact reported location.

"We initially built it as a map and a series of statistics first and foremost," Ken Schwencke, the LA Times journalist and programmer who built the new version of Homicide Report, told Journalism.co.uk. "Then we took one look at it and realised that the power of the blog platform is that we got to write more and had an easier way for people to follow it."

The blog, written by Times reporter Nicole Santa Cruz, who picked up the segment last June, documents the ongoing court cases and eyewitness reports of the various murders. Blog posts display chronologically on the landing page and will refresh relevant to search criteria as the user explores, or readers can see the progression of individual cases in a stream of posts.

Santa Cruz works exclusively on the Homicide Report but was unavailable to speak to Journalism.co.uk, having rushed to court to hear closing arguments of a trial.

It's not just dots on the map, those dots on the map represent people and we're going to tell you about those peopleMegan Garvey, assistant managing editor, LA Times, and editor of The Homicide Report
"The map is very powerful in itself but only to an extent, and the stories are very powerful in themselves but only to an extent," said Garvey of how the two used to exist on separate pages of the LA Times site.

Some readers can have a "visceral" reaction to seeing murders displayed as red dots across the county, said Garvey, but projects that map homicides don't offer the context and can have a more "fleeting" effect on the reader.

"You have both those elements [in The Homicide Report]," she said, "so that people can explore the community and the levels of violence.

"It's not just abstract, it's not just dots on the map, those dots on the map represent people and we're going to tell you about those people. It's not just a name, we're going to tell you who they were and what happened."

LA County's 'death alley'

To relaunch The Homicide Report, Santa Cruz and Schwencke wrote a front-page feature on South Vermont Avenue, nicknamed "death alley" by a Los Angeles detective. A two mile-stretch marks the eastern border of Westmont, where 100 people have been killed since 2007, making the neighbourhood the most dangerous of the 270 covered.

"Ken was able to do data analysis and find the deadliest concentrated area of the county," Garvey said. "That's the kind of story that we go into the data and find and then there's the informing the regular everyday reporting that the LA times is going to do anyway."

The visual, spacious, 'web 2.0' Westmont story "exists only on The Homicide Report" rather than LATimes.com, she said, and received close to 100,000 page views in its first week, putting it on track to be one of the most viewed stories at the outlet in January.

"We've been experimenting a lot and talking about building out our bigger stories, our 'column ones', our regular features on big stories in LA," said Schwencke of how the Westmont story and The Homicide Report are forerunners to further display changes around LATimes.com. "We've been building them out into bigger images, big extra pieces and photo galleries and charts."

Westmont LA Times screenshot
Screenshot from The Homicide Report of the Westmont story

But the data plays a bigger role at the organisation than just pairing with the blog and serving as the basis for data led stories, it also plays a large part in informing other parts of the newspaper and contextualising other stories.

To date, there have been 5,238 individual homicides chronicled on The Homicide Report since 2007, but the annual number has been decreasing, to the point where the number of murders in 2013 was almost half that of those in 2007.

"There was a story a couple of hours ago," said Schwencke, "'Man's body found in Inglewood park', and the reporter Ruben Vivas put in at the end of the post, to get some context, that at least 17 people were killed in Inglewood last year, quoting The Homicide Report."

Inglewood has been the 21st most deadly neighbourhood in LA county over the last 12 months, he said, and although a lot of people may know how dangerous it can be, the data provides a tangible degree of context.

"It used to be that it was impossible to do that in the moment," said Garvey, an experienced reporter herself, "you'd have to go back and dig into the sheriff's reports or LAPD reports and try to isolate that area and do math in your head.

"Most print journalists aren't good mathematicians so this is really giving you that better idea of violence in an area with a couple of clicks away."

Comments and commiserations

"Happened right down the street from me, both guys had kids," reads a comment below the story of Alexander Alberto-Rossy Veleche, a 24-year-old Latino man who was murdered along with Jonathan Villamizar, 19, on 20 January.

Interaction with readers is key to The Homicide Report – "that's what has kept it alive" said Garvey – and it is that element of public service that is important in both the individual and collective reporting of stories.

You expose levels of violence and you get people to talk about them in a way that's realMegan Garvey, assistant managing editor, LA Times, and editor of The Homicide Report
Santa Cruz made an appearance on the local NPR radio station to talk about the re-launch of The Homicide Report. Often when she knocks on the door of a victim's family or a witness, particularly in some neighbourhoods, the common response is that they didn't know people cared.

"A lot of our readers are people that live in neighbourhoods affected by this violence and I think that it's an interesting outlet for them," said Schwencke.

"A place to memorialise the loss of somebody who was killed and sometimes a place to vent about the situation that they find themselves in, or the neighbourhood, the actions of the people in the neighbourhood."

The 6,000 blog posts on The Homicide Report have generated more than 40,000 published comments, a testament to the level of interest in the stories and how they resonate throughout the communities.

Garvey, Schwencke and Santa Cruz regularly intercede in the comments, which are moderated. The sensitive nature of the topic and the potential for legal problems or abuse makes such intervention necessary, but moderators are "a little more lenient" beyond those areas, said Schwencke, "since homicide is a tough subject to talk about".

"People who lived there said 'hey, this is what it's like'," he said. "This tells my story and here are some more thoughts on it. And people who didn't live there gave their feelings too, and we really want to have that conversation with the community."

The number of comments in the Westmont story currently stand at 122, a conversation Garvey described as "raw and provocative" in a post about about a live conversation Schwencke and Santa Cruz held with readers last week. This level of interaction makes The Homicide Report one of the most visited sections on LATimes.com, and underlines the true purpose of combining new and old elements of journalism into the project, said Garvey.

"Homicide is not equal, homicide is not even," she said. "Violence is not even among communities and among races and by exposing that and letting people speak about it honestly the hope is that maybe people start thinking differently and that you could affect change.

"That is the whole public service, to expose things that are happening in a community and to let community and government react to them.

"You expose levels of violence and you get people to talk about them in a way that's real, realistic and not just pretending."

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